Whenever I read of a fading aristocrat purring that their crumbling pile has been ‘saved for the nation’ by being taken under the protective wing of the National Trust I am immediately filled with an urge to reach for the petrol can. It rankles something deep within me, this haughty presumption of cultural worth, and the manner in which the ravages of the modern world are, implicitly, threatening to destroy it.
The presumption that underlies this claim is that all that is old is good. The older the better. There is value in history, and our cities, towns and villages will be better for the more old stuff that is preserved within them. Contemporary buildings provide mere infrastructure; the historic provides the soul of a place.
Yet in spite of the fact that I am tempted by a spot of arson every time it is obediently trotted out by the Mail, this sentiment is also simultaneously tempered by a very real sense of how beautiful many of these buildings are. Indeed, my desire to punch flush-cheeked aristos in the face is counter-balanced by my visceral appreciation for, to pick one among many, Ely Cathedral’s staggering beauty.
How to reconcile these divergent feelings?
Firstly, it is worth pointing out that preservation and demolition are both explicitly political acts. Even walking away from a building and letting it decay into a Ruskinian tangle of ivy and soft-edged stone is political. The manner in which we treat any aspect of the built environment speaks eloquently of our ideologies.
It is important, then, to examine what different types of building are afforded these different treatments, and why.
The obvious comparison to draw is between the glee expressed in the media over the preservation of a country house and the glee shown at the demolition of mid-century high rises, well represented by the existence of countless television programmes along the lines of Country House Rescue as well as the proposal to televise the demolition of Glasgow’s Red Road high rises. These acts are, indeed, almost identical, in both their ideological origins and their architectural intentions. Both acts seek to fashion the built environment of the present in the image of the class-ridden deferential society that was partially rolled back under the Attlee government: the Downtonisation of the built environment.
Under this rubric, the architecture redolent of the expropriated wealth of the aristocracy and the gentry must be preserved at all costs, being turned into a museum-exhibit of how life used to be before the rowdy mob presumed to ask for any political rights, while the evidence of their ever having obtained any semblance of control over the political system, in the form of decent council housing, must be erased from the grain of our cities.
The ideological nature of this curatorial choice is particularly clear in the manner in which the National Trust often goes about managing the aristocratic piles that it ‘saves’.
Firstly, it is clear that any building which requires designation as a heritage asset and active conservation work, which is then marketed as a tourist attraction, is an obsolete building. If it worked on its own terms, if it was capable of being put to active use as just a building, even if it required being reprogrammed, for instance being turned into flats, or a community centre, it would not be in need of rescue. In light of this, then, the National Trust steps in to save the supposedly valuable but realistically inutile from degradation and eventual ruin. However, it does not treat these buildings as objects of intellectual curiosity, to be examined and learned from. Rather than remaking these buildings as museum exhibits, the National Trust instead remakes them as theme parks. On the lands around preserved farmhouses, only historically appropriate farming techniques are permitted. Fences must be made from hazel, fields insulated against chemical fertiliser and anachronistic crops. It has nothing to do with learning from the past in a self-aware present; it is an act of resuscitating the past, of constructing a simulacrum of what’s been lost in a misty-eyed nostalgia. It recreates the obsolete and in doing ensures that its legacy persists.
A brief examination of the origins of the modern heritage industry is telling in this regard. Raphael Samuels, in the first volume of his tome ‘Theatres of Memory’, dates the emergence of heritage in the form in which we know it today to the 1980s. This was a decade in which the ruling elite turned its back on the Social-Democratic compromise of the mid-century and began to reassert its control over the working classes. What is so interesting about this is that this economic turn came about as the Social-Democratic compromise began to become unfeasible for the ruling classes. The compromise had been, essentially, that organised labour would receive an ever-increasing share of a growing pie as long as they did not take the whole pie for themselves. This compromise held until it began to look as if the pie might soon cease to grow in the 1970s, at which point the demands of organised labour for an ever increasing standard of living posed an existential threat to the capitalist class, who would only be able to meet these demands by ceding their position of economic dominance, albeit a position which had been largely subservient to the demands and interests of the working and middle classes since the late 1940s.
Of course, it wasn’t just the case that the old elites re-established themselves in their former positions of authority, and wanted us to know it, but that a new financial elite rose to dominance, in historically uncharted territory, creating a sort of neo-feudalist capitalist economy in which the place of God had been taken by ‘hard work’ and that of the old feudal ties by an utterly shallow image of meritocracy. This new elite needed to legitimate itself in the eyes of a subjugated working class that now explicitly had nothing to gain from the triumphant political settlement, and in a postmodern world bereft of any of the old certainties and reduced to the play of sign and surface it chose the architecture of the old ruling class to do so. In a world in which normal peoples’ standards of living could be expected to set off on a negative trajectory it was important that these people once more knew their place in a society delivered back into the tight bonds of class and wealth.
