A post from the ugly city of Rome

St Peter's Basilica is a big thing

I am in Rome this weekend visiting someone and if there is one thing I am learning on this trip, it is that people like to build big things. Or more accurately, they like to get other people to build big things for them. It doesn’t matter what it is – temples, churches, stadiums, monuments, anything really – if you can build it big, you should, goes this school of thought.

Presumably this is so that at parties you can drop into conversation that you built this big thing, and the other person goes, “Yeah, I saw that. Man I was impressed. I mean, it was really…big.” And you can shrug nonchalantly and go, “Yeah, it’s pretty big.”

The people ruling Britain are currently involved in building lots of big things for the Olympics so it is evident to everyone that the desire to do it hasn’t gone away. We are taught to admire this tendency: everywhere we go in the world we are told by the guidebooks and by the version of history we learn to go and look at the big things. Look at the Pyramids. Look at Angkor Wat. Look at Machu Picchu. Look at St Paul’s Cathedral.

Most people reading this post probably think that the people who decided to place a bunch of white elephants in a poor part of London are dicks. So I was thinking about the fact that these tourist sites all over the world were built by the dicks of their day. They represent the history of people I would hate. The history of the people who were ordered to fund and build them is largely unknown and can rarely be read in the big things themselves.

There are many prices to be paid for this obsession with big things. One price in Rome is that it is, by and large – and this is going to come as a shock to those who’ve never visited or who’ve only been to the centre – a horribly ugly city. In the centre is a large open-air museum, the historic centre. Around is a bunch of low-rise concrete blocks. Further out still are vast landscapes of brutal concrete blocks jammed together stretching for miles and miles. This is where most people live.

If all the people who built big things in Rome for the last two and half thousand years had instead turned the resources over to its inhabitants to build lots of little things – i.e. decent homes – Rome would be a much nicer city. I’m pretty sure the same could be said about Stratford.

Is it worth being bothered by the tourists sights we now visit? The slavery that built the pyramids was a long time ago I suppose. But I wonder if most people notice that the history they are taught at school is not the history of people like them (unless you go to a top public school, in which case, top marks to you) because it is the history of the people who like to build big things.

I feel like it should be a matter of self-respect for people to reject the notion that those building the Olympic Park are ‘better’ than them, and it should be a matter of self-respect to reject the idea those civilisations and peoples who built big things are better in any way than the civilisations and the people who didn’t – some of whom didn’t because they couldn’t, and some of whom didn’t because, like me, they would think it crass, an incredibly poor use of resources, and an abuse of the people who had to pay for and build the big things.

Perhaps what I’m saying is – and some people might think this a stretch but I think it’s worth thinking about – if we didn’t let ourselves be conned into admiring the pyramids on the grounds they were a ‘great’ achievement, rather than admitting they are really stupid, maybe people would protest a bit more when a small bunch of people decide to build an Olympic Park in a capital with a need for low-cost housing.

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One Response to A post from the ugly city of Rome

  1. tim says:

    I like to visit castles. But I do this in the full knowledge of what they were. I think it helps me spot where the castle walls are now. I went to a Victorian prison once. That was very enlightening; state brutality so often hidden now, displayed as a virtue.

    It seems to me, that the enormous erections of architects may have more to do with their own desire for some kind of immortality or influence beyond the extent of their own existence. The pyramids are after-all intimately entangled with the afterlife as are a whole bunch of the building in Rome.

    People (well, most people I think) don’t go to Auschwitz to be impressed by the technical achievements of the architect…

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