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  • Writer's pictureChris Rogers

A most horrid flame; or, the fragility of culture

Footage this week of the old Copenhagen Bourse burning, complete with toppling spire, inevitably recalled Paris’s conflagration five years ago; Notre-Dame also suffered from what Samuel Pepys called a most horrid, malicious, bloody flame. Fires aside, catastrophic floods or shifts of the earth have also caused incidental losses, whilst a few buildings have met their end through deliberate action by their owners. Each gives us cause to reflect on just how precarious our physical culture can be.

Those Danish and French structures stand at the centres of their respective cities; both are well-loved and both disasters prompted immediate demands for full reconstruction, such was the shock. Similar fires destroyed or seriously damaged a succession of British buildings of national status in recent decades. The disheartening catalogue runs from Glasgow School of Art in 2018 (ironically during restoration following an earlier incident) via Windsor castle (in 1992) all the way back to York Minster (1984), this last contributing to the late Queen’s annus horribilis. None involved death, though a lesser but fatal fire at Hampton Court in the same period did claim the life of Lady Daphne Gale, who lived within its apartments.

In parallel the number of regional country houses that endured a similar fate forms its own, sobering record, Clandon House amongst them. More, albeit with far less coverage, went in the years before whilst others fell victim to careful dismantling, comprehensive auction or deliberate neglect in reaction to the crushing death duties imposed by multiple peacetime governments.

Urban victims can be spectacularly unique, as with the expanded and relocated Crystal Place whose acres of Victorian glass and iron melted into the streets of south London in 1936, or quirkily quotidian, like the Crooked House historic pub in Staffordshire, demolished without authorisation last year after being damaged by fire. Notorious, too, in relation to their passing were the Art Deco Firestone factory in the west of the capital, unceremoniously flattened in 1980 days before it was due to be listed, and the already-protected house Greenside twenty years later, knocked down merely to raise the value of its plot at the edge of Wentworth golf course – the owner was prosecuted, convicted and sentenced (a footnote to such actions should be reserved for the cause of hubris, though: in the Georgian era the author, near-millionaire and eccentric William Beckford erected – three times – a 300-foot tower for his vast Gothic pile, Fonthill Abbey; each collapsed, with Beckford eventually giving up and selling up). 

At the much larger scale of cities and towns, it takes shifts of the very planet itself to lay waste the places and spaces entire communities have made and occupied in a few hours. Pompeii every school child knows, but this has also occurred in modern times – Monterserrat was buried by volcanic eruption as recently as 1995; a landslide into its reservoir overtopped the Vajont dam in Italy, sweeping away Longerone and 2,00 souls, in 1963; and an earthquake required the complete rebuilding of Napier in New Zealand thirty years before that.

Of course, these traumas pale compared to the horrors visited by nation states in time of war, but even the worst of those contained a moment of exquisite poignancy that closes the circle described by this post. Years before the outbreak of World War 2, the well-preserved frames of two vast and elaborate Roman pleasure barges that had been built for the Emperor Caligula millennia ago were raised from the bottom of Lake Nemi by the dictator Mussolini. Each had been richly ornamented with gold, bronze and marble and both were moved to a museum specially constructed to house them  -  a remarkable achievement.

In 1944 shelling during the German retreat caused a fire and the museum and both ships were completely destroyed, leaving only artefacts today.

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Chris Rogers  |  Writer on architecture and visual culture

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