Comparing Italy and Britain

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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.)

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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 Fortunately, he retired when perhaps a tenth of the old buildings still remained: the rest having by then been replaced by Le Corbusian leviathans so horrible and inhuman that many of them are now scheduled for demolition in their turn, less than 30 years after their erection.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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About David Brussat

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. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am 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 employ my writing and editing to improve your work, 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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8 Responses to Comparing Italy and Britain

  1. Pingback: Comparing Italy and Britain — Architecture Here and There – Truth Troubles

  2. John the First says:

    Democracy, including republics with popular vote consists of masses who have in the course of time, since two centuries, done away with aristocracies, they have pulled down, destroyed and marginalized all historical aristocracies, save a few which now only exist for the sake of being a curiosity of historical culture. Now, all the architecture which the contemporary classicists and traditionalists try to defend from the continuing attempts at destruction by representatives of modern mass man, the contemporary new riches and establishments, are the cultural products of historical aristocracies, or modern copies of them, including variations.

    Curiously not even the most refined of thinkers dare to arrive at the incontrovertible proof that the rule of mass man, the system which they all support, is not only the cause of destruction of historical cultural in the most broadest sense, but also the cause of the ongoing destruction during the twentieth century in the architectural sphere. This is because all of them, Dalrymple, Scruton (who lately has passed away) etc. are believers in democracy and the rule of mass man. So all of them engage in critique while at the other hand supporting the system which lead to a marginalization of the cultured and refined man, a marginalization of his culture, and ongoing attacks which weaken his influence, potency and capacity of developing a potent new high culture. Hence almost everything is directed towards conservation, protection, and copying. Which is protection from the destructive rule of mass man and his upwards moving representatives.

    The bankruptcy of mass man’s rule, mas man and his new establishments being unable to maintain high cultural standards, being unable to create new high culture, nay, that mass man’s rule historically has always been about the cyclic job of destruction of the old is a thing which for most of these thinkers and critics, due to their settled beliefs and almost subconscious assumptions is a step too far. While the rule of mass man slaps them in the face continuously, they ignore it, and engage in complex theoretical constructs and explanations. Besides, being educated at our contemporary academia, their memories are short, and their view on history is defined by contemporary propaganda determined by contemporary mass man’s system. Which is also the rule of mediocrity.

    So, comparing aristocracy with democracy.

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    • John the First says:

      In addition to the above, Dalrymple is a fairly minor contemporary thinker, he is too much part of mass man’s system, still too much a contemporary ideologue. Scruton on the other hand, being a man of culture, mind and philosophy had potential, but he was part of the system to some extent, also being very much under brute attack. While contemporary classicists and traditionalists do good work in the area of defence against the ongoing attacks from twentieth century upwards rising mass man, the real birth of new high culture, an intelligent synthesis of old and new, finds place in the minds of currently marginalized and isolated thinkers, as the current system would ostracize and ridiculize them immediately. These isolated thinkers, when going public and organizing themselves would be prone to brute and violent attacks, and become subject to cliques with interests…, like Scruton experienced.., which altogether has a negative influence on the development of their sensibility, which, like rare flowers cannot develop among thistles and thorns in impoverished soil.

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  3. LazyReader says:

    You cannot hide negligent society behind pretty buildings forever. For millennia our architecture reflected a more core aspect……..survival, as societies and reigning governments became more commonplace, struggle for survival became less paramount so dedication to taste and aesthetic.
    What makes politicians and planners try to design and control entire cities, Architecture critic Deyan Sudjic argues that it is a combination of “excess, egotism, and greed”, in essense they’re stretching their muscles politically to control you.
    Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, and Mao make it clear that the impulse to rebuild cities is anything but democratic. Later discussions of democratically elected leaders such as Francois Mitterand and Tony Blair are not much more generous, nor Houssman of Paris or Pompedieu.

