Razed to life

May 18, 2016 · 8 min read

Losing our heritage is never easy, but letting go can herald surprising new beginnings

By Julian Baggini

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If cultural vandalism means the deliberate destruction or defacement of a valuable artefact, building or landscape, then there is no greater example of it than our great churches. Take Canterbury Cathedral. By the turn of the first millennium, the church on the site had been demolished and rebuilt at least once already. It was then destroyed by fire in 1067 and rebuilt three years later by the first Norman archbishop, Lanfranc. Priors Ernulf and Conrad refused to leave it alone however, the former pulling down the east end and replacing it, the latter making various additions. When the choir was damaged in 1174, it was not restored but completely remodelled in the new gothic style.

Over the centuries, numerous other changes were made both to the fabric and furnishing of the building. The last major structural alteration came in 1834 when the original Norman north-west tower was demolished and replaced by the Perpendicular-style Arundel Tower. And let us not forget that before there was any building at all, this was a pristine greenfield site.

Go into almost any old church and you will see the same pattern: palimpsests of previous structures embedded in the present one. To understand the architecture is to read the histories the buildings have lived through. Seeing that can help free us from the trap of thinking about the past as though it always existed or came into existence fully formed. We forget that everything old was once new and that many of the things we don’t want ever to change were themselves once ever-changing.

Thinking clearly about this helps us to understand some of the complexities of conservation and cultural identity. We often feel it is important to preserve what we have inherited, but unless we appreciate that we would not even have such an inheritance unless others had been willing to tamper with what they in turn were bequeathed, we cannot understand what is really at stake and what matters.

Few need any persuading that our cultural heritage really does matter. Images of the wanton destruction of old buildings and monuments can be almost as distressing as images of war and disease. When the Taliban blew up the Buddhas of Bamiyan in 2001 or when Isis destroyed the temple at Palmyra earlier this year, it made many of us flinch.

But why should we be so concerned at the passing of bricks and stones? After all, the Buddha himself would surely not have mourned the destruction of his own statue, since he taught non-attachment to all the things of the world. Buddhists or not, we should know that nothing lasts forever and that if it did, we would soon run out of habitable space. And aren’t the values and ideas of the past more precious than its artefacts? Why mourn the passing of mere things when all things pass?

It is certainly true that we should avoid becoming the cultural equivalent of compulsive hoarders. Italy illustrates the problems such a fetish would create. Tourists often shake their heads when they see so many old palazzos crumbling into ruin but the country simply has more historic buildings than it can conceivably maintain. In Rome alone there are columns decaying on roundabouts that would be visitor attractions anywhere else.

In Britain, we are haunted by the thoughtless demolitions of the past, such as the destruction of Euston station’s Doric arches in 1961. But perhaps we now try too hard to hold on to our past in compensation, or perhaps penance. Up to half a million properties are listed in the UK. Can we really expect to preserve them all?

Whatever the value of conservation, it cannot be rooted in the principle that every good thing ought to be conserved. Preserving the past for its own sake is not a tenable ideal. So in order to decide what we should protect, we need a clearer idea of why we ought to protect it.

There are obviously some buildings that are so exceptional they deserve preservation on aesthetic grounds alone. But the issue of conservation extends far beyond ideas of artistic merit. We often protect ruins that have no intrinsic beauty, or even foundations that look to the casual observer to be just more or less random stones in the ground. Often, we want to preserve things simply because they are an important part of our past. Why?

I think that to truly understand what is at stake when we think of our heritage we have to think about what it means for our identity. ‘Identity’ is a tricky concept. It is often used for nefarious purposes by populist leaders who want to divide the virtuous, homogeneous, indigenous ‘us’ from the depraved, diverse, foreign ‘them’. Such identity is defined as much by what it excludes as what it includes.

This kind of reactionary identity is based on a false idea of pure, unchanging essence that is threatened by dilution. History is usually the best antidote to this. Anyone who thinks ‘Britishness’ is eternal, for example, obviously knows nothing of the Normans, Saxons, Vikings and so on who have made us who we are today. We should not, however, rely only on such truths of breeding if we want to challenge essentialist myths, since there are some populations who can claim a reasonably uninterrupted bloodline.

The challenge to the idea of essence comes not so much from blood as culture. Even when the DNA of a people has remained reasonably constant, its culture has not. The Basques, for example, can claim an unusually pure genetic stock, but it has not transmitted the pagan religion, which was superseded by Christianity in the Middle Ages, and neither are most Basques today the farmers and fishermen of yore. Identity is found not so much in the story of what has stayed the same as in the tale of what has changed.

