October 19, 2003


Nasty, brutish and on credit: Theodore Dalrymple has discovered Britain's spiritual centre, and finds it ugly, aimless and noisy (The Spectator, 9/20/03)

The unutterably hideous Bull Ring (on the site of which there has been a market for 800 years) has been torn down, except for the Rotunda -- a horrible 1960s monument to British architects' incessant search for originality in the absence of taste or imagination -- which has been preserved by the kind of criminals who allowed it to be built in the first place, in the hope that by doing so their own lack of taste and imagination will be justified or overlooked. The only suitable penalty for the architects, town-planners and city councillors of the Birmingham of the 1960s is death.

A vast modern shopping centre that has been erected on the site is meretriciousness made flesh, or rather breezeblock, steel and glass. As one
would expect, the buildings lack overall unity of conception and do not blend in any pleasing manner: they are rather the architectural equivalent
of MTV, a series of images that arbitrarily succeed one another. They are buildings for people without a concentration span.

It is hardly surprising that the buildings are meretricious: planning permission demands that they have a lifespan of only 30 years, after which
they may be pulled down and something else equally transient erected in their place. (Birmingham's Central Library, a preternaturally ugly and
uncleanable inverted step pyramid of concrete, which replaced the magnificent and thoughtlessly demolished Victorian library, is to be pulled
down after about 30 years.) This is not the way to build a civilised city. Selfridges & Company's new department store, which gives on to the thoroughfare called Digbeth, is now known locally by some as the Digbeth Dalek, on account of its wavy external wall of blue punctuated by large silvery buttons. There isn't anything else like it in the world, nor should there be: uniqueness in art or architecture is no guarantee of merit or virtue in itself, and in the hands of British architects is usually a guarantee of their very opposite. [...]

Shopping -- in the sense of the ceaseless search for the next object that will thrill for a moment and satisfy for a minute -- is the main interest of
people without purpose. The problem with the British is that they are not even very good at shopping, just as they are not very good at their other
passion, football, to judge by the results. For to be good at shopping requires discrimination, which itself requires some mental cultivation. And
it is precisely the lack of this that makes British shops (on the whole -- of course, there are exceptions) so deeply dispiriting. [...]

Of course, crime is never far away in Britain. The British being a nation of shoplifters, security guards were everywhere: you could tell them by their dark glasses and their earpieces and microphones connected to a command centre somewhere, looking like hi-tech Tontons Macoutes.

After ten years living in central NH, and despite having grown up in Northern NJ, on my yearly visit to the Mall it has struck me that it is where peoples' souls go to die.

Posted by Orrin Judd at October 19, 2003 6:48 AM

"...it has struck me that it is where peoples' souls go to die."

Thanks for saying that - it is something I have noticed for at least 15 years. Atlanta (where I live) is nothing if not a paean to malls and strip malls.

Posted by: Bruce Cleaver at October 19, 2003 8:04 AM

One area of life where I can't decide at all whether my free market presumptions should prevail is urban planning. Obviously the market gives us lots of abominations, but then developers tend to blame municipal planning, safety and other regulations etc. State planning and control delivers gawdawful low cost housing developments and spaghetti freeways that destroy neighbourhoods, but also historical preservation and the beauty of Paris, Ottawa and New England. The market gives us strip malls, garish neon, but also pleasing traditional communities.

All of which I presume shows that good taste transcends economics.

Posted by: Peter B at October 19, 2003 8:43 AM

Don't underestimate the arrogance of modern architects, and their ceaseless quest to discover some original design principles that cannot be traced to any traditional forms. We should acknowledge that the height of architectural excellence was acheived during the classical Roman period, and not try to fool ourselves that there is some mine of architectural gold yet to be discovered.

Posted by: Robert D at October 19, 2003 10:49 AM

I'm beginning to get a little disillusioned with Dalrymple since he all he does is whinge at how bad things are like an old fogey who's constantly complaining everything was better when he was a lad.

And it'd be hard to have a worse area than the Bull Ring so thank God they're replacing it and are giving Britain's most underrated city someplace decent to shop.

Posted by: M Ali Choudhury at October 19, 2003 1:45 PM

Most American cities would be glad to have
as much charm as Birmingham.

Posted by: J.H. at October 20, 2003 2:06 PM

Malls are where people's souls go to get an Orange Julius.

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at October 21, 2003 2:01 AM