Ancient and/or Modern

by Theodore Dalrymple (November 2012)

To believe or trust in the wisdom of crowds just because crowds are composed of many people and two heads are better than one seems to me absurd; but equally it is wrong to reject an opinion merely because it is held by a crowd. We are condemned, or privileged, or both, constantly to have to make up our own minds about things: to be nonjudgmental, as the cant word has it, means not to participate fully in or of human life. And what most people probably mean when they describe themselves (almost always in a self-congratulatory way) as being nonjudgmental is that they are uncensorious – other than about people who are censorious, of course. An inadequate vocabulary can be pregnant with consequences.

An article in the French leftish-liberal newspaper, Le Monde, for 15 September, drew attention with evident unease or even mild disapproval to the results of a poll conducted in France by the fine arts magazine, Beaux Arts. To the question of whether it is more important to safeguard the treasures of the past or to promote creativity, the respondents replied by a very large majority that the former is the more important. The article implied that, pace the advertisement, forty million Frenchman can be wrong.

Of course, France is in a slightly unusual position by comparison with many other countries. It is by far the most visited country in the world, with 70 million tourists annually; more than twice as many Frenchmen now live by tourism as by agriculture. And it isn’t French modernity that people come to see: it is the French past (together, of course, with the pleasures, comforts and conveniences of the present, in which the country is by no means deficient).     

But I doubt very much that those who answered the poll were thinking of their pocketbooks or economic interests as they answered. They were thinking of their country; and if I had been asked I would have answered in the same way.

The unease or disapproval of the writer in Le Monde derived from more than one consideration. The rapid increase in the number of buildings (or even landscapes) deemed to be part of the national patrimony, and the difficulty or impossibility of withdrawing them from it once they are inscribed as such, means that France is at risk, at least in the estimation of the writer, of becoming a vast museum or theme park. Moreover, by declaring this or that building to be part of the national patrimony, the state takes on more and more financial obligations, for upkeep does not come cheap. Many of the buildings or sites of the patrimony do not pay for themselves by means of tourist receipts; and these are not times propitious for yet more government expenditure.

But I think the main concern of the author of the article is what might be called that of cultural psychology. For the author, the poll (the actual figures of which she does not give) indicates that the French are now a backward looking people, with no confidence in the future and not much ability to create one either. They are living the dream of a past than cannot be recaptured.

I will leave aside the question of whether, if one is concerned to conserve the past, one is destined to be uncreative: in other words, whether the dichotomy between preservation and creativity is a genuine one. Personally, I do not think that it is; attachment to what exists does not inhibit creative effort and in my opinion might ever spur it. The fact that so many classic books have been written has not, so far as I am aware, inhibited anyone from putting pen to paper or finger to keyboard in the hope of adding another.

But the article itself gives us a clue to the reason why the French who were polled by Beaux Arts magazine (who are almost certainly not a cross section of the general population, perhaps we should remember) voted the way they did. On the second page of the article is a photograph of la cité de l’Etoile, a housing project in Bobigny on the outskirts of Paris designed by the architect Georges Candilis and built in 1962.

These ugly, soulless, prefabricated concrete blocks have been declared by the authorities to be part of the ‘patrimony of the Twentieth Century,’ and therefore as being too culturally important to demolish or replace. The people who have been trapped into living in these concrete ant-heaps have protested vigorously at the designation: they know in their own persons what it is to live out the social-cum-futuristic fantasies of nth-rate French architects like Candilis, and they are demanding demolition. The only thing to do with such architecture, as far as they are concerned, is to grind it into the dust and try to forget that it ever existed.

Actually, I believe one or two such buildings ought to be deliberately preserved, to remind us of the aesthetic incompetence, lack of imagination or even criminality, of such as Candilis. But of course there is a question that haunts me: if le cité de l’Etoile were pulled down as it deserves, would it be replaced by anything better?

If what is built nowadays (that is to say half a century later) is anything to go by, the answer must be equivocal. I don’t think anything quite as bad would be built, but almost certainly it would not be much better; almost certainly it would look gimcrack and not as if anyone really intended it to last longer than thirty years. The fact is that, after hundreds of years, the French have lost altogether the knack of building something that someone in the future might look upon with pleasure. They are not the only European nation to have done so; but their architects are definitely among the worst and most incompetent in the world.

It was in this context that the magazine Beaux Arts took the poll. With a few notable exceptions, all that has been erected in the last ninety years in France has been ugly. It is true that the worst phase in the double-millennial history of French architecture has been passed, that office blocks that are now erected in France sometimes have the kind of glassy elegance that might be pleasing to men with the souls of insects or other cold-blooded creatures (but are not to be distinguished in the slightest from such buildings erected on the other side of the globe); but where architecture is concerned, the Mandate of Heaven has passed from France, though whether it has arrived somewhere else might be doubted.

