Friday, 28 August 2009

Preston and the decline of the West

I don't expect that many of my readers will know of Preston. It is a small town on the very northern limits of the industrial north west of Britain. If it is known at all, I suspect its chief fame lies as being something of a landmark on the journey north on the motorway: after Preston the ghastly and almost continuous urban sprawl of Central England is left behind and the Lake District fells begin to beckon. It is a town that I have known from school days so I reckon I've been acquainted with it for a rather staggering 45 years. We were there last weekend (my parents live nearby) and walking through I was struck by the contrast between the Victorian buildings and those created during the last half century.

I should explain that Preston was an important textile town in the 19th century (its motto is ‘Proud Preston’) and like so many of our northern cities acquired a civic architecture appropriate to its status as a global leader in industry. I'm afraid I've had to borrow some photographs off the web but this is the Harris Library and there are a number of other civic buildings of similar scale and quality.

Although Preston survived the Second World War without any major damage from bombing it lost a very fine town hall due to fire in 1947. But much remains: even some of the smaller Victorian chapels display a striking solidity.

Now what struck me in my stroll was how all this contrasted with what had been created during the near half century that I have known Preston. In my time I have seen the arrival of shopping arcades, out-of-town centres, car parks, bypasses and the odd sports ground or two. But there is nothing built to last. Indeed, the massive but now rather shabby concrete bus station built in my youth is now about to be torn down and replaced. This is all rather striking given that the last half century has been a time of almost unparalleled prosperity. Yet as I looked around I found myself wondering where all the wealth had gone. What have we done with the money? Where are the civic improvements that you might expect?

I do not believe Preston's experience is unique: quite simply we do not seem to build anything in the same way these days.  This of course raises the question ‘why?’ Why do we no longer build majestic buildings that we expect to last for at least a couple of centuries? Why are our buildings – with a few exceptions –temporary, ephemeral structures whose best claim to fame is cheapness and functionality? I suspect you would need to be both an architectural and a cultural historian to really pin down all the causes and I am neither.  But let me make some suggestions: I think there are several technical factors that have come together.
  • There are technological changes. Steel, concrete and glass produce a very different building style. We go for lightness and space rather than solidity and weight.
  • With the ever more rapid changes in technology there is no point in building for the future; we all know of old buildings where we cannot fit in insulation, double glazing, fibre-optic cable or even enough electrical power points. In a world where the future is imponderable, the answer is simple: don’t build for the future.
  • City centres are not the permanent features that we thought they might be. In Britain the Second World War was very salutary in this respect. The conventional bombing of Coventry and Dresden demonstrated that large-scale urban destruction was possible; the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that total urban destruction was possible.
  • With the rise of the motor car city centres began to lose their central importance. The peripheries became more important.
Yet there are also I think cultural and philosophical issues worthy of consideration. So for a start, we don’t do ‘civic’ architecture on this scale anymore because we don’t have their values.
  • The elevation of market forces means that cheapness is all. One of the sad maxims of earthquake damage is that educational buildings generally collapse quickly. The reason is that they are thrown up quickly by councils whose agenda runs no deeper than providing a service for voters. There are no votes – only increased costs – in building for centuries.The western world has become dominated by an ideology which centres everything around the private individual as consumer. With such a worldview why take the time to build major and imposing buildings for the community?  Instead we create what is effectively consumerist architecture: and here a building is surely like the packaging around an item; effectively disposable.
  • Yes, there has been a massive growth in wealth but it has been largely diverted back to private individuals and private wealth. We have consciously – or subconsciously – chosen cheap holidays and new cars over faster rail systems, expanded civic libraries and imposing town halls. You could almost say ‘If you want our monument look in our garages’.
  • We simply do not build for the future. Much is made of popular evangelicalism’s preoccupation with an imminent end. I actually wonder whether that is not to some extent an echo of secular culture’s failure to believe in a lasting future.  “Let us eat, shop and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”
The thing that is striking is that some of this short-term consumerist ethos has found their way into the church. In the Old Testament we see the Jewish people moving from the temporary tented Tabernacle to the solidly imposing Temple. In what we are and what we stand for we seem to prefer the alternative trend. There is something troublingly lightweight, flimsy and ephemeral about much of our worship and teaching and yes, our, buildings. In many ways I am troubled by the massive chapels of towns like Preston and of many Welsh urban areas. They are impractical and hard to maintain. Yet in their construction I see things that I find missing today: a confidence, a hope in the future, a desire to make a lasting statement about values. In a way that we do not, they had faith.