Theodore Dalrymple

Global warning | 2 February 2008

Theodore Dalrymple delivers a global warning

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There is no building so hideous that it is beyond the powers of any modern architect worth his salt to design something even worse. This important truth of the science of aesthetics was borne out recently when I visited Paris and went for the first time to the Musée du Quai Branly, on the banks of the Seine in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. Until then, I had not thought it possible to build a museum more ugly than the Centre Pompidou; but I was greatly mistaken. Moreover, it did not even need a British architect to do it: the French have found one all of their own.

The vast but nevertheless claustrophobic museum is devoted to what might once have been called primitive art. Certainly the word primitive is preferable to (as well as more honest than) the words inscribed near the entrance to the museum: Monsieur Jacques Chirac, President of the Republic, wanted the Museum of the Quai Branly to do justice to the arts and peoples of Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas, by recognising their essential part at the heart of the universal patrimony, and thereby contribute to the development of necessary dialogue between civilisations and cultures.

Am I alone in finding this gratingly condescending? What it really means is ‘Left bank to cannibals! Left bank to cannibals! We think your carvings are not bad for people like you, who know nothing of tarte tatin.’ Nor am I sure that the inheritors of the ancient and exquisite civilisations of east, south, central and south-east Asia will altogether appreciate being lumped together with the cannibals of Melanesia and head-hunters of Borneo. How parochial can you get!

The Musée du Quai Branly manages the difficult feat of being at the same time hugely expensive and looking very cheap. Clad in horrible metal plates painted the colour of an old tramp steamer, its façade is interrupted, for no obvious reason, with large protruding metal boxes of bright primary colours. A long window reveals an enormous photograph of a tropical forest: the purest kitsch.

Only 18 months after its opening, it already looks dirty and dilapidated: indeed, it looks designed specifically to become so. On entering it, I noticed a large space to the left of the walkway that ascends to the galleries in which there was a pile of what appeared to be rubbish.

One never knows these days: a pile of rubbish could also be a priceless exhibit. But no, this was no exhibit: part of the ceiling above had fallen in, revealing gaping holes and the gimcrack nature of the whole construction.

What has gone wrong, that such a hideous and dysfunctional monstrosity could even be imagined, let alone constructed? The name of the architect, by strange coincidence, gives a clue: Jean Nouvel.

The demon of novelty as a virtue in itself has taken possession of our souls. And this is because we feel the need to mark the world whether we have any talent or not. Thus a building such as Musée du Quai Branly is to the elite what graffiti is to the ego-inflamed adolescent of the banlieues.