The landscape wrought by the mechanistic slaughter of the First World War has often been described as ‘lunar’: pockmarked by craters, scarred by erratically zig-zagging trenches, devoid of life – devoid even of the possibility of life. The only difference between the morbid silence of the moon and the battlefields of The Somme and Passchendaele was that the latter still retained the blasted stumps of trees, sticking out of the earth like clawing fingers. Buildings were reduced not merely to rubble but to dust, entire villages utterly obliterated, a displaced populace the only sign of their prior existence.What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man, You cannot say, or guess, for you know only A heap of broken images, where the sun beats, And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief, And the dry stone no sound of water…
From ‘The Waste Land’ – T. S. Eliot
No location throughout France or Belgium better encapsulates this relentless destruction than the Belgian city of Ypres. During the Franco-Belgian gilded age of the late 19th and the early 20th centuries – la belle époque – Ypres was typically picturesque and typically Flemish: all crow-step gables and 13th century gothic masterpieces.
This was not to last. Situated on a salient – that is, a defensive position on a battlefield that juts out into enemy territory – Ypres was the site of three major conflicts and constant bombardment. Enduring a fate which was to become typical of countless European towns and cities during the 20th century, the city was totally destroyed. Not a single building remained intact; shell after shell after shell after shell transformed it into a hideous mutilated skeleton. Even the majestic Cloth Hall, at the time of its construction the largest commercial structure in Europe and a tour de force of the medieval gothic, was obliterated.
Of course, the ubiquitous destruction of the First World War hardly needs reiterating. What makes Ypres unique, however, is what happened to it after the war had ended. Despite suggestions that it be rebuilt in a modernist style or simply left as it was to act as a memorial (Winston Churchill was a proponent of the latter idea), it was rebuilt entirely as it was before its devastation. This was not merely a matter of reconstructing one or two prominent buildings, as at the French town of Albert with its 19th century basilica. The entirety of the city was rebuilt, down to the very last brick. Architects who drove motor cars worked in the style of medieval stonemasons; fanciful gothic spires were constructed with mechanical cranes. To the uninitiated, the Cloth Hall that stands today looks explicitly medieval – in fact, it was finished in 1937.
All this combines to make walking around Ypres a wholly uncanny experience. In other historical Flemish cities such as Bruges, stuffed full of historical architecture, the buildings have a noticeable lean; a palpable sense of having aged. In Ypres all the buildings stand perfectly straight, emanating an eerie sterility. The buildings of Ypres are a flesh-coloured plaster, a desperate attempt not merely to heal a wound – “the world’s worst wound” as Sassoon put it – but to deny its presence in the first place. It feels like a kind of toy-town into which a traumatised child has retreated. It is a grand denial.
Despite its strangeness however, and what might be termed the waste of its aesthetic potential (what brave new city could have existed in its place?), it is difficult to condemn Ypres for its idyllic escapism. Indeed, to talk of the aesthetic potential of a ruined city seems pointedly cruel. Its inhabitants were the victims of a pointless conflict on an apocalyptic scale (minus any grandeur that the notion of an ‘apocalypse’ might entail), and their desire to simply ‘have their city back’ is an entirely understandable one.
Less understandable, or perhaps equally understandable but vastly less forgivable, is the blighted nightmarish hellscape known officially as Poundbury, classed by its creators as an ‘urban extension’ to Dorchester, the county town of Dorset. It was built in 1994 at the behest of none other than Prince Charles.
Poundbury is an utterly bizarre place. Its buildings are a nonsensical union of suffocatingly twee ‘cottages’, Georgian style terraces, Neo-Palladian pomp and, bizarrely, what appears to be some kind of Teutonic market hall. The impression one gets when visiting Poundbury is of wandering through the collection of some tasteless and eccentric architectural hoarder who has journeyed across Britain and dragged his favourite buildings – whether from a city centre or a rural village – back to his field in Dorset.
But what is particularly unsettling about these buildings is their longing for a vanished past that never even existed. It is not a particular past, but merely the golden era of ‘before now’. In this conception of ‘before now’ merry workmen in peaked caps mix with elegant Georgian aristocrats who in turn bow with dramatic flair to amiable country bumpkins. They wish with a childlike intensity to return to this era, despite it never having existed. Poundbury’s buildings go beyond simple pastiche – they are deliberately designed to look like buildings of, variously, the Georgian Age, The Age of the Regency, the Victorian Age, and many other such long-dead epochs.
Of course, architecture, and especially British architecture, has a history of borrowing from the past. The Neo-Palladians of the 17th and 18th centuries borrowed from Andrea Palladio who in turn borrowed from the classical proportions of ancient Rome. The Victorians borrowed from the medieval Gothic. The Arts and Crafts movement borrowed from traditional vernacular architecture of rural England. I could go on. The difference between these styles and that of Poundbury, however, is that they do not merely copy their sources but adapt and reshape their motifs in an entirely original way. They incorporate the old in creating the new, and in this way they are genuinely interesting architectural styles. They gesture in new ways, they communicate new sentiments, or at least they tell us something significant about the age of their construction. What the buildings of Poundbury do is nothing of the sort – they actually try to disguise themselves as historical buildings, to lull their residents into thinking that they are living in some kind of historical utopia. The architectural styles which they imitate – the rusticated facade, the elegant sash window, the knapped flint cottage – all belong to an entirely different age (or ages). It is ridiculous to build in these styles today in the same way that it is ridiculous for an adult to be fed on breast milk. We have moved beyond the social and intellectual conditions which created these historical styles which – lest we forget – were fraught with hatred, bigotry, inequality, disease and ignorance. This does not mean that today we should demolish medieval churches, for example (perish the thought); but it does mean we should try and build something different.
Ypres – that eerie reconstructed city – had an excuse for such regression. It looked to the immediate past because the present had shown itself, for the time being, to be unbearably bleak; because to do otherwise was to be reminded of four years of pain, suffering and slaughter. Poundbury has no such excuse. Its architects, terrified of an ambiguous future, scuttle nervously into the sheltered cave of regression.