The morality of investment in our buildings

Much has been made in recent weeks of the various pledges to re-build and restore the shell of Notre Dame Cathedral following the devastating fire that tore through the building just before Easter. Within hours there were several vocal donations from billionaires to contribute to the restoration work and these were almost immediately castigated by large sections of society (not all of these dissenting voices were from the left, though of course most were) who were of the view that it was morally reprehensible to so quickly commit to sums of this magnitude towards a religious monument when there are so many homeless human beings who would be far worthier recipients of a cash injection. Of course, we do not know how much these wealthy benefactors give to human causes (not all charity bearers are virtue-signallers), so it would seem somewhat premature to condemn them on this charge – but still, one can appreciate the point at hand.

On a more micro level I heard a conversation on a radio station in which Jason Manford (yes I know – it wasn’t me who chose the station) recanted a story of having met a sales rep from a luxury wallpaper company during a recent holiday. In the midst of the chat, he had asked the rep – out of sheer curiosity – how much high end wallpaper cost and was staggered by the response. Apparently an average order for a medium sized lounge would be around fifteen thousand pounds. This prompted a phone-in discussion in which listeners were encouraged to voice their horror at how some people had so much wealth that they could fritter it away on such “mundane items” and how it was disgusting and so on and so forth.

It has always seemed strange to me that the those who criticise the investment in the finer things in life ignore the economic benefit that these products and services bring. After all, the sales rep who provided the basis for Jason Manford’s anecdote met him at the same holiday resort as his family in Portugal and sadly we can’t all make enough to pay for foreign family holidays on the back of radio presenter salaries. For every millionaire who pays for a luxury item, there is someone in a job receiving the money from this, though many conveniently choose to ignore this inconvenient truth. I suspect that they would rather the rich invested their money back into products and services however their personal tastes deem fit, rather than dumping it all in offshore tax havens; but there again that doesn’t generate as much superficial outrage when it comes to the 21st century narrative.

Leaving aside the economic argument, there is the equally – perhaps even greater – argument of the philosophy of things as opposed to people. Mankind has always sought to climb the hierarchy of needs beyond the level of mere hunter-gatherer and it is art and beauty that provides the framework in which this ascent can take place. Survival is all well and good and indeed is the thing that drives us out of bed in the morning but without something greater it is simply that – survival – and one reaches the point where it becomes rather pointless. Of course, in the Middle Ages, cathedrals such as Notre Dame were the cinemas, bowling alleys and nightclubs of the day: a central point of contemporary culture which brought everyone together in a place that no single individual would ever be able to visualize or indeed afford to build. Yes, religious worship was an ingrained part of society and yes, the myriad of modern entertainment did not exist and yes, most other elements of life were rather grim, but nonetheless the point remained: all members of society were drawn to these magnificent works of art for they represented the pinnacle of man’s aspiration to greater through art, craft and ultimately beauty. Nothing like this exists today; the municipal buildings of the 21st Century are constructed with speed and affordability in mind and often design is overshadowed by inclusivity and eco-friendliness. In the rare cases where money is spent, buildings often become white-elephants and this is ultimately because capitalism has won: we have an improved quality of life and the pound in our pocket is better spent in accordance with our own needs rather than via the stewardship of the state. John Smith no longer lives in a mud hut, but a modern home fitted out with all the latest comforts and the concrete-and-cladding paneled municipal buildings in his town centre don’t really float his boat in the same way that the stone wonders of the ancient, medieval and Renaissance ages did.

I am currently having an extension built on my house and this work is being undertaken by a wonderful builder who for the purposes of anonymity we shall call Bob. Bob has done work for us over a period of seven years, ranging from bathrooms refits to more complex home improvement projects. He is a highly (and I mean highly) skilled craftsman who, with the exception of plumbing and electrics, can undertake any area of building to a high level. As chance would have it, a different builder is constructing an orangery extension next door and they often engage in banter over the fence, partly to pass the time and partly out of curiosity and as a result of this ongoing interaction we know what they are constructing (and how) and vice versa. Last week, Bob said the following to me:

“Dan, there are two reasons I do this job. Firstly for the money, as I should have retired a couple of years ago (*this is true) and secondly for the craft and the satisfaction. To those mongrels next door it’s just a job and they’ll use the cheapest materials and bung it up any old how. To me it’s more than that – I’m building this to the standard I have for my own house.”

Let us turn our attention therefore to Bob’s own house. Ostensibly a simple end terrace, he has turned what initially was a ramshackle Victorian property into something that looks like a five star Mediterranean retreat with illuminated lawns, walled gardens, round walls and cutting edge technology. There are underwater cameras in his fish pond, a two-story double garage extension with snooker table, a curved granite patio – you name it, he’s got it. As far as terrace housing is concerned I can’t imagine anything finer. Why has he poured so much of his heart and soul into this building? Quite simply, his wife left him and within months of that he broke his back in a work accident – an incident from which he was lucky to make a full recovery. As a married man he gave everything to his family and was devastated when his wife left him and as a result he has changed his outlook on life. People no longer inspire his trust, but his home is just that, his home. It’s where he can be himself, relax and enjoy the things he has worked on away from the disappointment and mean-spirited society that surrounds him. Through the lens that Bob views the world I can fully understand why buildings mean more to him than people.

This of course is the microcosmic glance at the matter. Returning to the much larger theatre piece of Notre Damn, I reference the old quote, “Society grows great when old men plant trees whose shade they know they shall never sit in.” 500 medieval trees were felled to create that wondrous spire and whilst I doubt whether precisely the same approach will be taken with the reconstruction work, it is important to remember that mankind aspires to more than survival. Our soul lies in art and creativity and if we cheapen or remove this then we are mere ants, scurrying around merely to exist and not to live.