Destructive Creation

by Theodore Dalrymple (March 2013)

But is the origin of bad architecture the right question to ask, as if it were in the nature of architecture to be good unless some disturbing factor intervened? First, however, I cannot forebear from remarking on the frontispiece of the book, a photo of the author. He is a most distinguished-looking man, of a kind that one does not, or at any rate that I do not, see today. If the face is the window of the soul, then this man was aesthetically fastidious, sensitive, inquiring, honest, upright and truthful, a man whom one would feel it peculiarly disgraceful to deceive in even the smallest matters. One cannot imagine him for a moment writing what he did not believe to be true (and therefore he was not a true modern intellectual) or telling a lie. That he was a man of exceptional probity is confirmed in the introduction to the volume written by his most famous brother, John Cowper Powys, admittedly not an entirely unbiased source:

Such integrity in everything that he did is perhaps slightly intimidating to us lesser mortals who have it not, but it nevertheless has the enormous merit of not taking anything in life for granted, in paying close attention to every small thing, of finding purpose everywhere, and therefore of avoiding the blight of modern life, namely meaninglessness and boredom. These are much underestimated factors in the promotion of social pathology in our societies, and explain the restless, constant and self-defeating search for entertainment or distraction, or that for all-encompassing ideologies or self-absorbing causes among people of rather more intellectual disposition. The integrity of A R Powys, I say, is inscribed on his face, though here I must add a small caveat: physiognomy is not an exact science, though we all practise it, and when I first saw a picture of Mr Madoff, him of the century and a half prison sentence, I confess that I saw in him just the kind of calm, thoughtful and honest man to whom I should have liked to entrust my money, such as it is.

The problem of bad architecture is more acute in Europe than anywhere else in the world, in large part because Europe has such an immemorial tradition of great and, more to the point, good vernacular architecture. The aesthetically bad is much more painful to behold in proximity to the good than it is when everything around it is bad. Then it is like a wound to the eye. That is why, if anyone wants to study bad architecture, he should go to Paris.

I have asked architects and architectural historians why it is that we in Europe are incapable of building a single charming house, let alone an entire urban environment that is other than a visual nightmare. The answers they have given are various (none has dared deny the premise of the question).

They say that we cannot use the methods, materials or designs of the past. This seems to me inexact. I can quite see that, for economic and social reasons, it is impossible to use the methods and perhaps the materials of the past. A bricklayer or stonemason now commands too high a wage for his manual labour to make it possible for houses or other buildings to be built on any scale in the old fashion. The bricklayer or mason himself expects to live at a standard of living not so very different from that of the person for whom he is building.

The reason, I suspect, is not merely economic, for even where no expense is spared the result is usually catastrophic. The reason is much deeper.

How different from the spirit of A R Powys, of whom his brother writes:

Le Corbusier, writing of the years pre-dating the First World War, said that there was no architecture of the time, that architecture was dead. He used this as a pretext and justification for his own purely destructive and megalomaniac impulses. But what he said was simply not true, as the most casual inspection of Paris will inform anyone with eyes to see.

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