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May 22, 2006

The aesthetics of the A55: Theodore Dalrymple finds that everything built along the A55 since the First World War has been a scar on the landscape and explores why our architecture has been so bad

Posted by Theodore Dalrymple

Theodore Dalrymple has previously observed how the A55 has seemingly become a public rubbish tip - Astonishing Quantities of Rubbish: Theodore Dalrymple takes a drive along the A55 - and finds litter, great mounds of it - and what this littering means - Litter and the A55: Theodore Dalrymple on the social and cultural meaning of the littering of our country. Dr Dalrymple concludes his series on the A55 by examining the aesthetics of the A55 - and their meaning.

As I mentioned recently, the A55 has ruined many small towns on the North Wales coast. It has deprived them of a sea front, and cut them off from the coast by six lanes of highway, a deprivation that has brought with it decay and a sense of futility that is almost palpable as one walks through their streets. It is as if the university had departed from Oxford, or the banks from the City: the raison d'etre has been removed from their physical existence.

Such is not the only aesthetic vandalism - that caused the bad-tempered but great Welsh nationalist poet, R S Thomas to remark that the inhabitants of the North Wales landscape were unworthy of it - that has been wrought upon this coast. The fact is that since the Edwardians, scarcely a building has been erected that does not rub the retina up the wrong way.

I remember the days, of course, when we sneered at the Victorians and regarded the pulling down of what they had built to be a worthy effort of aesthetic cleansing. But they knew how to build seaside towns as surely as we know how to wreck them. And contrary to the widespread but mistaken idea that they were capable only of fussy and stuffy excesses of ornamentation, they were actually capable of elegance in their building: the town of Llandudno is conclusive proof of this. There they managed to continue the Georgian tradition of grandeur and sociability. The town they built was an organism, not an agglomeration, fit for social beings rather than for solipsists thrown together by sheer necessity or convenience, but for no other reason.

Around the seaside towns cluster suburbs of mean, post-World-War-1 houses: mean not in physical squalor, of course, but in conception, aesthetics and spirit. They speak of people enclosed entirely in their own little worlds, without connection to others, without membership of or concern for anything larger than themselves, for whom physical comfort is the highest, indeed the only, good.

I have nothing against physical comfort, of course; I rather like it myself, in fact. Cold and damp are miserable, to say nothing of hunger. But while a degree of comfort is necessary, it is not a sufficient end in life, nor is it incompatible with aesthetic considerations.

The sudden loss of an aesthetic sensibility, or of an awareness that aesthetics are important even for people who are not themselves aesthetes (it is not necessary to believe with Keats that truth is beauty and beauty is truth nonetheless to believe that beauty is, or ought to be, extremely important in our existence, and that, among other things, its creation can give life a meaning when no other is apparent) is an interesting but disturbing phenomenon.

In Africa, for example, I saw that peasants often had an instinctive eye not only for design of their huts, but for colour and decoration. As soon as they moved to towns, however, they lost it; there they were attracted at once to the garish and the ersatz. Their tin-roofed shacks were decorated, if at all, with pages torn from coloured magazines, usually advertisements redolent of a life of vulgar, abundant consumption. Whatever the gains to them of urbanisation, an increased appreciation of beauty was not one of them.

A drive along the A55 should be sufficient to convince anyone that something similar happened in Britain after the First World War. Everything built thereafter was, and continues to be, a scar on the landscape, from which one averts one's gaze in a mixture of guilt, shame, horror and embarrassment.

There are two problems: first - in small-scale building - the lack of an architectural vernacular with anything approaching elegance, and second - in large-scale building - the determination of architects to be original, even if their originality consists of the addition of an obtrusive and ugly architectural detail. Even where pastiche is attempted, as in some terraces in Llandudno, the architect would rather get it completely wrong than go unremarked by getting it completely right. This self-expression of architects is as debased and trivial as that of the graffitists who (not co-incidentally) cover every concrete surface with their illegible tags, but tend to leave more elegant and refined surfaces alone, suggesting some residual, if unconscious, respect for beauty, just as architects themselves prefer to live in Georgian houses than in their own wretched productions.

These two problems, the lack of a vernacular and the egotism of architects, have turned the British townscape into a visual nightmare. Even where it has not been totally destroyed, one looks at it with a subliminal anxiety as to what monstrosity has been erected just round the corner. One can never relax into unalloyed enjoyment. There is no doubt, either, that town planners and city architects have had an animus towards the past, as if they wanted to destroy evidence of a past greatness to which they could add nothing. The town council of Bath, for example, wanted in the 1950s to tear down the entire city and replace it with buildings of Le Corbusian inspiration (if inspiration is quite the word I seek).

