Of Florence, the temples of Kyoto, the...

THE SPLENDORS

October 18, 1993

THE SPLENDORS of Florence, the temples of Kyoto, the spires of the Kremlin encourage us to believe that in other times the "built environment," as architects call it, was ennobling of human beings. But these are only the happy survivors and exceptions. The worst cities have been as ugly and oppressive as anything we live among today. Here is Charles Dickens in 1854, evoking a factory town in "Hard Times:"

"Coketown . . . was a triumph of fact; it had no . . . taint of fancy in it. . . .

"It was a town of red brick, or of brick that would have been red if the smoke and ashes had allowed it; but as matters stood it was a town of unnatural red and black like the painted face of a savage. It was a town of machinery and tall chimneys, out of which interminable serpents of smoke trailed themselves forever and ever, and never got uncoiled. It had a black canal in it, and a river that ran purple with ill-smelling dye, and vast piles of building full of windows where there was a rattling and trembling all day long, and where the piston of the steam-engine worked monotonously up and down, like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness. It contained several large streets all very like one another, and many small streets still more like one another, inhabited by people equally like one another, who all went in and out at the same hours, with the same sound upon the same pavements, to do the same work, and to whom every day was the same as yesterday and tomorrow, and every year the counterpart of the last and the next."

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