The Value in Old Buildings and Their Importance to Society | Calum Ferguson
Only when I found myself in the nave of Glasgow Cathedral did I understand the value in old buildings. I could see that there was something divine in this place. In an abstract sense, I could see something of God in the rows of gothic arches which supported the high vault. Although the cathedral was built to serve a religious function, the medieval architects who designed it also wanted to build a beautiful work of art. The beauty of Glasgow Cathedral is the beauty of old buildings. These giant works of art remind us of the age and endurance of our civilisation. They are the largest and most solid reminders of the labour of our ancestors. Our society is defined by the inheritance we receive from yesterday’s civilisation. Glasgow Cathedral is a perfect reminder to me of the value of our inheritance. The reformation thankfully did not destroy the cathedral, but it left the vault an empty ribcage. I think it is vital that we defend our inheritance from the forces that would undermine it. Old buildings are susceptible to the rapacious advances of the market and the revolutionary mythology of progressive pseudo-intellectuals.
If the old is divine, then the new is profane. The market is impersonal and inhumane; everything is reduced to a commodity to be bought and sold. It is a long-established meme that advocates of the market know the price of everything and the value of nothing. If you cannot extract a toll from an old building, then it is not worth keeping so you sell it. When we leave our civilisation to the whims of the market our society breaks down. The spoils are then divided like lambs’ meat among wolves. Just as the market is unsympathetic so too are pseudo-intellectuals naïve. It is easy to be “challenging” and “innovative” in philosophy and art. All you need to do to appeal to the world of arts and humanities is to defame the old and praise the new. The stream of progressive thinking is built essentially on the newest of fashions rather than on the most ancient of beauties. The road to hell is after all paved with good intentions. In trying to reach some future idyll, thinkers and designers wish to plan out a new reality and build it on the site of our old civilisation. The inheritance of ages should not be swept aside by the next wave of avant-garde iconoclasts.
The greatest problem with the idea of the new is that it seems to deliberately destroy self-confidence. Kenneth Clark (The art historian not the former Conservative MP) created what I would argue was the best television documentary ever made. In Civilisation Clark argued that the classical world serves as a model for social disintegration. Clark remarked in his first lecture, ‘…thinking about this incredible episode [the end of the classical world] does tell us something about the nature of civilisation. It shows that however complex and solid it seems; it is actually quite fragile. It can be destroyed.’ New buildings and new attitudes deliberately ignore this quite profound idea. European civilisation is the sum of over a thousand years of natural development and renewal. In just the last century the self-confidence of that civilisation has been shaken by the rejection of our collective inheritance. Clark continued in the same lecture, ‘Vigour, energy, vitality, all the great civilisations – or civilising epochs – have had a weight of energy behind them,’ highlighting fifty years ago that our society needs a beating heart to survive. It is self-evident that market forces and the mythology created by many social scientists have no incentive or inclination to reinvigorate, re-energise and revitalise our civilisation.
Nowadays the idea of building with the energy of a young and healthy civilisation is considered an exercise in futility. Beauty is a selling point, not an end in of itself. Monstrosities of glass and concrete are demanded by faux academics and the market supply their needs for utopian projects that undermine our inheritance. Most ordinary people look at these modern buildings and at best they are confused and at worst they are disgusted. The strange forms and cutting-edge designs of modern buildings are built to satisfy the profits of contractors and the pseudo-intellectuals seeking to remake the world. The majority of us that are grateful to inherit the labours of our ancestors see little value in the unsightly monoliths that now fill our towns and cities. If we cannot find energy and self-confidence from the world around us how are we to gift this to our descendants? How can we continue to renew and develop European civilisation if there is less and less to build upon? That is not to say everything new is to be disregarded, far from it. If something new is designed and built to be beautiful and to stand for ages, then it is worth our admiration. The new and beautiful can go on to inspire people to continue the development of our civilisation. If, however, new buildings are designed to the perverted notions of pseudo-intellectuals and built to the impulse of the unthinking market then they are worth only our repudiation.
Photo by Elias Rovielo on Flickr.