Destruction and Reconstruction: Architecture and a Longing for the Past

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.

Pre-war Ypres, including its famous medieval Cloth Hall

Pre-war Ypres, including its famous medieval Cloth Hall

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.

What remained of the Cloth Hall and its adjacent cathedral by 1919

What remained of the Cloth Hall and its adjacent cathedral by 1919

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.

Ypres in 2014

Ypres in 2014 – eastern facade of the Cloth Hall on the left

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 2

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.

poundbury 3

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.

This building was completed in 2012

This building was completed in 2012

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.


About raspurr

criticism not only welcome but utterly necessary
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6 Responses to Destruction and Reconstruction: Architecture and a Longing for the Past

  1. Andrew says:

    An interesting read, Rupert. Well-informed, well-documented and well-written. Interesting comparison between Ypres and Poundbury. I’m not a royalist but I thought you were a bit hard on Prince Charles. There are worse tyrants and less well-intentioned ones.

  2. Michael Molyneux says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed reading this, Rupert. When Andrew sent me the page I had no idea who the author was and, after being glued to the first few pages, had already decided to subscribe when I saw it was you. I think it’s a great article. It has a real air of expertise yet conveys infectious curiosity, which I think is what kept me hooked. Because I wouldn’t have said the subject interested me especially. But good writing born out of careful observation renders genre irrelevant. Here’s a quote from a poem Andrew introduced me to some years back – the poem shares some of the ideas, and also the date, of your article. Maybe you’ve read it before:

    Defenceless under the night
    Our world in stupor lies;
    Yet, dotted everywhere,
    Ironic points of light
    Flash out wherever the Just
    Exchange their messages…

    • raspurr says:

      That’s a really wonderful poem. I found the rest on google and I have to confess it’s the first Auden I’ve read but it’s inspired me to get hold of some selected works.
      Thank you so much for your very kind assessment! Writing about architecture (and indeed writing in essay form on a subject utterly outside of academic requirements) is something I’ve only just started to get into, so this is really encouraging. I’m glad I could interest you in the subject too; I think in a sense that’s what I’m trying to achieve with this blog in general.

  3. DCJ says:

    I understand your aesthetic reasons for rejecting the architecture of Poundbury, but your analysis doesn’t address the town’s urban planning efforts at street/place making, landscape design, and creating a pedestrian-scale community. Would you be as quick to dismiss the architecture of Poundbury if the “classical” architecture incorporated a more modern vocabulary, but was massed at the same scale as the Existing Poundbury structures?

    Also, I would also be interested in understanding your explanation of why historic re-interpretations of earlier architectural styles was acceptable in the past, but it is considered a forbidden practice, today. Early 20th century interpretations of classical architecture incorporated technological advances of the time such as concrete construction, indoor plumbing, electricity and the telephone. My answer to my own question is that the materials, and the understanding of how to play with the established rules of classical design have been lost by the standards of today’s design and construction; while difficult to reproduce, at least at Poundbury established high standards of design and architectural quality to allow this community to become an unique experiment at place making.

    • raspurr says:

      Re: urban planning, I think an analysis on that aspect of Poundbury would suit a more expansive/separate article. Briefly, however: I think that perhaps (that’s a very emphatic perhaps) a sort of urban-continental-style massing in the vein of Poundbury’s might conceivably be successful to some degree in fostering a culture of clustered cafes, public parks and local shops, if only Poundbury weren’t so horribly insipid architecturally, so palpably isolated from the rest of Dorchester, and so utterly, pervasively bourgeois (a preoccupation with privacy and stability does not exactly mix well with a culture of shared public space). And besides, Poundbury’s demonstrable failure to achieve a reduction in motor vehicle use speaks for itself (I believe that the use of cars in Poundbury is actually higher than that of the surrounding area). Either way, though a reduction in the use of cars is an admirable aim, the construction of a commuter village whose closest railway station is about a mile away is surely bound to be ineffective at best.

      Regarding architectural re-interpretation, I think the issue with Poundbury is that it is not really a re-interpretation of anything at all. What it really constitutes is a clumsy pastiche. I’m not saying occurrences of this are limited to the present moment (far from it), but Poundbury certainly exemplifies it more than anything else I can think of. It’s a fantasy land – a flimsy model of a vanished paradise that never existed at all. I believe Jonathan Meades put it better than I ever could when he called it a “Thomas Hardy theme park”. Early 20th century interpretations of classical architecture were interesting and worthwhile because they weren’t just reconstructed Roman temples – Art Deco (I presume you’re talking about Art Deco here) took classical idioms and used them in a distinctly ‘modern’ way. The approach was of experiment and optimism, rather than nostalgia and retreat.

      These are all rudimentary thoughts, obviously, but I hope I’ve gone some way to answering your questions.

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