If you went to the National Gallery and tore up a Titian, you’d be arrested. But what about blowing up a historic building which has defined a place and its people; a building in which sweet nothings have been uttered and lives altered? Go for it! It’s strange how our attitudes to destroying art and destroying architecture are so different.
“I don’t make didactic films, but if there’s one implicit lesson [in my new one], it’s that one should hang around before one destroys stuff,” reckoned Jonathan Meades, when I spoke to him recently about his new documentary celebrating the “concrete poetry” of mid-20th century Brutalism, which is on BBC4 next month. “People are beginning to see the merits of Brutalism – even as it’s being destroyed,” he lamented.
Meades is right – and I’m not just thinking about the recent architectural hara-kiri we’ve committed on our best 1960s buildings, such as Portsmouth’s Tricorn shopping centre. In the 1960s it was neo-Gothic that was thought “ugly” and Leeds, Chester, Glasgow and the others replaced whole swathes of Victoriana with huge new roads. Ugliness is not a fixed notion – it’s a faddish one.
Art has found itself similarly threatened in the past, of course, as was explored in Tate Britain’s recent Art Under Attack exhibition about British iconoclasm. But what about the future? If we smash up “bad” buildings, will we also then start torching Damien Hirst’s complete works as “bad” art? Unfortunately, probably not: most art, even the rubbish, is preserved and most buildings, especially the best ones, are not. In fact, only 2 per cent of British buildings are listed.
Oddly, our attitude towards preserving public art falls between art and architecture – like architecture, it’s permissible to destroy it; like art, there’s outrage when we do. In October, for example, Kenneth Budd’s beautiful mosaic commemorating the 1839 Chartist Rising in Newport, Gwent, was demolished by the local council, provoking the ire of Hollywood actor and local lad Michael Sheen. Fellow campaigner Stephanie Roberts, an artist, said: “To destroy a monument as powerful as this is pure disrespect.”
We shouldn’t preserve everything in aspic. Times change. But demolition is often a farce, with decisions made by people who know nothing about architecture. That’s because it’s often an expression of power too; ultimately, some men just love to swing their wrecking balls.