What makes a good society? Part of the answer is good architecture. Yet the good that is done by good architecture reaches well beyond beauty. Good architecture does much to create the conditions in which health, prosperity and happiness grow. One of the best explanations of this phenomenon is an essay comparing Italy and Britain by British sociologist Theodore Dalrymple, published in the Summer 2001 issue of City Journal. It is called “The Uses of Corruption.” In 2018, I wrote a post on it called “The Uses of Preservation,” which quoted Dalrymple’s thoughts on the latter topic, which could just as well have been called “The Uses of Beautiful Buildings.”
The original essay is worth reading in its entirety. Its insights about public administration are both counterintuitive and profound. Its passages about preservation explain the reasons why good architecture is so important to the good society. And now that the debate over President Trump’s executive order “Making Federal Buildings Beautiful Again” has crossed the Atlantic to Europe, perhaps it’s time to reprint my post quoting Dalrymple’s passages on beautiful buildings – whose importance to national and societal success has gone largely unaddressed in discussions of the E.O. on classicism.
(My post from 2018 links to Dalrymple’s full essay.)
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 Fortunately, he retired when perhaps a tenth of the old buildings still remained: the rest having by then been replaced by Le Corbusian leviathans so horrible and inhuman that many of them are now scheduled for demolition in their turn, less than 30 years after their erection.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.