The great cities after WWII

Celebration of VE Day in New York. (Time)

Celebration of VE Day in New York’s Times Square. (Time)

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.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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4 Responses to The great cities after WWII

  1. Rick Schwartz says:

    Well, perhaps a bit more complicated. In most European countries, people were starving, penniless, and homeless immediately after the war. Not to mention emotionally affected by whatever the architecture (writ large) of the past might have stood for: repression, control by the Church, anti-Semitism, or — admittedly — good, old days. Some towns — and a “Schwartz” could give a shit about Germany — like Munich just rebuilt the flattened ruins to look like it used to. The Communists made other cities, like Budapest, nearly totally dreadful. To imply they all had a “choice” at the time seems simplistic. In the decades since, well, that’s the more usual argument between traditionalists and modernists, I think.

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    • More complicated? Of course, Rick! But the choice was made, and most places the wrong choice. That’s more complicated too, but the choice was still made, and the choices made soon after the war influenced the choices made later. There remains no logical reason to support the wrong choice that was made in most places. It was pure ideology.

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      • kristen says:

        to boil it down to being purely ideological is a bit too simplistic when it comes to something so complicated on so many levels and scales.

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        • To be sure, but there was no practical reason why cities and buildings had to change in the ways they came to be changed – no health reason, no fiscal or financial reason, no reason of design necessity. That cities had to reflect a mechanical or technological age was false – that they had to keep up with mechanical and technological change was true, but that’s a different thing and did not require a change in appearance, a renunciation of tradition. That architecture was to blame for World War I, that the gable of a roof represented the crown or the aristocracy, that in some ways buildings were to blame for the rise of Nazism or the violence of war or the injustice of colonialism, that copying the past was an illegitimate way of making buildings – all of these arguments were so obviously false that holding to them, as the modernist establishment did and still does, could only have been a manifestation of ideology – if by that term you mean the sort of thoughtless adherence to strict inflexible ideas that the word has come to mean. So, no, Kristen, not purely ideological but mostly ideological, in that there were no intelligent, practical reasons for the profession to go full tilt into modernism to the point of virtually banning tradition. So that’s all I mean, not that it was not a complex, nuanced, multi-layered phenomenon of history.

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