Today is the 50th anniversary of the day Japan’s surrender in World War II was announced – a holiday still celebrated in no U.S. state but Rhode Island. It is a day to remember those who died, those who sacrificed, and those who suffer today because of the war. Among the latter are those who live in cities bombed in the war, both Allied cities and Axis cities.
The cities that were bombed heavily suffered mightily during the bombing and – less widely noted – in the decades after the bombing. London, Berlin and Tokyo, to name only national capitals, suffered and still suffer the most. The cities saw huge swaths obliterated, but the civic healing arts that might have been applied to rebuild them went unapplied. Instead, the memory of war that ought to have been a matter of history books and memorials was etched indelibly into city fabric.
These capitals were rebuilt according to new design theories that replaced traditional beauty with the dubious aesthetic of machinery, without even the counterbalancing benefit of actual utility. No lives were lost in this peaceful assault on cities, but the change has taken a toll in damage to the psyche of all citizens, of societies as a whole, the life of entire nations. This reflects an abdication of responsibility on the part of civic leaders in nations across the globe for the past half century and more.
Civic leaders elected for their wisdom (to put the best spin on democracy) turned out far less wise than their electorates, who saw the writing on the wall. They were suspicious of modern architecture from the beginning and eventually turned historic preservation from a pastime devoted to saving such sites as the homes of the nation’s founders to a mass movement to save cities and neighborhoods from the depredations of urban renewal.
A list of the capitals most noted for beauty today can also be read as a list of capitals whose leaders resisted the obviously false mantra that cities must literally look like machines in order to run efficiently, or to “reflect their time.” Machinery was and is a facet of our time, but many other aspects of human nature and society transcend nuts and bolts.
Paris and Rome are the most notable of the cities who held onto this deep truth, but having avoided mass bombing, their civic leaders did not need to choose between beauty and ugliness. Civic leaders in other cities found this choice – to the regret of posterity – easy to make. Many cities did not need to be obliterated by bombing to embrace the fashionable assault on their own beauty. New York may be the most important of those cities. It is still a great city but no longer a beautiful city. That is a huge loss.
It may be assumed that cities with fewer resources than New York lost more than New York when they lost their beauty. Such cities are legion in the United States. Some cities did not lose so much of their beauty, such as Providence, where I live. But it and others – including Paris! – look down and away as an unlovable and unhealthy ugliness knocks at their doors.
It is bad news that an entrenched architectural establishment that honored and practiced beauty could be so swiftly and easily replaced, as happened between 1940 and 1950, by one that honors and practices ugliness. But it is good news that the reverse could also occur. The future is a big place, open to all possibilities. We should think of that as we ponder the 50th anniversary of the end of the worst war in history.