Friday, 30 December 2011


"You can't stand in the way of progress". This, I suspect, was the guiding principle of town planners all over the world in my youth. It was their justification for sweeping away many fine old buildings. On the whole, I think that they were wrong.

This is partly because I believe that buildings that were put together largely by craftsmen, rather than machines, provided greater satisfaction to their makers and somehow pass on the pride and pleasure that went into their creation to the people who use them or look at them today. I also think such buildings are the result of a way of life that was more nourishing to the human spirit than are many of the ways of life on offer in our more automated world.

While being freed from the demands of relentless backbreaking work has to be a good thing, being freed from the demands of skilful labour may not be so great. Michael Innes, as I mentioned the other day, described - with great prescience, since he was writing way back in the 1930s - some of the problems that result from suddenly having a lot of time on your hands:

"Appleby drew deep breaths of June air as he went briskly down the drive. The summer was advanced in this southland country; from somewhere came the scent of the first hay and already the oak-leaves were darkening. Over his left shoulder he looked up at Horton Hill. Across the crown there must be some right-of-way, for no attempt had been made to eject the people gathering there. It was quite a crowd now: idlers in the neighbouring towns, reading the stimulating news in their morning paper, had hurried to get out the car and motor over to see what they could. And soon there would be similar arrivals from London; people 'running down for the day'. And portents these, thought Appleby, of a society running down in another sense: clogged by its own mass-production of individuals who, let loose from a day's or a lifetime's specialized routine, will neither think nor read nor practise any craft, but only gape."

On the other hand, I have gradually learned to admire, in lieu of minute craftsmanship, the astonishing skill that must be needed to organise an airport, (I may be alone in this, but I'm rather fond of airports), and, indeed, that must be needed to design the engine of an aeroplane. Reading Clive James's new collection of essays, taken from the BBC radio programme Point of View, I realise he would understand this.

In one of the essays in the book, he talks about his longstanding admiration for the beauty of technology. He suggests that we should not object to all modern architecture but instead should reject "Le Corbusier's horrible plans for a modernized Paris", while recognising more worthy designs.

James though is commenting on the battle between those in society who favour the built world and all the advances that go with it and see "planes, trains and automobiles" as "human creations ... as interesting as poems, paintings and pieces of music" and the Rousseauesque others, who "hanker... for a return to nature".

My concern is slightly different. I am not against comfort; I don't want to live in a mud hut with no running water. All the same, I want to be certain what exactly 'progress' brings. Aside from the puzzle of why it makes sense to liberate people so that they have nothing to do, when that only makes them feel worthless (oh yes, I forgot, it saves their employers money), what I am very unsure about is whether replacing something beautifully-made is ever a good idea.

Technological advance may be useful, but is it better? Is there really any justification for replacing a handbuilt structure that exhibits everywhere the signs of individual craftsmanship with a piece of sturdy but impersonal engineering, whose concrete, steel, glass et cetera components are produced in a factory and slotted together without the need for really fine artisanship - particularly as the change in method is largely the product of economic imperative rather than any aesthetic belief, (whatever supporters of Modernism may say, the fact that their mad theories also led to lower costs was of the greatest assistance in their achieving success)? I recognise that the skills of the design engineer are enormous and extraordinary but I feel somehow that, with the disappearance of much handcrafting in the making of buildings, we have lost more than we realise.

As a result of my conflicting feelings about these things, I find myself, whenever I go to the State Library of New South Wales and look at the two panoramic photographs they have on display, showing central Sydney in 1904 and then again a couple of years ago, unable to decide what I think about the changes that have taken place in the interval between the two:

I usually tell myself that the city would look odd and false if the streetscapes had stayed as they were. Then I think of Vienna and Budapest, where very little has been altered since the nineteenth century. I don't feel the lack of shiny skyscrapers there. However, the surviving buildings in those cities do tend to be of a grander scale than those in the early Sydney picture, so perhaps scale is the important factor here. Three-storey terraces in the centre of a city, however pretty, might look silly in the modern age. Perhaps, if they had all been preserved, central Sydney would have the air of an odd little toy town. On the other hand, the streets in the area called The Rocks, where the buildings have been allowed to remain standing, is absolutely lovely and full of real character.

The CBD, with its soaring glass and steel constructions is impressive, but it could be in Canada as easily as Australia.  The buildings that confront people as their ferries berth at Circular Quay create no dialogue between us and the individuals who put them up. They bear no trace of a particular human being's patient skill and craftsmanship. Their scale is so inhuman and their style so impersonal that it would be easy to believe they were made without the aid of any human hand at all. Having been constructed using methods that were automated rather than individual, their character seems largely to be missing. Their facades are smooth and featureless. They exude no sense of personality. They lack warmth. They are not unique. They are simply the products of machines.


  1. Good post. It's a pity that the most beautiful, long-lasting buildings we have were built before Australia even existed as a nation.

    Melbourne is good at redeveloping things like old pubs, terraces and shops while retaining the original exterior. But the CBD itself is a pretty miserable place, and all the new developments seem to be a mishmash of designs that could belong, as you say, in any city.

  2. Paul - agree with all you say, except that I doubt any other city would be silly enough to accept that awful infantile piece of design they call Federation Square. It makes me shudder just thinking about it
    Bob - I think you got it right the other day when you said something about making sure you had an old house but a new car.

  3. Three comments on this great post. Your comment on liking airports reminded me of the Kath and Kim honeymoon episode. A classic!

    Then, your comment on leaving people with nothing to do reminded me on my recent ruminations on aging ... I used to think that as long as I could see (so to read) or hear ( so to hear books) I'd be happy growing older but in recent years I've come to realise that there's another important need - to be useful to others, to have a point to living.

    And finally, I agree pretty much with what you say about modern architecture .... It needs the combination of beauty, purpose and context and there are good examples. Nonetheless, when I travel I always gravitate to the old town areas. Not just because they tend to be pretty and quaint, but because their scale is more human, more manageable.

  4. Re the architecture, Whispering, possibly my favourite John Updike comment is one he made in praise of old architecture - he said he prized its 'quiet outpouring of refined details.'
    Dr Livingstone - I was just reading about your wonderful way with understatement. According to The Times newspaper, despite 'suffering from pneumonia, malaria, foot ulcers and piles so savage [you] could barely walk', despite being 'forced to pull out most of [your] rotting teeth', despite being 'attacked by leeches, slavers and hostile African tribesman ... in [your] tent, by the light of a candle, [you] picked up a pen and, using berry juice, because [you] had run out of ink, [you] wrote these magnificent words: "It is not all pleasure, this exploration."'