    Architecture feeds the egos of the susceptible. Reducing an entire city to the scale of a doll’s house in an architectural model has an inherent appeal for those with emotionally crippling narcissism and a God complex. When government who runs your city, have a political motivation to pander to people who’re dysfunctional, poorly behaved, engage in lewd or self destructive acts, their policies do nothing but foster more dysfunctionality, poor behavior and lewd acts and disavowing self respect and personal dignity. Then your cities problems of the consequences of people who have zero dignity and self respect……only continue to get worse. Pretty buildings wont solve that, otherwise San Francisco would be paradise, not an open sewer

    Imagine how it feels to be mayor of a big city especially the dynasty ones that have been rule by democrats for 50+ years. You can’t do anything about education, you can do little about crime, and you even stand helpless when physical infrastructure is crumbling roads and bridges fall into rivers. Then along comes one of these snake-oil sales people whispering, “Build a light rail, build a streetcar, build a new highrise. Then the people will remember you forever.” Or, at least, until they are done repaying the debt. In America politicians with term limits have short timeframes to commit massive amounts of public funds to monuments to their narcissism.
    Governor brown: High Speed Rail in California
    The Ronald Reagan Building
    Obama Presidential Library: Which is in fact not a library, There will be no books, no presidential papers or documents, nor printed matter of any kind related to the Obama presidency, except for, presumably, what’s on sale at the gift shop. No cables, no memoranda or manuscripts, no official records of the presidency it’s designed to celebrate. The Barack Obama Presidential Center will not be a historical archive, scholarly resource, or even museum, so much as a vast, 33-acre monument to Obama, spread over multiple structures and a manicured landscape.

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    • John the First says:

      “You cannot hide negligent society behind pretty buildings forever. ”

      Very good point, nay, not just a point, an observation of structural breath.

      “Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, and Mao make it clear that the impulse to rebuild cities is anything but democratic.”

      Wrong here though. Democracy is a collectivist system, Nazi ideology and the communist system(s) are also collectivist systems, very distinguished from elite rule systems. These non democratic collectivist systems and their historically unprecedented vast bureaucracies, regardless of whether they are run by a strong men, all depend on the cooperation of a considerable amount of mass man (hence collectivism). The difference between the collectivist system democracy and the Nazi system is that the latter was based one one leader working together with an empowered collective, and being supported by a part of the electorate. The communist system theoretically is the rule of the collective, though dictators took control, with the aid of a part of the collective though.
      The reason that Nazism and communism emerged is because of the rule of mass man, destroying former aristocracies, in the context of the enormous growth of the population during the nineteenth century, and the gradual empowerment of mass man.
      As such democracy is a collectivist system, which can even be lead by strong men (like Russia’s Putin), Nazism and communism are different kinds of collectivist systems.

      What is fundamentally characteristic of all these modern collectivist systems, democracy, Nazism and communism is an extreme destruction of tradition, of both folk culture and aristocratic culture. In the systems controlled by a strong leader, the destruction goes planned and at a very rapid pace, in democracies and republics with pop vote like the US the pace is slower due to the system’s relative division of power. So the ‘rebuilding’ in a democracy just happens at a slower pace, less structurally planned, being slowed down by oppositional forces, but the ultimate result is the same.

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  4. Rob Stephenson says:

    David,

    I’m not sure whether or not I have previously linked you to information about The Prince’s Foundation? All is not completely lost in England it seems, with at least an attempt to preserve and reinvigorate pride and expertise in traditional arts and heritage, including architecture:
    https://princes-foundation.org/

    I also commend to you this publication – not as headline-grabbing as an Executive Order, but nonetheless, an important document from the UK Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government:
    https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/living-with-beauty-report-of-the-building-better-building-beautiful-commission

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    • Thanks for sending this material, Rob. I get the impression that after the prince’s speech in ’84 it eventuallly got harder to ruin English townscapes, but unfortunately not central London – though it does seem that efforts are being made to sequester some of London’s most iconic cityscapes. More broadly speaking, however, London has already caught the modernovirus, alas!

      By the way, I read the interim report of the beauty commission and hope that in the final version, which I have not read but will soon, its excellent points were made with more vigor.

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