Who is the bigger threat today: a Nazi war criminal or a British town planner?
Architectural crimes against humanity
By Quentin Langley
Dateline 12 October 2000
Americans may not be fully aware of the measures that your government has in place to protect them from international terrorists and Nazi war criminals. Anyone applying for a visa to enter the US is forced to check “yes” or “no” to the following probing question:
“Are you wanted for any crimes against humanity committed in Germany or its occupied territories between 1933 and 1945?”
Important as this question undoubtedly is, you would think it might occur to people in the administration that anyone who has successfully evaded Simon Wiesenthal for 60 years is probably as experienced in telling lies as any western politician.
They say honesty is the best policy, but plainly there are circumstances in which it isn’t. “Are you a war criminal?” “Yes, I am wanted in connection with the murder of 100,000 Jews, gays, Slavs and other Untermenschen”. Honesty has not worked in eking these people out so far. Are they relying on senility?
It seems pretty unlikely that this question, or the one asking if the applicant is carrying any controlled narcotics, has turned up any results. In fact, I wonder what would happen to anyone who declared their occupation as “revolutionary terrorist” or “heroin smuggler”.
These silly questions have been around for a while. A century ago the comic songwriter, W S Gilbert, entered the US despite answering the question “Is it your intention to overthrow the government of the United States by force?” with the words “Sole purpose of visit”. His application for a visa was not rejected because there was no procedure for dealing with people who answered yes. I don’t suppose that there is today, though I am not brave enough to test the theory by declaring that I am a Nazi war criminal, drug dealer or terrorist.
There are better questions that people could ask, where the answer that will get you through the door is not so apparent.
How about: “Are you now or have you ever been employed as an architect or town planner in the UK?” Anyone who answers yes to this question should most certainly be put on trial for crimes against humanity. You didn’t know that? You thought that the UK had nice architecture? You are right. But none of the people who designed the buildings you fly the Atlantic to admire is still alive. It is a terrible thing about the UK that all the architects who deserve to be alive are dead, and vice versa.
Until I visited Los Angeles I though that this was just the way of things. I did not realise there was such a thing as attractive modern architecture, at least not for domestic use. All modern houses in the UK are either nasty little boxes or built in some retro style: mock Georgian or mock Victorian. Whole streets, estates, or in the case of Milton Keynes, towns are built to the same wretched design.
The striking modern styles of Los Angeles, especially the beachfront houses of Venice and Santa Monica, took my breath away. I spent more time photographing the houses than I did the equally exciting architecture of the beach volleyball players.
The funny thing is that Americans seem to take all this beauty for granted – the houses, I mean, the Beach Boys have adequately made the point about the women. Throughout my stay in LA people urged me to visit San Francisco. Apparently I was going to love the Victorian houses. I don’t suppose I sounded terribly excited at the prospect, but on visiting there I did wander over give them a quick glance. YAWN! Every town in Britain has Victorian houses, apart from Bath and Milton Keynes: both of them samey, theme park towns. Of the two, Bath is slightly more pleasant, being entirely Regency in style, but it lacks the higgle and the piggle of living cities.
If you are visiting the UK there is one other aspect of British architecture you should look out for and, again, I only became aware of it travelling abroad. On visiting Gothenburg in Sweden I said to myself “this reminds me of Brighton”, which was odd. Why should a major industrial port in Sweden remind me of seaside holiday resort on the South coast of England? The answer is simple: neither of them was bombed. Every industrial city or port in the UK has whole areas that were rebuilt in the 40s and 50s after being flattened by the Luftwaffe. Plymouth, Southampton and Bristol, which, historically, have far more in common with Gothenburg than Brighton does, were devastated in the war. Mile after mile of these cities was reduced to rubble. But they are living cities, and they were soon rebuilt, modern buildings fitting around those that survived from previous centuries, all the way back to medieval times. If Milton Keynes were ever bombed, I am not sure anyone would bother to rebuild it.
Copyright (C) Quentin Langley 12 October 2000