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Building for eternity

Earlier generations of Britons built for the next generation –– but we’re stuck in a selfish present

I have had some work done on my house recently. For context, it’s an Edwardian terrace with a rear extension built sometime in the 1980s. Oddly fascinating for me was the sheer difference in build quality between the original section of the property and the newer part at the back. The older part of the house is sturdy, solid and lauded by the workmen as a “proper building”. The newer section has been a huge source of ridicule and contempt: shoddy timber placement, wobbly floors, dangerous electrical wiring, crumbling cement and poor brickwork plague it. 

The tradesmen’s comments had me thinking a lot about the general quality of our infrastructure, both national and local, and how we sometimes take for granted the fact that a huge portion of what we use every day is so old. Not only that, but a lot of it is almost universally considered very beautiful and important to our shared cultural heritage. 

For Victorian architects, anything other than exquisite beauty was a pock mark

Take a stroll through any city in Great Britain, and you are more than likely to at some point come across the “old town”. Despite the Luftwaffe’s (and post war town planner’s) best efforts, a lot of pre-war buildings still inhabit the centres of our towns and cities. These prove to be fine examples of the world we used to live in. Even in the poorest of cities, my own town of Hull for example, there exists a great plethora of dramatic and beautiful buildings which were constructed, almost exclusively, by the late Georgians, Victorians and Edwardians. Take a trip to London, Edinburgh, central Durham and a number of other places, and you will see that even the lampposts are adorned gorgeously, with striking and intricate ironwork. 

Why is this? Why did they bother to do such a good job? Why do we still heavily rely on their work for our own sense of cultural identity and our basic infrastructural needs? Why can’t our own contemporary efforts compete, despite great advances in the field of civil engineering and construction materials? I think the answer boils down to one thing: civic pride. 

The Victorians were building for eternity; we build for temporary needs in a utilitarian fashion. They knew their “mission”, and they saw it an absolute necessity to make everything they did permanent; we do not. They designed buildings to be functional and beautiful; we seek to make buildings which will be functional for 50 years before they are “recycled”. 

Speak to a modern student of architecture about their course, and you will find that very few opportunities exist for those who want to pursue a path for traditional design techniques. Their learning aim is to make things which can be used temporarily, then pulled down for something else. This is an attitude which would be totally alien to the Victorians who designed and built the lecture halls these students now learn in.

Pioneering neo-gothic and neo-classical design, the architects of the past (and those who funded them) had lofty dreams of cultural enrichment. Visit the house of Sir John Soane, a Georgian-Victorian neo-classical architect who worked on many projects in London, and you will get a sense of what I mean. His home, now maintained as a museum, is full to the brim with works of art and literature. He was more than just an architect; he was a lover of culture and of intellectual study. He was a man of vision who understood exactly what theme and style he was going to propagate. He, along with many other architects at the time, believed in Britain, and he wished to use it as a vector to propagate a new cultural enlightenment. London was the capital of the British empire, and by extent the capital of the world. For those Victorian architects, anything other than exquisite beauty was a pock mark.

If you find yourself in London and happen to visit St Paul’s cathedral, you might come across the tomb of Sir Christopher Wren, on which is inscribed the words “si monumentum requiris circumspice (if you seek his monument, look around). I feel as though this perfectly encapsulates not only his ethos and vision, but also those of the visionary architects, engineers and planners who came before and after him. Their legacy, one which we still enjoy and marvel at today, is all around us. 

There are no daring mavericks in the world of construction anymore

Modern architecture, on the other hand, has no room for such thinkers. There are no daring mavericks in the world of construction anymore. Faceless firms with large teams of consultants will be brought in to produce cookie-cutter designs from the “international” school of architectural thought. Rolling out glass skyscraper after glass skyscraper — just like in every other capital city of the world. If you’re lucky, your skyscraper might even be in a wonky shape or potentially feature a curve that can melt car bonnets at a hundred paces. These behemoth buildings are normally admired for one thing — their height. That’s it, nothing else. Few people remark on their intricacy or beauty, except those nerds like myself who can at least appreciate the engineering challenge behind it. 

I wouldn’t want the reader to come away thinking that I hate skyscrapers; I do not. They are an excellent symbol of engineering progress and economic prowess. Are they really as culturally significant as what was being produced just 100 years previously, though? When those glass panels and metal beams are taken down to be recycled, will we lament the loss of their “beauty”, or just the fact that the skyline looks a bit different? I would argue that a considerable chunk of the British (and international) public would be devastated to hear of news that the Palace of Westminster or St Paul’s Cathedral were being scheduled for demolition. Would they be so upset if the same were planned for the Gherkin, or the BT tower, or the Shard?

Unfortunately, good things cannot go on forever, and the Victorian infrastructure many of us rely on is now really starting to show its age — especially in major cities. The London underground is boiling hot, loud and deafening, water pipes burst more and more frequently, and the task of keeping sewers unclogged and free of “fat bergs” alone is a herculean effort. 

I, along with many others, would argue that Britain needs to take serious action to repair, upgrade and replace its crumbling architectural and infrastructural weak points. This is not an impossible task by any means, but would require a government to utilise state capacity and be unafraid to wield the levers of power — something which it, at the moment, simply refuses to. Our only major rail project, HS2, can’t even make it five minutes without being subject to another decade long inquiry and delay. Many aspects of it have been cut to silence nay-sayers with fleets of legal teams who seemingly appear out of nowhere.

Odense, a small city in Denmark of just 180,000 people, recently opened a brand-new state of the art tram network for its citizens. Britain, on the other hand, has just four rapid transit light rail systems (two in London, one in Tyne and Wear, and one in Glasgow). Just a handful of its largest cities (and Blackpool) have a tram system. It is a national and international embarrassment that a country as small as Denmark can run rings around us in terms of public transit and infrastructure. 

Britain needs, more than anything, a government that can effectively and efficiently take control of the arms of the state and use them to revive the spirit of the Victorians — to fully embrace civic pride, and to build something modern, efficient and beautiful that might last for another century. When assessing his own legacy, Emperor Augustus said that he “found Rome a city of brick, and left it a city of marble”. Would it be such a bad thing if our government pursued a similar line of thought? That would certainly be a much better legacy than the rampant policy of inactivity they seem to be aiming for at the moment. 

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