I suspect, though I cannot prove, that the brutality of our architecture has something to do with the coarsening of our manners, but I have no overall theory to propound as to why a vast increase in prosperity should have coincided with so much aesthetic insensibility: why jobbing builders of the past should have been so much better at fashioning a liveable townscape than men with years of academic training.

In my most reactionary moments, I wonder whether it is an obsession with social justice - meaning equality - above all other desiderata that has destroyed our aesthetic sense. Megalomaniacally hideous public buildings are accepted because they belong to no one in particular, and therefore do not offend our sense of social justice, while the very meanness of our domestic architecture is social justice incarnate. Our architecture is collectivist without being social.

If it is any consolation, our building is less bad than it was at its nadir; we have at least learned that concrete is not a fit material for exteriors. Better late than never. And we have at long last understood that city centres must be lived in if they are not to be completely desolate. But we still strain after ultra-modernity, like a people who know they have been left behind in the global competition, and who do not realise that modernity is the most transient of qualities; and we continue to regard originality as a virtue in itself, unrelated to the intrinsic aesthetic worth of what that originality produces.

Theodore Dalrymple is a writer and recently retired as an inner city and prison doctor. To read Dr Dalrymple's two previous pieces on the A55, see Astonishing Quantities of Rubbish: Theodore Dalrymple takes a drive along the A55 - and finds litter, great mounds of it and Litter and the A55: Theodore Dalrymple on the social and cultural meaning of the littering of our country.

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Mightn't the SAU entice Dr Dalrymple into writing us a book on architecture? I would buy at least an armload of them to give as Christmas presents.

But here lies an issue that needs deeper exploration: why did the tasteful Africans go so tacky when they moved to the city? I see the same in Afghanistan, where I spend most of my time nowadays. One step up the ladder, especially moving to a city, brings out the worst in aesthetics -- specifically garish plastic flowers that almost all Afghans love dearly. And, to a lesser degree, shiny prints of airbrushed Alpine idylls. Traditional Afghan carpets -- still made in abundance -- are restrained, tasteful, even collectible. So what happens?

Dr Dalrymple's bucolic Africans are the same people who change when they move into town. Is it the location that changes them, in the way that the loss of community (and community scrutiny) invites selfishness and bad manners? Is there an urban aesthetic germ of some kind? Or is it that urbanites tend to have more discretionary income than they did as peasants, so that their inherent taste for the garish is permitted to flourish as never before?

Vegetable dyes limit the textile pallette in a gentle and pleasant way. There are now (few, thank God) rural Afghan carpets containing little burps of hot pink and day-glo orange now that chromatic dyes are available. Move to the city and in comes the television and the plastic roses (preferrably with strips of silver plastic tinsel). In an African village (I know a few but not so many as Dr Dalrymple), there is whitewash, mud brick and ochre, all of which look good together. In the city, you have enough money to paint your tin shack the most revolting hues imagineable. Might my guess be correct?

Posted by: s masty at May 22, 2006 07:20 PM

1. 'Tradition' offers no scope for individual preferences. African villages are built in 'traditional' style -- i.e.,the way they've always been built. Thus they do not in fact reflect individual tastes. Ditto for Afghan carpets made with 'traditional' vegetable dyes.

2. Most people do not, in fact, have much 'taste'. How many would say 'traditional' Afghan carpets look nice? How many would prefer 'day-glo' colours? How many would agree that the 'garish' colours of urban African tin shacks _are_ 'garish'?

Posted by: Sudha Shenoy at May 23, 2006 10:28 AM

For someone who uses the exdented family as a metaphor, you often don't seem to understand the dynamic.The default model of human organization is a large exdented family. An individual born into such a group receives protection from the dangers of life from the group in exchange for unquestioning and total loyalty. Ethics, are in effect to reduced to "does it help my group?" in which case it's okay. And being disloyal (harming the groups interests whether intentional or not) is the worst form of betrayal.It's not that big men have to be coaxed into supporting people, their self-image as a good person requires them to help their group as much as possible.Obama's big problem with Kenya will be that all Kenyan sides will assume that he wants to do everything possible to help his group (in the case the Luo). The Kikuyu might not like such a situation but they'd understand, even respect it to a certain extent while envying the Luo their good fortune.If he does not openly favor the Luo, then _all_ sides (and a big chunk of Subsaharan Africa (and a lot of the middle east) will regard him as a person with no honor or integrity.Similarly, I don't believe that he's a 'secret' Muslim for a second. But his ties to Muslims won't help the US with the middle east. They'll most likely see his Christianity as opportunistic and unethical (and again an example of turning his back on his group and bringing dishonor to them).None of this is necessarily a reason to vote against him but some more reasonable expectations about what he can and cannot do (and why) would be nice.

Posted by: Muskan at January 8, 2013 02:26 PM
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