But neoliberalism hasn’t only rested on the shoulders of deference and coercion; as inequalities of wealth have gaped open so too the forces of aspiration and envy have been mobilised to keep working people in line. Instead of the lived reality of improving living standards seen under Social Democracy, neoliberalism offers the pipe dream possibility of untold riches always dangling just out of reach from your position of precarity, immiseration and bare subsistence.
Theme park heritage, weekend trips to eat scones in a patched up manor house and a tea towel decorated with prints of the local country pile are a key component of this culture of aspiration. The message is if only you worked a bit harder, studied a bit more, were a bit more abstemious with your outgoings, you might one day be able to afford to buy something like this, not merely dally in it for leisure, enjoying a fleeting glimpse of how the ruling class lives.
This culture preserves, and rebuilds, what products of the pre-’45 built environment it can find, and it designs new buildings in styles that ape them, that seem to either sneer at, or completely disregard, the existence of architectural modernism and the progressive society that produced and embraced it.
In this way the heritage industry plays its role in maintaining the status quo.
Indeed, in a world in which the words modern, and especially concrete, illicit a reflexive sneer, a world that screams ‘consumer choice’ from the rooftops, but which only offers variations on pitched roof noddy-boxes on out of town cul-de-sacs, our horizons are limited. When the last vestiges of welfare state modernism are finally erased from our cities, either demolished in a carnivalesque spectacle or decanted, stripped, cleansed and reclad as luxury apartments, there really will appear to be no alternative to the architecture of the past, of deference and dominance.
A radical alternative might, then, seek merely to subvert this tendency; to cherish the condemned, and to bulldoze the expensively restored. But, again, Ely Cathedral.
Indeed, although it is true that the built environment inherited from the past may well impose very real limits on the society of the present, and the society that it can hope to become in the future, it doesn’t necessarily follow that removing all trace of the past to liberate the present and future is a productive, let alone a feasible, approach. Indeed, it bears little relation to how society handles the legacy of the past in spheres beyond architecture. It is not the case that each generation torches the archives of their parents. Instead, active attempts to understand or form the present that took place in the past are preserved and studied, and lessons are drawn from them in order to inform the solution of new problems as they are encountered. Indeed, many of the solutions lit upon in the past still, sometimes with a bit of tweaking, work today.
Again, this opens the prospect of simply reworking what we can, of bodging and fixing what we inherit in order to make of it a viable environment for the present. But I can’t see a cathedral being put to much practical use, in any shape or form, in the present day. However, most cathedrals are stunning objects in themselves, and although they are pretty much obsolete in a largely irreligious present, I wouldn’t be happy to see many of them either left to rot or torn down.
An alternative approach, one that could find space for the beautiful and useless, might resemble Le Corbusier’s Plan Voisin. This was a comprehensive masterplan for central Paris which involved the demolition of swathes of Beaubourg and Le Marais , which were to be replaced with huge tower blocks and urban motorways fit for a modern city. However, this plan was explicitly not, contrary to the popularly repeated line, one which sought to do away with the past. Indeed, it envisaged preserving all of the urban fabric of intellectual, cultural or historical value as museum exhibits in a sprawling park out of which the aforementioned towers rose. Its purpose was to liberate the city from the limits and impositions that the old Paris imposed on life in the twentieth century, by demolishing medieval infrastructure, such as winding narrow lanes, while preserving those beautiful and significant objects from which the present could learn. It sought to build a museum, or archive, of the city’s past, rather than turning it into a theme park of itself.
This approach represents the preservation of the historic as historic. It respects the beautiful: it recognises it as beautiful, preserves its beauty, but is aware that the present and future cannot be subservient to this relic from the past. It recognises that time passes on.
Which leads me to some tentative points of something resembling a programme for a more grown up conception of demolition, one which is more amenable to a progressive politics. They are:
Keep anything that you can reuse.
Preserve any objects of purely aesthetic value as purely aesthetic objects.
Do not let the built environment of the past constrict your conception of what the future might be.
Bulldoze anything that does so.
Perhaps this would mean some poor faded aristocrats would have to watch the seats of their ancient families crumble into ruins. I’m not sure that would be such a bad thing.