Letter from London
Paul Finch, 15 June 2020
The relationship between architecture and history is inevitably complex
In these strange times, the importance of history becomes even more apparent, writes Paul Finch.
The way we are recording the events surrounding Covid-19, the Black Lives Matter protests, and the UK negotiations with the EU about future trade relations are a reminder of how historical records inform our views of the past – and the more varied and considered they are, the more chance there is of us understanding what happened once the metaphorical dust has settled.
Buildings, of course, are concentrated nuggets of history – and not simply architectural history in the sense of art history. After all, in relation to any building, if you understand the intentions and aims of the client, what they wanted and why, how it was paid for and what approvals were required, who was commissioned to design it and who won the tender to build, who occupied it and what did they do . . . you begin to have insights into economic circumstances, planning, production and politics of a particular era.
The physical presence of the building adds to the written record, not least because it may be possible to cross-check what has been claimed in those records. To take a horrible example here in London, the Grenfell Tower fire has shown a mismatch between what was supposed to happen in theory according to drawings, reports, building approvals and so on, and what was actually built, which turned out to be a death trap.
The further back in history one goes, the less this seems to matter. The archaeological excavations of tombs and pyramids has revealed or confirmed much of what we know about the world of the Pharoahs, and the extraordinary structures they created. We do not concern ourselves with the poor souls responsible for their physical construction; we have few if any records of their names, and there is nobody alive today who can say that their specific ancestors were the slaves who worked on them.
That, of course, is not the case in respect of more recent slavery, in particular that enabled by the slave trade between the UK, West Africa and ante-bellum America. That is why current disturbances surrounding the Black Lives Matter campaign have suddenly focussed on symbols of the slave trade, that is to say statues memorialising individuals who were prominent in, or substantially benefited from, that foul enterprise.
Ironically, the statues almost always feature individuals who were philanthropists, which is why they have been memorialised – not because they were winners of an award for being ‘Slave trader of the year’. The objections to the continued presence of some of these statues in London (and the key slave trader city of Bristol) has prompted civil disturbances and a rapid establishment by London’s mayor of a commission investigating statues and monuments in respect of their cultural representation.
It seems likely that some will be removed – or alternatively, as the heritage authorities have suggested, that full accounts of the activities of the individuals memorialised will be included in plaques designed to enrich our knowledge of history, rather than excise the contributions those individuals made, for better or worse. Demolition, the extreme option, is something we associated with Isis terrorists rather than advanced democracies.
So far, there does not seem to have been any appetite to demolish buildings which have direct or indirect links to slavery. This may be because it is self-evidently economic madness to demolish perfectly good building stock. However, in the world of architecture, there is most certainly an animus against architects associated with particular political regimes. But is it true that if you designed a building commissioned by the Nazis, or by Mussolini, it would automatically mean you endorsed their politics, and thus everything they did or was done in their name?
Gitta Sereny addressed this issue in her biography of Albert Speer. It was not a book about architecture, but you could not ignore the architectural subtext. In a BBC documentary about Speer, made after his release from Spandau, he was taken to see the 1936 Berlin Olympics stadium, by then a ruin of crumbling concrete. ‘It’s lucky the Fuhrer isn’t here to see this,’ he laconically remarked. ‘It was supposed to last a thousand years’. The stadium survives of course, along with other architecture from discredited regimes. Think of Terragni’s work in Italy, notably Casa del Fascio. It survives.
Buildings, like statues, act as reminders. But reminders of what, exactly? This is where history, and historians, come in. But those seeking truth, the real theme of Sereny’s book, may be disappointed. Like any other experts, historians have their differences. New evidence changes perspectives and understanding – and beware those who suggest otherwise. Officially approved history is not history.