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A crisis too big to waste

Professor Simon Schama
16 September 2009

Learning from the past will ease our way into the future. So to mark CABE’s 10th anniversary, we invited Professor Simon Schama to talk about what history can teach us from national responses to austerity.

Simon Schama

Simon Schama. Photo by Haraala Hamilton

It is indeed, as Barack Obama said, a crisis so big it would be tragic to waste it.

When I was in Shanghai - a place that appears to be going from euphoric building to instant dereliction without much in between – I was reminded that another word for crisis is opportunity. And the whole of the Obama presidency depends on his ability to flip hysterical pessimism and despair into something that could construct a slightly different social, as well as financial, future.

Our remit around this room is centrally engaged with both the origins of the crisis, and how we might pick up the pieces and construct something different. Because the crisis is about building, and property, and the distribution of money and investment between public and private values. It is about social capital, and the penalties for being part of this great madness of bottom-line, short-term profit-taking.

So it behoves us now to provoke public discussion about the relationship between investment and social result (rather than simply shopping opportunities, for instance: I was at London's Westfield yesterday and I thought only Dante and his circles of Hell could have done justice to the horrendous citadel-like emptiness, in every sense. That’s not what we should be aiming for).

I’ll be going back to my main home, New York, in a couple of days. Driving from the airport to where I live, just north of the City, I’ll pass the woebegone relic of a moment of euphoria in the ‘60s, a kind of picturesque overgrown Piranesi site – namely, the remains of the World Fair on Flushing Meadows in 1964. You’ve all seen it: the enormous empty allegorical sphere of the world; the weird remains of what were once futurist metallic structures. That whole site was allowed to rot and decay without any sense of it having further use, of how it might be turned over to the next generation, except as baseball parks.

I want to come back at the end of my remarks to the great strides made over here: think of St Pancras, think of Tate Modern. But we also need to continue to think about how places that might be written off, or allowed to turn into empty carapaces, can be given a new lease of life.

We’ve been here before (here’s the History Man starting, I’m afraid). There have been other moments, particularly in the history of London, when a disaster has actually provided an opportunity, a crisis too big to waste.

One such moment was the Great Fire of London in 1666. Sir Christopher Wren was preoccupied with the imminent collapse, as he saw it, of old St Paul’s and had already been thinking about how it might be remade. Not just as a standalone building, but as the centrepiece of a different kind of London, a , classical London, not just something that would represent the pompous authority of princes and prelates.

You probably all know the drawings – they’re very beautiful – of a London that never was to be, and perhaps never should be. A series of piazzas are connected by radial spokes, the main one from the newly-built baroque St Paul’s.

It would be a London for a crowded public as well as for aristocrats and churchmen – a tantalising possibility, since Wren was in Paris in 1665, the same year as Bernini.

Bernini knew that the Piazza Navona had been built by Domitian as a place for public entertainment and had been flooded for celebrations. And his idea was to make the Piazza Navona – with its peculiar ovoid shape – a place not just overlooked by palaces and the great church of Sant’Agnese, but a place of hucksters, shopkeepers, public entertainments, festivals and processions. And through the great Fountain of the Four Rivers, he more or less had his way.

Sir Christopher Wren had something like that idea too. He struggled with money, and there were many crises in the 1660s: the Dutch invasion of the Medway, the plague. All sorts of monsters grew. But above all, Wren spoke the lingo of royal society, of grand men of science. And what he had to cope with were local authorities – the Chapter of St Paul’s, who said that’s all very well, but we shopkeepers aren’t going to have our property pulled down. The Guilds must have their place. What is this Greek church you’re designing, with a central pulpit? We hate that. It’s the Church of England, remember: we do ceremonial processions. We need the nave.

And Wren built the church he could build. It wasn’t the church of his new London.

That’s happened many times in London’s history. Maybe it happened after the Blitz. But most interestingly for us is the crash of 1825, when a speculative building boom went kaploom!

It followed one of the great building expansions in London to take place in tough times, during the Napoleonic War, a kind of trade blockade. We’re sitting in one of the houses built by a pupil of Sir John Soane, a man called John Sanders. He built the Duke of York’s Headquarters [the Saatchi Gallery, King’s Road] in 1801 as an asylum for the orphans of soldiers killed in battle. A grandiose, classical façade, only the best.