Seeing identity as residing in the narratives we tell about ourselves provides a useful way of thinking about how past, present and future all need to be linked. A good narrative is always moving forwards and in a way that makes sense. Sometimes the tale takes a dramatic turn, sometimes it progresses gently, but it only ever works if it helps maintain the integrity of the whole. Cultural vandalism destroys this integrity. By ripping out pages of the past, the present loses its sense. The previously logical development of character becomes mysterious; events lose their meaning.

Identity understood through narrative is not static but dynamic. The key to having a healthy sense of identity is therefore to strike the right balance between acceptance of change while not having so much of it that the narrative becomes broken. This is what should be informing decisions about what we should preserve and what we should let go. We neither want to try to pickle our inheritance nor cast it carelessly away. Either way we kill it.

But what we also need to remember is that the narrative we preserve is always one that the present generation chooses to tell, and it is always disputed. To let our Victorian mills decay while preserving our Victorian mansions, for example, is to choose to privilege the story of the upper classes over that of ordinary workers. Similarly, we should not celebrate the proud maritime history embodied in the Cutty Sark without also remembering its role in an exploitative colonial trade.

When groups like Isis and the Taliban destroy monuments, they are deliberately trying to erase aspects of their cultures’ pasts, to tell a story in which nothing is worth telling other than that which supports their vision of how things should be now. The erasure of the past is thus a form of erasure of aspects of the current identity, an attempt to remove all its complexities and contradictions and to replace it with something clear, pure and unambiguous.

We don’t need to look to the extremes of terrorist groups to see this dynamic at work. In Turkey there has been great controversy over the restoration of originally orthodox churches in the form they later took under Muslim use. At the centre of this storm is Hagia Sophia, which was first a church, then a mosque and is now a secular monument. At the moment it is a paradigm of the merits of appropriate conservation, revealing to its host nation and the world the complex and true history of the peoples who have lived there and who have formed the country that exists today. But many want it to revert to being a mosque. In a way this is no less ‘authentic’ than the form it takes today. This regressive change, however, would not so much vandalise the building as vandalise the history it represents. It is a way of trying to forge a non-inclusive Turkish identity that conflicts with the more open, fluid and rooted reality.

There is a concern that an emphasis on retaining the past creates a non-inclusive identity, by excluding those whose roots do not go so deep into history, such as recent immigrants. This worry can be dealt with in two ways. First, a genuine history provides a sense of identity that is much greater than any present generation, wherever they were born. The British story, for example, is much bigger than that of any family, no matter how far back it can trace its genealogy. Your ancestor might have fought at Agincourt, for example, but the nation as it stands was built on many more lineages, not least the many waves of immigration that have occurred since that time. Any true sense of history will show that current immigrants are just the latest in a long tradition, each one enriching the national identity, always fluid, never static.

Second, it would be wrong for any sense of identity to be wholly backward-looking. To deny the past is to deny who you are, but so is to neglect the present or ignore what you have the potential to become. That is why new buildings can also quickly become part of the landscape, expressing how present generations see themselves, refreshing and reinventing our identities.

The north-east of England is a good example. The regeneration of the banks of the Tyne in Newcastle and Gateshead has helped forge the latest iteration of the towns’ identities, literally building on their dockside history; while Antony Gormley’s Angel of the North became an instant symbol of a region emerging proud from its fading industrial past.

Like any real human story, however, our identity narrative is not honest if it only includes what is unambiguously good. Perhaps that is why people sometimes want to preserve even long unloved buildings. Take Park Hill in Sheffield, a late-1950s council estate that became synonymous with poverty and decline. It could have been pulled down, but instead it was Grade II listed in 1998 and the city decided to bring in fashionable developer Urban Splash to give it a new lease of life. Now the huge complex provides a visible and meaningful link between past and present; one which allows the city to remember its troubles as well as its glories.

Destruction of the past is not always an act of cultural vandalism. But if our identities are a kind of narrative, then our buildings and landscapes provide the scenery, the visual backdrop for the stories we tell. The question we should ask is therefore whether by adding or taking away from them, we help to tell the story better or ruin it.

Julian Baggini is a philosopher and the author of ‘Freedom Regained’.

This article originally appeared in the RSA Journal Issue 3 2015

RSA Journal

The award-winning RSA Journal is a quarterly publication…

RSA Journal

The award-winning RSA Journal is a quarterly publication for our Fellows, featuring the latest cutting-edge ideas from international writers alongside RSA news. A selection of articles have been reproduced here.


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RSA Journal

The award-winning RSA Journal is a quarterly publication for our Fellows, featuring the latest cutting-edge ideas from international writers alongside RSA news. A selection of articles have been reproduced here.