March 30, 2021 - 7:00am

Highly recommended: an eye-opening, heart-breaking tweet thread from Create Streets entitled ‘the world we’ve lost’. It is dedicated to the landmark buildings that were destroyed during the 20th century — some of them by the Luftwaffe or by city planners or by a combination of the two. 

Examples include the Dutch House in Bristol; Albion Congregational Church in Hull; Bedford Circus in Exeter; and the first Birmingham Central Library.  

But is there any point in looking backwards? It’s a question that the authors of the thread ask themselves:

A nostalgic thread? Undoubtedly. But there’s a contemporary relevance. Too many British towns are “left behind.” Victims of a complex pattern of de-industrialisation, changing technologies & declining competitiveness. Too few now fully play their “roles” as proper settlements attractive places to be in which people wish to live, work, shop and be entertained. But here is the ray of hope. In 2020, amidst the horror of COVID, we had a glimpse of a better world: more home-working & neighbourliness, more family time, a more local life…
- Create Streets

Think what an asset these lost buildings would have been in the 21st century. If they’d survived, they’d be all over the glossy marketing material promoting their respective cities — becoming anchor points for tourism and regeneration. Certainly, they’d be protected by law and, most likely, they’d have been repaired, restored and scraped-clean of decades of soot. 

In terms of economic development and human well-being, they’d have repaid the money invested in them many times over. As it is, their destruction didn’t just rob us of the past, but also the better future that might have been.

In any case, there’s nothing wrong with nostalgia. For a start it might prod us to rebuild what we destroyed. As Ed West argues here that’s something that cities like Warsaw have done successfully.

Of course, that’s not always possible — not if the site is occupied and the money lacking. But there is something that we can always do and that is to remember. Just as we put up blue plaques on the houses where great people once lived, we should do the same wherever great buildings once stood. 

This is done here-and-there, on sites of special historical significance, but we should do it systematically. Wherever our architectural inheritance was needlessly erased we should commemorate it in situ. Each plaque should provide some visual representation of the lost building, so that it can be compared to what we replaced it with; and it should also tell us who built it, who destroyed it and why. 

Even if we can’t reverse the mistakes of the recent past, we can remind ourselves not to repeat them. 

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.