The life, body and soul of the city

Saturday 20th Feb 2010

I saw this picture in a textbook when I was at primary school and I remember being amazed by it and shocked at the destruction it implied, and how St Paul’s came so close to being destroyed. Our teacher also showed us pictures of Dresden, Berlin and Coventry taken just after the war.

We were a bit too young to see pictures of Auschwitz and Birkenau, but we were told about them and how many people had died there, and how many had been killed worldwide in the war. It wasn’t long after the Falklands, and the country was still in the grip of that vile jingoistic fever, so perhaps our teacher had decided to counter that dangerous mood with some facts on how war isn’t all smiling troops and glorious victories.

The city is its citizens

Those lessons left a lasting impression on me. Not, oddly enough, the knowledge of the human suffering at the time, but the loss to humanity of all the art and architecture that was destroyed. The standard, unthinking, knee-jerk reaction to this is that buildings can be rebuilt, that a painting isn’t alive, which is true enough but misses the point. A city is a living thing, it is, to reuse a well-known phrase, for the people, and by the people, it’s a product of generations.

The city we see today is there because people made it — it’s physical evidence of the lives of those people. Individual buildings may start as the work of a single person, as an architect’s sketch, but rapidly becomes more than that as its occupants add to it, alter it and look after it — they live their lives with it and develop memories from it, it becomes part of their minds. New buildings near it are informed by its character, they are responses to its form and how people think of it: the building has become part of the life of the city.

Creative destruction

Destroying a building to replace it with another is a natural part of the growth of the city. The design of the new building is (usually) influenced by the character of the neighbourhood, itself often informed by the earlier building. The process alters the character of the neighbourhood over a period of decades, but it’s a gradual and iterative one — the ‘wound’ heals without a scar, and there’s a continuity of style, a progression of fashion and building technology, and the buildings remain relevant and useful as the city grows.

Desctructive destruction

War and terrorism may form part of the long-term story of a city, but only in the same way a dreadful car accident or an assault forms part of the life of a person. They cause injuries and leave scars and the harm is both physical and psychological. Just look at Coventry today, the areas around St Paul’s, the slow rebuilding of Dresden and the shattered remains of the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in Berlin, people still feel the loss keenly, they are still, generations later, grieving for their lost cities. I’m not denying that the rebuilding process can be enormously creative, the new Coventry Cathedral is a masterpiece after all, but was the suffering worth it? Did we really need to lose so much?

I won’t deny that human lives are important, but to the people who say buildings can ‘just’ be rebuilt, I say their argument is excessively simplistic and reduces all the products of earlier lives to be mere throwaway artifacts, of no worth or meaning. I could also suggest that we can always ‘just’ make more people too, but does that justify killing someone alive now?