So before the crash of 1825, we’re talking about an amazing neo-Wrenian confidence on the part of people like John Nash and Robert Adam and, to some extent, John Soane. Confidence that this new London (the relic of which is Regent Street and a little bit of the Nash terraces around Regent’s Park) would again combine grace, power and social value. It would be the English way to connect the walking, shopping public with grand and elevating monuments.

Come the crash, Thomas Cubitt – who had been the great plenipotentiary builder – almost hit the wall, and many others did. There was a sudden screech of brakes. This pause in the dizzy notion that London at last would be the classical city of the dreams of someone like Christopher Wren may not have been such a bad thing.

Here’s what happened. In 1825, banks went down like ninepins - six huge ones, including the bank of Henry Thornton, and 60 banks in England. Total, absolute terror in the finance markets. And income tax had been abolished in 1816. So no money in this alliance of private and public capital.

A real shift and rethink takes place. Instead of continuing the great national idea on that axial round Regent’s Park and down Regent Street, money was diverted into sewers. Cholera was just starting to hit, and hit very hard at the end of the 1820s. Money was diverted into better gas lighting and into new streets in notoriously infested rookery areas in central London, west London and where the East End meets the City. Not just out of a sense of grandiose social benevolence and visionary altruism, but because this was the place where cholera was most likely to cause an absolutely catastrophic epidemic.

Although the grand notion of boulevards and so on was scrapped, there are still some monuments from that time. When the Houses of Parliament burned down, there’s a real public debate about what the replacement should look like, ending up with the victory, of course, of Pugin and Barry and the Gothic masterpiece we have now. Because Gothic was thought to be connected with a purer, sweeter past, the late medieval Christian past, in which people and power were somehow mysteriously and magically combined together for social happiness. That may have been a dream, but it produced a rather wonderful piece of architecture.

But if I had to pick one scheme that reflects the shift of values at that time, in the late 1820s, it would be Hampstead Heath. The gentleman owner of a large part of the Heath was going to sell it for street development and building construction, and it was then that a weird combo of romantic luvvies, like Coleridge and his colleagues, and gentlemen sitting in the House of Commons, began to turn airy-fairy romantic rhetoric into a rhetoric of social community.

The ‘lungs of London’ became somewhere to breathe a different climate from the cholera threat and filth of the rookeries. But the Heath was also a place that could be given to London, and to the country, for the people. A place to come on Sundays.

So the Hampstead Heath that I grew up with began to be created in a moment of extreme crisis. It took a campaign over a period of 20, 30, 40 years before it was declared to be fully public property.

The Hampstead Heath story can point towards the future if we pause and ask how we can flip the crisis into something else, in the way in which they did at the end of the 1820s.

And this is probably stating the obvious, but the Victorians would have said that the catastrophe we brought on ourselves was partly down to a cult of individual self-enrichment, of a romantically dizzy kind. And this needs to be replaced.

So, consider how we might cut off our nose to spite our face by starving funding for parks and public projects and public places.

We need to consider above all developing a culture of more mutual interdependence, a culture of social community. That, in his eloquent way, is what Barack Obama says he wants to do – whether he does it or not, we’ll see. He did grow up on the South Side of Chicago politically doing exactly that. He wants us to see that there was another America out there, that was not just about ‘greed is good’.

Secondly, of course, is ecological sustainability. To which I would again connect – in a Hampstead Heath parable-like way – the need for us to be hunting for places like Battersea Power Station, or the afterlife of the great Olympic project. In other words, places and spaces that somehow can be given a transfusion of new social energy, multi-generational social energy, while preserving economic viability.

St Pancras is an absolute triumph in that respect. Not just because it’s a beautiful station, and works, and is light. But because of the gentle Piazza Navona-like social commotion in that glorious shed. That’s what we should be hunting for.

Old buildings, or buildings that might turn into derelict skeletons like Flushing Meadows, are worth having a vision for.

Not just because it might be cheaper, or because people somehow have a shared sense of what might be. (And here it’s Schama the historian talking, bitter and furious about history dying in schools). It’s my deep, instinctive belief that all children are wired for memory and narrative. Children want to be part of buildings that talk about where they have come from. They want to walk and live in those kind of places. And take their own children to them.

And on that soppy note, I will conclude.

Professor Simon Schama gave this lecture at an event to mark CABE’s tenth anniversary on 16 September 2009.