Built-to-last should mean something again

While cement shatters across Quebec, Charlemagne’s late 8th-century chapel in Aachen Cathedral still stands firm. Perhaps we could go there and say a prayer to our Lady of Reinforced Concrete that our bridges, overpasses and underground slabs keeping buildings out of subways will last 1/20th as long. In The Story of Architecture Patrick Nuttgens calls Charlemagne’s chapel “The best example of what is called Carolingian architecture.” I don’t know if there’s much competition in that field. But it is magnificent: massive, sombre yet somehow uplifting, and built to last both physically and morally. Wouldn’t it be weird to be surrounded by stuff like that?

Parts of the main ancient Roman sewer remain in use. And Egypt’s Great Pyramid at Giza, the tallest building in the world for 40 centuries until eclipsed by the spire of Lincoln cathedral, still radiates mysterious serenity. A modern building is lucky to hold the title of world’s tallest for 40 months or be worth looking at for 40 seconds while it does.

To be fair to our own era we have, in the last 300 years or so, reasonably come to expect a steady stream of improvements in building materials and construction techniques. Why take the time and trouble to build something that will last thousands of years if it’s cheaper to tear it down and put up a better one in 50? It is telling that what urban planner Bill Risebero’s The Story of Western Architecture calls “the first important example in the world of the structural use of cast-iron” was a Severn River bridge in 1779 but within a century wrought iron and then steel had made cast iron bridges obsolete. Charlemagne wasn’t expecting anyone to invent better rock and at least until reinforced concrete in the 19th century no one did. But there’s something depressing about spending your life in throwaway buildings.

Or losing it. That cast-iron bridge still spans the Severn, unlike the notorious cement one in Minneapolis or Laval’s De la Concorde overpass. And many other such structures may be as unsafe as they are ugly. Twenty-two centuries ago Marcus Vitruvius Pollio wrote (in Henry Wotton’s delightful 16th-century translation) “Well-building has three conditions: commodity, firmness, and delight.” So how can constant improvement in materials and techniques have resulted in structures that are inconvenient, hideous and even dangerous?

Bill Risebero praises Frank Lloyd Wright’s innovative Larkin Company office building built in Buffalo in 1906 and demolished in 1950 (it is now a parking lot). Apparently it was nice if you saw it. Or not so much nice as different from older nice buildings in ways that pointed to even more hideous ones yet to come. Like the infamous Pruitt-Igoe public housing complex built in St. Louis in the 1950s. Using every modern theory about exterior design, interior design and the efficient packing of deprived human units, it swiftly became a vandalized den of filth and crime and in 1972 was blown up on national television to the cheers of spectators (it is now a vacant lot).

Or take the office cubicle … please. Ugly, unpleasant to work in and unhealthy, in a “sick” building that recirculates foul air while discouraging physical activity. Want to use the smelly, steep slippery staircase in the typical office building (assuming you can even find it)? I didn’t think so.

There is a profound aesthetic problem in a post-modern society. We no longer believe there is one basically right way to build things and instead dip into a grab bag of past styles at random or, at best, as a deliberate statement of our beliefs (Gothic, say, for Canadian conservatives; restrained neo-classical for Americans). And this problem arises in part because modern materials let us build almost anything in almost any shape, instead of being compelled by the strengths and weaknesses of wood or stone to combine structural and visual elegance. But I also think there’s something necessarily appalling about a morally empty architecture that doesn’t aspire to serve, delight or last.

Beneath it all, a place I try to avoid driving these days, I cannot help thinking that while Charlemagne personally may have needed a bath, his church/mausoleum stayed up in part because the people who build it thought it should be truly nice and nicely true. We, on the other hand, bow down before municipal cement in a landscape whence delight, commodity and even firmness seem to have fled.

Contemplating cities where a stroll is a nightmare and a drive potentially lethal I suggest a pilgrimage to Aachen, where we could learn to build solid, attractive delightful buildings. Or just pray that the ugly junk we’ve thrown together won’t fall down while we’re under it.

[First published in the Ottawa Citizen]