The uses of preservation

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Modern skyline of Rome. Compare with skyline of London at bottom. (nh-hotels.net)

The Uses of Corruption” is an essay by Theodore Dalrymple published in the Summer 2001 issue of City Journal, the quarterly of the Manhattan Institute. Dalrymple is a British sociologist and commentator who argues that Italy is more prosperous and Britain less so because the Italian government is corrupt while the British government is honest.

Corruption has been so endemic to Italy since World War II that its economy has systematically incorporated the grease (bribery and tax avoidance) needed to keep the wheels of bureaucracy turning. British bureaucrats, on the other hand, are honest, and hence they run their bureaucracy with almost perfect inefficiency.

That’s a dramatic oversimplification, but to Dalrymple it explains why, despite similar populations, similar geographic size, similar economic systems, similar political systems, similar national GDP, similar poverty of natural resources, similar class systems and similarly sized public sectors, Italy has surpassed Britain since World War II and is now significantly more wealthy and more healthy as a society.

And also more beautiful. Dalrymple identifies only one function of Italian government that performs its role as intended: historic preservation. He compares it to British historic preservation, which over half a century has been honest but ineffective, a disaster for cities and towns on the Sceptred Isle.

The long and the short of it, Dalrymple writes, is that Italy has kept modern architecture at bay while Britain has welcomed it, leaving its citizens prey to a degree of ugliness that has served Britons poorly. Meanwhile, Italy remains beautiful, and its citizens benefit.

I have linked to the essay above. Some readers may not believe I have accurately described Dalrymple’s astonishing yet compelling conclusions. Read the entire essay. It will blow your mind. I will, however, quote at length most of its passages on architecture, preservation and urbanism – and the civic importance of beauty.

Italy’s public administration vastly surpasses Britain’s in only one area: the preservation of the country’s urban heritage. This single bureaucratic success is crucial, however, for it greatly elevates Italy’s standard of living over Britain’s. The destruction of Britain’s urban patrimony and its replacement by hideous modernist multi-story parking garages and office buildings, while inflating the GNP, represent a lowering of every Briton’s quality of life. …

The official architect and town planner of the city in which I live, for example, wanted—quite literally—to pull down every single local building that dated from before the second half of the twentieth century, including entire Georgian streets and many masterpieces of the Victorian gothic revival. Fortunately, he retired when perhaps a tenth of the old buildings still remained: the rest having by then been replaced by Le Corbusian leviathans so horrible and inhuman that many of them are now scheduled for demolition in their turn, less than 30 years after their erection. The Georgian spa city of Bath offers an even more startling example: in the 1950s, the city council wanted to raze it to the ground and replace it with something more in tune with the times.

Such barbarous thoughts would never have occurred to any Italian, however corrupt or politically extreme he might otherwise have been. As Giorgio Bassani observes of the street of palaces where his protagonists live in The Garden of the Finzi-Continis: “[The] Corso Ercole I d’Este is so fine, and such a tourist attraction, that the left-wing council that has been running Ferrara for nearly fifteen years has realized it must be left as it is and strictly protected against speculative builders and shopkeepers; in fact, that its aristocratic character must be preserved exactly as it was.” Never in England.

Actually, Italian municipal policy has been even more enlightened than this passage suggests. Commercial enterprises in old towns and cities must conform to aesthetic standards, so as not to do violence to the appearance of buildings, with the result that the Italians are not, like the British, modern barbarians camped out in the relics of an older and superior civilization to whose beauties they are oblivious. Italian municipalities have also kept their cities vibrant by capping the local taxes of small businesses, thus nurturing a variety of shops that in turn nourish many crafts, from papermaking to glass-blowing, that might otherwise have died. Thus, an uneducated man in Italy can still be a proud craftsman, while in Britain he must take a low-paid, unskilled job—if he takes a job at all. Italian downtowns are not as British city centers are, the location of depressingly uniform chain stores without character or individuality, plate-glassed emporia hacked into the ground floors of historic buildings without regard to the original architecture. The Italians have solved, as the British have not, the problem of living in a modern way in ancient surroundings that, looked at in economic terms, constitute inherited wealth.

