Urban Decay

I remember passing through Birmingham during a visit to Britain in the late 1980s, and my impression even then was of grimy decrepitude. Describing a recent visit to the city, Anthony Daniels (a.k.a. Theodore Dalrymple) notes that the postwar “rust belt” towns of northern England were afflicted not only with urban decay and unemployment. They suffered the imposition of some truly monstrous edifices (“A Day Out,” The New Criterion).

These were not the relatively benign, if minimalist, creations of the Bauhaus and related movements of the early twentieth century. Postwar architecture like Brutalism, for example, showed a disconcerting affinity for massive hulks resembling Nazi submarine pens and Soviet bunkers.

Daniels explains that the original 19th century Birmingham library, which was “so expressive of municipal pride and ambition for the city’s population, was demolished in 1970, in the midst of the frenzy of anti-Victorianism—the revenge of contemporary nullities on past people of substance—to make way for an inverted concrete ziggurat of quite exemplary ugliness.” Ironically this structure was, in turn, replaced by an oversized Postmodernist fabrication just forty years later.

In surveying the urban landscape one encounters genuinely interesting specimens of innovation amid the hideous follies. I have never begrudged the spare lines of embryonic modernism, which still respected classical notions of symmetry and proportion. No doubt some people saw the new buildings as visually and physically hygienic in comparison with the Dickensian squalor of prior eras.

Architectural experimentation, however, outstripped good sense. And if prior modernist works were often graceless or sterile, subsequent developments achieved a new level of arrogant disdain for the human landscape. Exemplars of the latter trend are the looming deformities of London (the Shard, Gherkin, or Walkie Talkie buildings). They frankly have the appearance of a malevolent extraterrestrial occupation.

In our increasingly impatient and appetitive society it is as if things like instant food, entertainment, and architecture all went hand in hand. Neither our buildings nor our ersatz values have any enduring quality.

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