Staying recently in a handsome French provincial city, I could not help thinking, as I walked down its silent cobbled streets at night, what it would have been like if it had been in England. How restful is that deep, urban silence, which the young English so hate for fear of having to attend to their own thoughts!
The same streets in England would have been alive with the sound of screaming: down them would have staggered shivering, drunken, scantily clad sluts with bared pudgy midriffs of pasty flesh and bejewelled navels, tattoos on one of their fat shoulders or above the beginning of the cleft in their buttocks. As for the young men, better not to describe them at all, lest they should accuse you of looking at them and smash a glass in your face.
Or perhaps the town planners would have given the city a ring road, the two main functions of which were first to keep people from finding any way into the city, and having entered it from ever leaving it again, so that they become like characters in a surrealist film by Luis Buñuel; and second to kill all commercial activity within the city stone dead, thus leaving its streets by day to alcoholics who drink Diamond White and Scrumpy Jack in doorways, schizophrenics prematurely released from hospital into that great incubator of social Brownian motion, the community, ferret-faced youths in nylon clothes, out looking for trouble, who are social security and fast food made flesh, and a few desperate chronic bronchitics out to buy their cigarettes. A multi-storey concrete car park or two, whose stairwells come in handy for drug dealers and those with full bladders, completes the picture.
However, we should not forget that the man who did more damage to the fabric of European cities than Alaric, Attila the Hun, Genghis Khan, the Luftwaffe and Bomber Harris combined, Le Corbusier, was not only French Swiss but made his career in France, where he remains admired in the architectural schools to this day. A man who wanted to pull down the whole of Moscow, Paris, Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires, and turn them into versions of the Elephant and Castle, is the inspiration of modern French architects, which helps to explain why French modern architecture is so spectacularly awful.
A most curious phenomenon of the 20th century was the rage in some countries against the inherited fabric of the cities. Bath council wanted to raze the whole of the Georgian city to the ground, and even more astonishingly the Prime Minister of Holland, Joop den Uyl, wanted to destroy all the 17th-century streets of Amsterdam and replace them with something a little more redolent of social justice.
Where did this hatred of the past come from? A large part of it is sheer egotism consequent upon the death of religion, an inability to contemplate with equanimity the supposedly humiliating fact that a civilisation is bigger than oneself or one’s own glorious part in it. Before me nothing, therefore; and after me nothing either.
Those who care nothing for the past care nothing for the future, for what is our future if not our successors’ past? This explains why architects now build in the self-fulfilling expectation that their work will be pulled down in 30 years or fewer, and why they feel they must impose themselves on the townscape while they can. And destruction is favoured over construction because it is permanent.
The current mayor of Paris, Delanoë, who is already campaigning to be the next president, wants to expand Paris vertically, in skyscrapers, so that his name will never die. Paris ever afterwards will be B.D. and A.D.: Before Delanoë and After Delanoë. Oh immortality, what crimes are committed in thy name!