There was much wailing and gnashing of teeth a few weeks ago when the Daily Telegraph announced that the renovation of the fire-ravaged Notre Dame cathedral would turn it into a “politically correct Disneyland”.
As so often when that august publication buckles on its cuirass and bascinet in the War on Woke, it helps to look closely at its sources and evidence. In this case, it relied on the opinions of a conservative architect called Maurice Culot and sight of rather general proposals to install “modern art murals” in some of the side chapels and to project quotes from the Bible in languages that include Mandarin.
A more measured and informed article in the Washington Post, by the art historian Elizabeth Lev, later pointed out that these chapels were formerly “an ill-kept hodgepodge generally passed over by tourists” and there should be nothing very terrible about a cathedral communicating the scriptures in the world’s leading languages. France’s National Heritage and Architecture Commission has since backed the proposals, with a couple of reservations. The work might yet be clumsy and inane or beautiful and thoughtful – it’s just that convincing evidence of its monstrosity hasn’t been produced by its detractors. The devil, so to speak, will be in the detail.
Form over function
Cedric Price was an architect and thinker whose insights, more than 18 years after his death, continue to resonate. One of these was to challenge the assumption of architects and their clients that erecting a building is the best solution to a given problem. A big shiny structure called The Centre for Ending Poverty (to use a hypothetical example) might not actually do what it claims. Price’s wisdom is pertinent to the saga of the Nightingale hospitals, the facilities created with much fanfare and expense early in the pandemic, which treated fewer than 400 patients. Now Sajid Javid is doubling down on this less than triumphant idea by ordering eight “Nightingale surge hubs” – units in hospital car parks to deal with a possible wave of Omicron admissions. One obvious but unanswered question is where the staff might come from to run these hubs. Even more obviously, would it not have been better to implement policies that reduce this potential surge, so that the Nightingales would not be needed at all?
BBC morals off course
I imagine the BBC’s moral compass to be a handsome and substantial instrument, brass-trimmed and Latin-inscribed, kept in a Reithian marble vault deep in Broadcasting House. It seems, though, that someone has tunnelled into its vicinity and placed a powerful electromagnet there, one programmed to switch on and off to an unpredictable synth funk beat. How else to explain its decision to interview Alan Dershowitz as an apparently objective commentator on the crimes of Jeffrey Epstein and Ghislaine Maxwell, in particular on the credibility of the couple’s victim Virginia Giuffre? Dershowitz, as the BBC failed to mention, was one of Epstein’s lawyers and associates and is himself embroiled in lawsuits with Giuffre over her accusations that he was another of her abusers. In 2020, he wrote an article in the Spectator, “The Ghislaine Maxwell I know”, which attacked the “one-sided narrative” of “lying witnesses” such as Giuffre. The case against Maxwell, he sagely concluded, “is far from over”.
The BBC acknowledged its error, but why make it in the first place? In case my electromagnet theory is not strictly accurate, here’s another: the corporation is now so thoroughly browbeaten and disoriented by accusations of liberal bias that it truly doesn’t know north from south and east from west.
• Rowan Moore is the Observer’s architecture correspondent