Monumentum, Autumn 2013

I recently wrote a piece in the Financial Times about the paradox behind our great monuments, those which we regard as the world’s patrimony, a uniting force for our species. Of course, many of them are so monumental precisely because they were built by immensely unfair societies, funded by an imbalance of riches and an acceptance of servitude we wouldn’t tolerate today. For most of history, the wealthiest people have poured their fortunes into personal interests: houses, chapels, gardens and memorials without any consultation or democratic mechanisms. The more money they had, the more conspicuously they spent on self-aggrandisement. So what it is about such buildings, that transforms them from symbols of domination and selfishness into a shared cultural heritage? Perhaps it’s that their investment was realised in expensively crafted materials, with a long-term view.

The people who commissioned these projects seldom saw the results finished: their saplings became great trees for later generations to admire. So what they made was a gift beyond their own lives, a flight of ambition and imagination. That ambition was often accompanied by a wonderful pointlessness. Follies memorialise interests that were soon forgotten. Salisbury Cathedral’s spire contains nothing of any practical purpose – it is expensive, audacious visual poetry. If that investment would seem wrong today, how do we use personal and public money by comparison?

Our drive for efficiency and value makes us quantify everything according to its economic worth. ‘Heritage is central to tourism as the fourth biggest economic sector in the UK’, we hear. But to assess our arts in this way is philistinism. And the denial of poetry in our own contributions to the built environment will leave nothing to celebrate. Until we learn again the responsibility of using our riches to build beautifully with a mind to future generations, we simply have to look after our great historic architecture because its established value remains transcendent. This is just the price of being civilised.

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