That modernism in France was and is more than a merely aesthetic mistake, but was and is motivated by a mean-spirited, envious, ideological levelling impulse, is something that the article in Le Monde makes clear:

The classification or labelling [of buildings to be preserved], without regard to the social class protected, could be a brake on modernity… It also limits brave new forms in architecture. It promotes the process of gentrification, chasing the least well-off classes from the city centres when real estate prices rise with the growth of tourism.

It seems to me that this amounts to something like the following: I cannot, and will never be able to, afford to live in the best part of Paris, therefore I would prefer that no one should live in the best part of Paris, at least as it currently exists; I would prefer it to be the kind of place that I could afford to live in, that is to say much uglier and less desirable. For this to happen, it must be ruined by, for example, the kind of buildings erected in la cité de l’Etoile - a single one of which, incidentally, would be more than enough to destroy the appearance of whole quarters of Paris. (If you doubt my word, look down the rue de Rennes in the direction of la tour Montparnasse; I might, of course, say the same of any of the better parts of any of the old cities of the world.) In other words, if not everyone can live in a beautiful place then no one should be able to do so, and no one should be protected merely by his money from the corrosive effect of ugliness, because an ugliness shared is an ugliness halved. Social engineering thus trumps aesthetics; the assuaging of my resentment that others are richer, better born, more fortunate, more talented than I, is more important than the aesthetic legacy I leave to my descendants, or that I have been fortunate enough to receive myself.   

The problem would not arise so acutely, perhaps, were modern French architects able to create something of worth, but they are not, and haven’t been able for decades. You have only to look at the exterior of Jean Nouvel’s Musée du quai Branly, President Chirac’s equivalent of the Pyramid of Cheops, not far from the Eiffel Tower, to understand the terminal incapability of modern French architects. Indeed, I am not in favour of the guillotine except prophylactically for modern French architects. (They should, of course, be given the choice between the guillotine and the fate of the architects of St Basil’s Cathedral and the Taj Mahal. The latter had their eyes put out so that they would not build anything as beautiful again. Modern French architects should have their eyes put out, but for precisely the opposite reason. They do not use them anyway.)

Just as in England you cannot bring up the question of public drunkenness without someone piping up about Gin Lane, as if nothing had happened in England between 1740 and 2010, so you cannot mention the depredations of modern French architects without someone mentioning Baron Haussmann who, at the behest of Louis Napoleon, refashioned a lot of Paris, in the process pulling down a huge number of ancient buildings, mainly so that troops could take easy pot-shots at revolutionary rabbles gathering in the new boulevards. Whether the Haussmannian reconfiguration of Paris was a good thing or not, an important, indeed vital, distinction between him and modern French architects is that he not only had taste but humanity, in the sense that he knew what a civilised urban life consisted of and required. He didn’t pull down old Paris in order to build Rostov-on-Don or Pyongyang.

According to one person quoted in the article in Le Monde, the ‘over-patrimonialisation’ of France, that is to say the over-protection of buildings that already exist, is an undesirable and retrograde manifestation of the French fear of globalisation (which in other contexts, such as the preservation of les acquis, that is to say the social charges that render French labour so uncompetitive compared with German, it would praise as anti-neoliberal). This, it seems to me, is a fundamental misunderstanding of what it is, or what is needed, to be modern in the best sense. It is magical thinking. It is as if I decided that, in order to take advantage of high-speed internet connections, I had to pull my 300 year-old house in England down and put up a glass and steel box, and then use the internet mainly to gain access to pornography because that is what the majority of people use it for.

Again, one has only to see the vast wasteland by which Paris is surrounded to understand why the French who were polled by Beaux Arts magazine might come to the conclusion that it would be better to preserve what exists than to give French architects and town planners their head. Of the latters’ financial corruption I will not speak (how they must be salivating at the thought of Tours Montparnasses equivalents overlooking the Place de la Concorde – think of the penthouse prices!)

They – the architects and town planners – would retire to the few unspoilt parts of the city, which would undergo not gentrification as much as super-gentrification, where only marquis and ducs of the new dispensation, not mere barons and comtes, could afford, or would have sufficient political connections, to live.    

Our problem is not that we preserve the past; it is that we produce so little that is, or ever will be, worth preserving. Destroying the past will not improve our performance, only make us less aware of how deficient our performance actually is. I suppose that is a solution of a kind.           

Theodore Dalrymple's latest book is Farewell Fear.

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