The preservation of the aesthetic quality of Italian life, but its utter destruction in Britain, whose streets have been coarsened to a degree unequaled in Europe, has had profound social and economic consequences. Where all is ugliness and indifference to aesthetic considerations, it is easy for behavior to become ugly and crude and for collective municipal pride to evaporate. It seems not to matter how people conduct themselves: there is nothing to spoil. Attention to detail, important in both the manufacture of goods and the provision of services, attenuates in an environment of generalized ugliness. What is the point of wiping a table, if the world around it is irredeemably hideous? To be sure, self-respect can encourage people to make the best of a bad job, but dependency on the state has destroyed the basis of self-respect.

In a world grown richer, aesthetic quality has obvious economic benefits. Given the gulf between the excellence of Italian design, educated by the beauties of the past, and the unremitting tastelessness of British modernity, it is not a coincidence that Italy has one of the largest trading surpluses of any nation, while Britain has one of the largest deficits.

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Modern skyline of London. (elba-1.org.uk)

 

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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6 Responses to The uses of preservation

    • Read the whole essay, including the part about statistics. The point is the Britain used to be much more prosperous, and that is no longer true. Whether by every measure /Italy is more prosperous, I don’t know, but Dalrymple’s point seems well taken.

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  1. fastzander says:

    Okay, look, I agree that Italy is generally prettier than the UK, but seriously, I don’t like Dalrymple, I don’t like Scruton, I don’t like Architectural Revival, I don’t like the alt-right, I don’t like contemporary Anglosphere conservatism in general, and I don’t like how traditional architecture has become associated with all of the above. A bunch of bitter, self-righteous covert authoritarians deeply, deeply pissed that social mores didn’t remain in a state of permanent stasis from the 1950s, the 19th century, or the pre-Enlightenment era onwards, and whom would gladly reinstate such eras, with all the poverty, repression and discrimination that came with them, if they could. Don’t you think it’s suspicious that these people are invariably straight, white, middle-to-upper class Christian males whom would have the least to lose if western society were to revert to an earlier era?

    Seriously; “modern barbarians camped out in the relics of an older and superior civilization”? It just so happens that in the “superior civilization” which Dalrymple speaks of, women were essentially chattels, black people were displayed in zoos, the mentally-ill were lobotomized, and poor children had to work 12 hours a day, 7 days a week in dangerous factories. Society changed after this point for a reason, and no, that reason is not because of some great scheme against Western Civilizations being orchestrated by the Jews, and/or the communists, and/or the Freemasons, and/or the Satanists, and/or “the elite”. The reason is because certain demographics of people at the time had legitimate grievances with how society treated them. I can only imagine the dread said demographics must feel at the prospect that people like Dalrymple might somehow reacquire political power. Seriously, this shit is just exactly the reason why people accuse traditional architecture of being the preserve of Nazis.

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    • People do not like beautiful buildings because they want to oppress people. That is absurd.

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      • fastzander says:

        I’m not saying that they do. I’m saying that a lot of beautiful buildings’ major advocates, including Dalrymple and Scruton, would like western society to regress to a period where people were oppressed, and that this paints a negative image of beautiful buildings’ advocates.

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        • Yes, but that is the inescapable implication of your long comment. The fact is that Scruton, Dalrymple and others do not want to begin oppressing people again. That is not the point of the programs they support. They want a society that benefits from the strong principles that prevailed until the 50s, principles that gradually led Americans to correct the flawed society inherited by the Founders. Those principles demanded a society that reflected and eventually strove radically to achieve the freedoms enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

          And by the by they prefer architecture that is beautiful over architecture that is ugly, or at the very least disrupts the continuity of the past. This architecture reflects those principles, not the oppression that the principles eventually freed us from. To link classical architecture to Hitler is one of the many techniques that have been developed by the left in order to cover up the fact that oppression is not on the agenda of traditional architects or thinkers like Scruton and Dalrymple, or on the broader conservative agenda – even if a very few on the far right have not received that office memo yet.

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