The destruction continues with machines crawling and digging and evacuating. A mass of action all seemingly disconnected. For an outsider to the building trade there is little sense of order. All the different machines seem to be doing their own thing, but doing it with some degree of intensity. The holes in the ground seem random; no connection between them. Some round, some square, some with metal sides, others just looking like trenches.
In a similar way the trenches in World War One took on a life of their own as they stretched from Belgium to Switzerland. Maps of the time show an amazingly intricate system of interlocking, parallel trenches. The soldiers at the time made up their own domestic names for their surroundings; they even produced newspapers for the trenches. They made what was, to any rational mind, organizational lunacy into something ordinary and (apart from the rats and casual death) cosy.
Of all the bloody conflicts in the twentieth century – and God knows there were enough of them, the First World War has become a symbol of bloody futility. Penguin published a black covered disturbing paperback called “The Twentieth Century Book of the Dead.” This uncomfortable read pointed out that at the point that it was published (and there were some twenty odd years left of that bloody century) over 100 million people had been violently killed in conflict.
World War Two made World War One look like a picnic in terms of human death, but it is the first ‘great’ war which remains the most powerful symbol of man’s stupid inhumanity to man. The men who fought in the battles of World War One often displayed the most amazingly phlegmatic heroism in spite of the battle plans devised by their superior officers which defy belief. In one of Brecht’s plays one of the characters says that he doesn’t like generals who want their men to be heroes because that means that the General’s plans are going to be risky; whereas generals who expect their men to be cowardly are going to devise plans which by their very nature are going to have to be able to be followed by anyone, including the fearful. These plans are more likely to result in fewer fatalities for the PBI.
And what of Cardiff? All the frantic activity centred on the most expensive real estate in the city. Our only ice skating rink demolished; the Central Library demolished; a multi storey car park demolished; a parade of shops demolished; an open air market demolished; a toy superstore demolished; another parade of shops demolished – all so more shops can be built.
To any reasonable observer the destruction and rebuilding seems to bear all the hallmarks of the worse excesses of rampant capitalism and to have none of the conservation intelligence of normal development.
The Futurist architect Antonio Sant’Elia, whose drawings of futuristic cities now seem amazingly prescient, opined that all buildings should be pulled down on a regular basis so that each new generation could present their ideas through architecture and not be held back by the dead hand of tradition! Although I don’t agree with the idea I can see where he is coming from and there is an ideology behind it.
The rebuilding of the centre of Cardiff has no ideology to underpin its actions except for the making of money. Don’t get me wrong, I think that the advent of John Lewis Partnership is a Good Thing, but it’s not an artistic philosophy. And, while a new quality store in Cardiff is attractive, the fact that a six storey replacement for the Central Library is to be built on a Hotel car park by the redevelopers makes one pause and consider the amounts of money that must be sloshing around this project.
It’s at this point that one begins to think about the description of the Generals and the soldiers in World War One: lions led by donkeys. Certain battles, like the various battles of the Somme, seemed to indicate (to observers with ordinary eyesight and reasonable intelligence) that the heroic actions of the soldiers were futile. But, of course the ordinary soldier did not have the perspective to see the Wider Picture. The real tragedy of the First World War was that there was no wider picture. The strategy of the Generals was as brainless and vicious as it seemed to be to the people who died, senselessly on a daily basis. I share, with my Aunt Bet, a hopeless prejudice against Earl (sic.) Douglas Haig – mainly because his battle plans tried to kill her father and my grandfather – and for us he remains the outstanding example of a General who saw his men as ammunition rather than as sentient human beings.
I feel that the redevelopment of Cardiff is being produced with expensive money. I mean that we, as citizens, will benefit from a revivified city centre; extensive new shopping areas; a new state-of-the-art library and lots of other civil goodies.
I don’t for a moment, compare the planning of the First World War with the planning of the New Cardiff, but I do wonder about the ethos behind the reconstruction of my city.
Who, as is always the question, is paying?