Architecture – The City and Aesthetic Double-Standards

Asking someone at what point does something like a stretch of wall go from being ‘distressed’ to being tired and run-down is a bit like asking at what point does a fish finger become a goujon.

I recently saw two photographic prints on a wall somewhere. One showed a side street in Britain that had been colonised by an adjacent coffee shop. Everything in it was new and the space was clean and free of traffic. The other showed a crowded side street in Rome into which all the tables and chairs of nearby restaurants had overflown. The latter was visually somehow more attractive despite virtually everything in it being what we would call ‘tired’ or ‘run down’ and with cars and scooters parked haphazardly nearby. If the latter image was more inviting – why was that? I have no doubt that if one had looked at it in a British setting we would have considered it too downmarket and would have blanked it out without thinking twice. Whereas when we are abroad we switch off our snooty, class-bound obsessions with things having to look clean or new and instead find them ‘enchanting’ and or (worse) ‘authentic’.

cityThis aesthetic double-standard is nowhere better seen than in Italy. For here the tables and chairs of some restaurant will get routinely thrown down some nearby alley – seemingly the more uncompromising and dodgy-looking the better – and hey presto queues instantly form to eat at them. I don’t think it’s entirely due to a pressing need for more al fresco dining space either. So why do we willingly suspend our critical faculties? Is it simply because we are on holiday and we like to be seen to be eating amongst the natives? Is this why we sit down in confined spaces that are really nothing more than an access lane for nearby flats or some left-over space not used for parking or deliveries and are happy to do it. You eat while kids fizz past on scooters and walk around lazily parked cars that form an extra pedestrian hazard. We do not see the graffiti or if we do we consider it appropriate for the setting. The worst of it will look as if Cy Twombly had beguiled away an hour or so sketching on the damp-dappled walling. Whatever it is it will not resemble the hastily-scrawled images of male genitalia of an improbable size that would undoubtedly be the case in GB. The fact that the render seems to be parting company with most of the walls will be ok too. This is Italy after all; anyway if it peels off there will probably be some historic feature beneath to look at. That or an arresting multiplicity of textures and finishes that some sensitive soul will think calls to mind the paintings of Jackson Pollock or Mark Rothko. Or if the paint finish is really bad the dribbled colour field paintings of Morris Louis. I’ve seen sections of walling in places like Rome, Sorrento and Naples that you wouldn’t stand someone in front of to be shot by a firing squad. And yet tourists take lovingly composed ‘texture studies’ (as photographers call them) of lengths of wall where nothing more than an admixture of powerful light, suffocating summer heat and fifty years of sheer neglect will produce images with a photographic haze of granular colour produced by simple weathering*. And what’s more the result looks convincing. A bit like a watercolour which is slowly fading away as the paint flakes off having been painted a century ago on a sheet of really old Whatman paper.

cityBy contrast I could show you sections of walling in one of the old working class suburbs of Swansea that are really full of history. Not that you’d recognise them as such. If not wholly then they are partially composed of an odd black rocky material that at times looks like a crude brick, at others like a modern breeze block like and sometimes just an amorphous craggy mass. Interwoven with them will be 20thcentury red bricks, concrete blocks plus some odds and ends of the local Pennant sandstone. By an annoying aesthetic double-standard the whole ensemble will not merit a second look and the visitor will hurry past. Is it because here (i.e. in the UK) it will register as something jerry-built and inelegant. In reality the dull black rocky stone fill of air holes and misshapen is probably 175+ years old and is slag extracted from the copper smelting process which made Swansea such a key port of the Industrial Revolution in the period 1730-1850. Not wanting to waste anything produced as a by-product of smelting, the Victorian copper masters created moulds and formed the slag into an early primitive form of breeze block which they used in walls and for coping stones. Such slag block walling is literally part of the industrial fabric of Swansea and has comfortably survived more than a century and a half of cold, wet Welsh winters. Perhaps it is just too authentic for comfort.

Perhaps it is the bucolic light of the Mediterranean and the heat taken with the relaxed attitude of the natives that convinces us to go along with all the untidy randomness of it all. What is ‘run-down’ in Britain is merely ‘distressed’ in Italy. Is it because we subconsciously think of Italy – Rome in particular – as one big inhabitable ruin? Hence we see it as a heritage destination that you can eat and sleep in, therefore the ‘managed decline’ all around you is in reality window dressing elevated to the level of lifestyle choice.

You walk down narrow lanes festooned with washing that hangs from fragile-looking balconies above you like surreal bunting and find it charming rather than squalid. But then you don’t have to live there. Visually-intrusive air-conditioning units sit on rackety metal brackets sucking in warm air and converting it into the cool variety for the benefit of inhabitants that one never glimpses. One never speculates on what the rooms look like beyond the façade – after why should you – it’s only a façade to be looked at literally en passant. Downpipes descend from guttering and mysteriously stop at first floor level as if they have been arbitrarily snapped off – which they probably have. Tellingly, street-level doors usually have hefty metal shutters and windows have wrought-iron grilles attached to them. At night one imagines the ambience of such alleys would change significantly. During the day they are usually indirectly lit by a half-light that falls in an unplanned way from light wells created by the randomly generated planform of adjacent apartment buildings. Sunlight kisses walls painted in a shrewd range of earthy ochres that will hold their colour intensity even in low light levels.

In the UK we would employ greys or (in a final loss of nerve and taste) mealy-mouthed shades of magnolia that only works to make matters worse. By an odd lapse of taste in Italy the only task lighting (if it can be called that) comes from street lamps which are – strange to relate – invariably of a cod Victorian kind. That’s to say the supporting bracket has a wrought-iron filigree appearance and the light itself is housed within a ‘coaching lantern’-type design. The net effect is what I would call ‘garden centre Gothic’ because that’s where it looks like it came from. I find this cultural lapse of taste odd; as one of the delights of roaming around old Italian cities is the way they integrate the modern with four hundred year-old palazzos or churches. I’m sure the majority of visitors don’t pick up on this because they simply accept everything they see. But then so much is taken for granted i.e. if it is in Italy it must be stylish. I don’t believe that to be true.

It is very difficult to pin down the point at which ‘distressed’ becomes ‘run-down’. Perhaps it is the snug scale (for snug read small) of such places, the ‘friendly’ colours or the constant press of people all partaking of the same experience that makes them work and feel acceptable. Maybe it’s also the apparent ‘naturalness’ or lack of artifice of the environment around you that convinces you to go along with everything and not be put off. That ‘slackness’ translates as cool, a quality which everyone inevitably aspires to (not that they would admit to it) and the lure of the picturesque does the rest.

And you are on holiday after all.


*I’m guilty of this all the time.