I will wager that every visitor to London gazes in awe and wonder at our great buildings.
Tourists slow in the streets to take photographs and queue to visit the Palace of Westminster, Westminster Abbey, our other palaces, churches and cathedrals and – for the especially discerning visitor – Legal London and Temple Church.
The façades of these buildings are stunning and their beauty is of intrinsic importance. The façade of a building is its ‘face’, and therefore a mirror image of the best hopes of those who build it. The British people desired to see imagination, magnificence, beauty, strength and the divine in the buildings they devoted to God, law and those who held the highest offices in the land.
Some of these buildings are hundreds of years old, some nearly one thousand. Remarkably, parts of the Tudor walls of Legal London are constructed with wattle and daub. The very idea of legal justice must be the invisible mortar glueing together the fragile centuries-old horsehair and mud; all of it standing for our unwritten constitution.
Some buildings are not faring well. Parliament is in a particular state of disrepair. According to one report, officials are spending £2 million a week patching up crumbling masonry and leaky roofs. MPs are apparently unable to decide how to protect the building.
The decrepitude is even more obvious ‘backstage’. If you go for a meeting in Parliament it is not what you might expect. It can involve picking your way past puddles, weaving through scaffolding and yellow cones and dodging drips. You would welcome a hard hat – not for the political volleys, but for potential debris you might fear coming at you from a height.
The deterioration of Parliament serves as the perfect metaphor for the decay of the democracy it houses. British values are just about holding up with scaffolding, just like our buildings.
We are struggling to maintain the literal façade of democracy while we know it leaks, festers and rots within. The outer and the inner are inseparable. As Roger Scruton said: “There is a deep human need for beauty, and if you ignore that need in architecture, your buildings will not last, since people will never feel at home in them.”
The dismal disarray mirrors the way we as a society have ceased to value the ideas and institutions that the buildings house. These buildings are not just visitor attractions, or places to do the business of politics, they are extensions of the nation’s soul. We have not been good caretakers of our values. Too late, we realise the house is falling around our ears. Liberty moulders in the basement.
MPs do not know whether to move into new buildings while the repairs are conducted. The procrastination and confusion are unsurprising. Dame Meg Hillier, the Labour MP and chairwoman of the committee responsible for the restoration works, described the project as one of repair to an “iconic world heritage site” (my emphasis). This project should be as much about the construction of our future as it is about the restoration of our heritage. We have forgotten how to dream for our descendants. The present course of action would be clearer if there was a path to the future.
And nothing could be more fearsome than the thought of the current set of officials planning the important buildings of the future. Modernity has so far resulted in skyscrapers emerging like dark teeth out of the London landscape and the wind whistling through glazed corridors which mirror the emptiness back and forth.
The problem is not confined to London and Great Britain. Scruton described Venice as “a lasting work of the religious imagination, a vision of eternity rising like Venus from the sea”. Well, Venice is not rising, it is, in fact, sinking. ‘La Serenissima’ was the envy of the world for a thousand years, but is now a theme park to nostalgia, weighed down by millions of tourist footsteps, the streets ringing with American, English, Chinese voices, any language except Italian. In 2009 local protestors held a mock funeral in despair at the dramatic decline of the Venetian population.
The Houses of Parliament needs fixing, but you cannot successfully fix the façade or the function of the building until you are clear about its foundations. Standing and marvelling at carvings, windows and doors is pointless if you do not marvel at the aspirations that resulted in them.
Don’t underestimate the vastness of the renovation needed in our moral and philosophical foundations. The work may not be finished in our lifetimes. Some of the most ambitious plans were drawn by architects who knew they would never see their buildings finished. We must muster the dedication to dream for descendants.
Whatever we repair, design and build must have strong foundations, constructed from democracy, liberty, prosperity, morality and beauty, as much as stone and earth. Then the buildings will be beautiful and they will last. We must all be architects and custodians.
Laura Dodsworth is the author of the Sunday Times bestseller A State of Fear: how the U.K. Government weaponised fear during the COVID-19 pandemic. This article first appeared on her Substack page, which you can subscribe to here.
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