The Bridge on the River Kwai

I was reading an article about the 1974 V&A exhibition about the Destruction of the Country House. It cited a Guardian review of the time, to the effect that why should we care that the houses of wealthy (or once wealthy) aristocrats are falling down or are being demolished?

This is a version of the ideological fallacy that has caused the destruction of Palmyra and the Bamiyan sculptures. That is, that because you don’t like the people who once owned something you should destroy it (or allow it to decay). Art historians—especially New Art Historians—are prone to this fallacy too, even if they do not advocate destruction. They prepare the way for destruction by collapsing the work of art to the ideology of the person or persons who commissioned it or (first) owned it. Even the contextualism of most art history today does so as well, because, in denying that there is anything transcendent or universal in a work of art, it reduces that work to the culture that produced it. Caravaggio is the Counter-Reformation Catholic Church, which is the root cause of child abuse today. So much for Caravaggio.

The counter-argument is a Ruskinian one, best illustrated by The Bridge on the River Kwai. In this movie by David Lean based on the book by Pierre Boulle the English senior officer (played by Alec Guinness) in charge of building a bridge on the Burma Railway in WW2 with the slave labour of prisoners-of-war at immense cost in suffering and death, tries to prevent the destruction of the bridge by the gung-ho American commando (William Holden). (I have not seen this film since I was a teenager, but it made an impression on me then, which I hope is accurate.) Holden sees it only as a military target to be destroyed; Guinness sees it as something of value that he and his men have created.

The dynamic of the story has you wanting to see the bridge destroyed; the story would fall flat if it wasn’t. But the amazing long tracking shot at the end puling away from the destroyed bridge up the river bed conveys the poignancy of the situation. I am on Guinness’s side in this one because, although in the story’s future, it is good that the bridge should be destroyed, because this destruction advances our—the Allies’—cause, in the story’s present the destruction is a bad thing. It is bad because the labour of the men who built the bridge, and the lives of those who died building it, was in vain. Their labour and sacrifice is worthless, because what they created has been destroyed. The fact that their labours were in support of the Japanese war effort is beside the point; it was labour to create something of intrinsic value. The awareness of this, and the conflict it presents with his official duties, is what destroys Guinness’s character.

In other words, we should not be thinking just of the owners of these buildings, but of their creators: the artisans and labourers and everyone else who contributed to it. To destroy a country house is to render worthless the lives of those who laboured to create it. Just because a building is the product of a social order of which we do not approve does not mean that this is all it is. Those who built it may have been ‘oppressed’, but they may also have been proud of what they helped to create. Even the labourers on the Pyramids were not just abstract economic units: they were human beings whose lives were as nothing if they did not believe that their labour, however menial, was not directed to the creation of something worthwhile.

As I have indicated, this is a Ruskinian argument. For Ruskin, the hierarchical nature of the enterprise was not the problem—the fact that the ‘beneficiary’ was a pharaoh, a king, an aristocrat, a Cecil Rhodes or even a Hitler; what was important was the labourer should be less and less a slave and more and more a creative artist. One sees this in building Montacute. While the tradies involved may sometimes be puzzled as to what it is all about, to a greater or lesser degree they take pride in being involved in something that is of value by being unusual and visually interesting. They may not be at the top of the hierarchy but neither are they ciphers. And if I, at the top of the hierarchy, should turn out to be a paedophile or something worse, why should this be taken out on the building? Why should their contribution be rendered valueless for what I have done or what I am?

It may seem that this line of argument means that nothing can ever be destroyed, not even a building of little value, assuming we can agree on what that might mean. We would be less sympathetic to Guinness’s plight if the bridge on the River Kwai were not a marvellous replica of the Forth Bridge, but something much more mundane, as indeed the bridges that inspired it actually were. And buildings reach the end of their lives, so that even their creators would recognise that it is time for them to go. But we destroy what others (or even we ourselves) have created at our peril. Unlike Britain in 1974, destruction in Australia is not the result of the decaying monuments of a declining aristocratic order being given a final push by class hatred, but of an even more destructive ideology: the belief that money is the only value. My parents’ house, a postwar house is a soft modernist style, was instantly destroyed by its purchaser, even though it was structurally more than sound, quite good looking, stylistically coherent in the extension my parents added, and easily capable of extension or redevelopment. It was simply cheaper to demolish it and built a house with a bigger floor area in inferior materials rather than adapt it, let alone preserve it. This is happening all over Melbourne, particularly in the Eastern suburbs (Belmore Road is a prime site), including the well-known case of a beautiful large, well-preserved Federation house demolished to be replaced by something new and inferior. It is significant that many of those involved are Chinese: that is, a group with money to park in a stable country outside China, and no cultural reasons to value an old house of any kind, least of all, as with the Federation house, one that embodies ideals of Australian national identity. (Apologies for the cultural context argument intruding itself here!) There is no Alec Guinness standing in the way; and if he did, he would just as surely be shot here as on the River Kwai.

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