The late Walter Laqueur, who died last week after a long career cataloguing the sins of communism, terrorism and the Holocaust, was quoted in his New York Times obituary asserting that the “possibility that Europe will become a museum or a cultural amusement park for the nouveau riche of globalization is not completely out of the question.”
Alas, it is not. Fortunately, it still must be considered a possibility, not an actuality. Great thinkers and writers still live in Europe’s cities and towns. Laqueur lived mostly in London. One must assume that he was dismayed by the proliferation of ugly, sterile skyscrapers in what was once among the world’s most beautiful cities. Such towers are precursors to the eventual victory of totalitarianism in the West, which fought so hard in the last century to protect itself and the world from authoritarian rule.
We often hear the words museum and cities together in ridiculous claims that old cities will become “museums” if new architecture is built to fit into their historical settings. That is not what Laqueur was talking about, and I doubt he would subscribe to that fabricated modernist anxiety.
The Times obituarist, Sam Roberts, wrote:
Among Mr. Laqueur’s last books was Reflections of a Veteran Pessimist (2017). The title notwithstanding, he told Der Spiegel that he would have preferred to live during the belle époque, at the end of the 19th century, when hope sprang eternal. He then paused to reconsider.
“Hope springs eternal,” he repeated. “It’s one of the most frequently quoted verses of English poetry. The poet was Alexander Pope, a decidedly cautious man. He had many enemies, and we know from his sister that he never went out into the street without his large, aggressive dog, and always with two loaded pistols in his bag.”
Hope springs eternal that Europe will still be worth visiting after the next decade or more of modernist slab construction. Eventually, it must stop or going to Europe will no longer be worthwhile, nor will the rich have any reason to buy apartments there. In the late 19th century – the Belle Époque – the beauty of cities there and perhaps elsewhere reached its apogee. That may be why hope sprang so eternally. Is anybody a flâneur in a city that does not reward walking, that has instead submitted its future to the tender mercies of modern architecture? Certainly not.
British philosopher Roger Scruton, in The Classical Vernacular, wrote that
[Classical] streets are frequented in equal measure by the aimless and the purposeful, for they are bounded by surfaces that concede the vitality of civil life. The classical wall, which is humanly proportioned, safe, gregarious, and quietly vigilant [here Scruton channels Jane Jacobs] constantly reminds the pedestrian that he is not alone, that he is in a world of human encounter, and that he must match the good manners of the wall which guides him.
A few days ago I read in The Irish Times that a law to ban tourists from sitting on steps is being considered by the Venetian authorities. It is already illegal there to sit on the steps of monuments and on those of the portico of St. Mark’s Square. NBC Evening News had a segment last night reporting that 300 bistros had closed this past year in Paris, so ubiquitous have the fast-food merchants proliferated there. That’s terrible news, but I would rather be forced to pay for a seat on the Champs-Élysées or on St. Mark’s Square than be free to sit on a patch of hallowed ground surrounded by McDonald’ses, let alone skyscrapers.
Has the death of the European city already occurred? I don’t think so. But the death rattle can be heard.
Don’t even ask about American cities. A couple days ago I read an article (“What is developer Fane’s track record in Toronto?“) that defended The Fane Organization, which proposes a 600-foot tower in Providence’s Jewelry District, by bragging on Fane’s projects contributing to the towerization of Toronto. Utterly unconvincing, but it demonstrates sadly how thing are going that such claptrap gets serious attention even in Providence.