After posting the Expedia video on Budapest yesterday “Nine minutes in Budapest,” and after noting that the link to the Expedia video continued a chain of links to other destinations, I continued along that chain. Without suggesting that a video visit compares to a personal visit, the videos do seem to be produced in a manner that fosters comparison.
The London video seemed, however, to ignore the city’s many modernist buildings in a way that the Paris video did not, so London was made to seem lovelier than it is, where Paris’s minimal quotient of modernism was not as understated. The same, alas, may be said of the video of Liverpool.
Long ago, in 2005, I attended a symposium, sponsored by the Royal Society of the Arts, that compared efforts to revive Providence and Liverpool, with the famous Three Graces on its Mersey riverfront. At the time, a “Fourth Grace” was to be added. Among the symposium’s panelists was the British starchitect Will Alsop, whose Fourth Grace proposal had been selected in spite of being the least favorite among the Liverpool public of several competing proposals. It was cancelled the year before the symposium. Still, the city fathers did manage to built a Fourth Grace, a National Museum of Liverpool that spat in the faces of the Three Graces just as vigorously as anything Alsop could have done. I did not learn this until viewing the Liverpool video yesterday.
(The Liverpool museum seems to be a copy of the late Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI museum outside Rome. A smaller building even closer to the Three Graces seems to be a Mini Me of both museums. It is in the image atop this post. It seems to be a museum of music focusing on the Beatles.)
Needless to say, the Liverpool waterfront has been disgraced in the same way so many other great cities have been defaced. Of the Expedia videos, the most beautiful cities are those which have done best to avoid this fate. Paris, Venice, Prague, Florence, Rome, Bordeaux. Most, like Paris, have districts characterized by modernism but they are separated from the beautiful sections that, again, as in Paris, dominate the city. Rome so far has kept modernism at arm’s length. The video of Venice may be the most evocative because it has so little modern architecture. It teaches lessons that are too late to learn in places like Liverpool or London, and which even Paris seems eager to unlearn.
The ancient Romans treated change in their city as an opportunity to add new buildings that strengthened the collective power and virtuosity of what was already there. Many cities took that lesson to heart for centuries, building up to greatness. Civic design sought to climb to a crescendo of beauty, as did each twist and turn in the buildup of a great symphony, or as successive peaks of a mountain range arise to the exclamation point of an Everest. Nature builds its biodiversity through the repetition and evolution of form. That form is the melody of biology. Nature would never insert an atonal passage in a symphonic progression of biological change.
Cities do not grow naturally in quite the same way, but civic leaders over time can approach the model of nature or of Rome or retreat from it. The reigning strategy of urban development today is to embrace retreat. But it need not be so tomorrow. Aside from traveling to city after city, there may be no better way than watching successive Expedia travel videos to examine the do’s and don’ts of civic enrichment.