From Rebuilding Europe's Cities
by Herman Charles Bosman
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Now that peace has come to Europe – or has it? – it is not uninteresting to speculate on the faces that the cities of Europe will now be wearing. There will be changes in some of them, of course; and of a quite startling nature, obviously enough.
For one thing, there will be rebuilding to be done and on a scale for which we can find, off-hand, only the word ‘unprecedented’. This applies to a by no means insignificant area of Europe. Cities that have been laid in ruin and for whose reconstruction totally new plans have to be drawn up.
It is to be trusted that the commissionaires of public works in the various countries will apply a measure of imagination to the exercise of their official functions – a difficult task for works commissionaires, whose imaginative powers appear to have declined considerably since the Egyptian dynasty that saw the building of Thebes. At all events, we hope that the works commissionaires, in resurrecting ruins, will distinguish between ancient and modern. We hope that they don’t go erecting pillar-boxes where a Gothic castle used to stand; or replacing the fallen pillars of the Parthenon with steel and concrete structures; or macadamising the Appian Way.
Anyway, it must be a tough job, after a city has been destroyed, to have to build it up all over again – from scratch, as it were. And I bet the new lot of architects and town planners and building contractors will make just about the same mistakes as the old ones did. They will create the same ugliness and the same chaos. It may be difficult to achieve all that – but they will. That much is comforting.
Civic authorities will once more have to wrack their brains in planning the thoroughfares, so as to ensure the creation of bottle-necks and the maximum amount of congestion. They will have to put railway stations in all the wrong places. Law courts will once more have to be constructed to look like museums, town halls to look like town halls, and art galleries to look like gas-works. As a result, the cities of bombed Europe will again become impossible bedlams – and therefore places you can live in.
In a city centrally planned in terms of Utopian conceptions, the soul of man perishes.
The cities of Europe will rise again out of their rubble. Their streets will wind along the banks of the rivers on which they are situated. They will conform with sea-fronts and hills and valleys, and the demands of propertied and privileged interests. And from a peaceful movement, one will again become confronted with a spectacle as violently outre as the Arches of Adelphi. In spite of the planners, life will creep back into the cities. And into the buildings, drama of a kind the architects did not intend.
I believe that the war will have made no difference to the cities of Europe. A city gets its individuality from the people who live there. The streets are torn up, the buildings are destroyed, but the soul of the place remains.
The city in which a genius has lived becomes recreated into something that is more than the inanimate background to his source. The streets he has walked; the scenes amid which the incomprehensible pattern of his life has unfolded; above all, the places where sublime inspiration came to him. It doesn’t matter what happens to such a place, afterwards. That spot on the earth’s surface remains impregnated with a spirit of beauty that is, forever, rich and rare. Take a stroll through the streets of Brussels and you will see what I mean.
The artistic soul of a city is the contribution that genius makes to it. Its incongruities are the things that life brings along: the architects and the city planners and the landowners and human nature. And you can’t do without either influence.
When a city has enough incongruities, I feel that you can live in it.
Above all, a city must have strong and bizarre contrasts. Ermines and rags. Beauty and filth. The sublime and the diabolical. A well conducted night club next door to a perhaps not-so-well conducted morgue.
I have thought of a story that I would like to write someday, when I get the time.
It is about people who live in Johannesburg and people who live, say, in the Marico Bushveld. These two sets of people, those who live in the city flats and those who live on the farm, don’t know each other. They never meet. But life does exactly the same things to each of them. Life is like that. And the story ends with the heroine of this little group of people in the city, smashed into pieces by the things life has done to her, declaring that she can’t stand it any longer: she’s got to get away, somewhere. And the girl on the farm, to whom exactly the same things have happened, says that this has been too terrible. She is going to Johannesburg. What she means is … life.
The difference between the city and the farm is, alas, age-old: the city has gutters.