The Ugliness of Modern Life





Follow the architectural history of any city, and you find it during the last half-century the sorrowful record of a pitiful destruction. The great gardens are always the first thing sacrificed. They are swept away, and their places covered by brick and mortar with an incredible indifference. Fine houses, even when of recent construction, like the Pompeiian house of Prince Napoleon in Paris, are pulled down out of a mere speculative mania to build something else, or to cut a long, straight street as uninteresting and as unsuggestive as the boxwood protractor which lies on a surveyor's desk.

The greatest crime, or one of the greatest crimes (for there are others black as night), of which the nineteenth century has been guilty has been the driving of the people out of long familiar homes in the name and under the pretext of hygiene, but in fact for the enrichment of contractors, town councillors, and speculators of every kind. It began with Haussmann; it has continued in Paris, and everywhere else, with delirious haste ever since his time, as a burglar may drag a grey-beard to his death. The modern ædiles with their court of ravenous parasites cannot understand, would not deign even to consider, the sorrow of a humble citizen driven out of a familiar little home with nooks and corners filled with memories and a roof-tree dear to generations. Go into an old street of any old city you will, and you will almost certainly find a delight for the eye in archway and ogive, in lintel and casement, in winding stair and leaning eave; in the wallflowers rooted in the steps, in the capsicum which has seeded itself between the stones, in the swallows' nests under the gargoyle, in the pots of basil and mignonette on the window-sills. But the modern street with its dreary monotony, its long and high blank spaces, its even surfaces where not a seed can cling or a bird can build, what will it say to your eyes or your heart? You will see its dull, pretentious uniformity repeated on either side of you down a mile-long vista, and you will curse it.

It is natural that the people shut up in these structures crave for drink, for nameless vices, for the brothel, the opium den, the cheap eating-house and gaming booth; anything, anywhere, to escape from the monotony which surrounds them and which leaves them no more charm in life than if they were rabbits shut up in a physiologist's experimenting cage, and fed on gin-soaked grains. No one in whom the æsthetic sense was really awakened could dwell in a manufacturing city, or indeed in any modern town. The 'flat,' whether in a 'first-class mansion,' or in a 'block' for the working man, would be more intolerable than a desert island to anyone with a sense of the true charm of life, or, one may add, any sensitiveness to the meaning of the word 'home'; that word which is to be found in every language, though the English people do not think so, and which is one of the sweetest and most eloquent in all tongues. The Americans attach extreme pride to the fact that their 'sky-scrapers' are so advanced that your horses and carriage can be carried up on a lift to the highest storey, and the nags, if it do not make them dizzy, can survey the city in a bird's-eye view. But even this supreme achievement of architects and engineers cannot lend to the cube, shared with a score of others, the charm, the idiosyncrasy, the meaning, the soul, which exhale from the smallest cottage where those who love dwell all alone, through whose lattices a candle shines as a star to the returning wanderer, and on whose lowly roof memory lies like a benediction.

According to the statistics of modern cities the mass of middle-class and labouring-class people change their lodgings or tenements every two or three years; three years is even an unusually long time of residence. What can a people who flit like this, continually, know of the real meaning of a home?

The same restlessness and dissatisfaction which make these classes change their residence so frequently, make the wealthier classes flit in another way, from continent to continent, from capital to capital, from one pleasure-place to another, from one house-party to another, from the yacht to the rouge-et-noir tables, from the bath to the coverside, from the homewoods to the antipodes, in an endless gyration which yields but little pleasure, but which they deem as necessary as cayenne pepper with their hot soup.

I believe that this monotony and lack of interest in the towns which they inhabit fatally affect the minds of those whose lot it is to go to and from the streets in continual toil, and produce in them fatigue, heaviness and gloom; what the scholar and the poet suffer from articulately and consciously, the people in general suffer from inarticulately and unconsciously. The gaiety of nations dies down as the beauty around them pales and passes. They know not what it is that affects them, but they are affected by it none the less, as a young child is hurt by the darkness, though it knows not what dark or light means.

Admit that the poorer people were ill-lodged in the Middle Ages, that the houses were ill-lit, undrained, with the gutter water splashing the threshold, and the eaves of the opposite houses so near that the sun could not penetrate into the street. All this may have been so, but around two-thirds of the town were gardens and fields, the neighbouring streets were full of painted shrines, metal lamps, gargoyles, pinnacles, balconies of hand-forged iron or hand-carved stone, solid doors, bronzed gates, richly-coloured frescoes; and the eyes and the hearts of the dwellers in them had wherewithal to feed on with pleasure, not to speak of the constant stream of many-coloured costume and of varied pageant or procession which was for ever passing through them. Then in the niches there were figures; at the corners there were shrines; on the rivers there were beautiful carved bridges, of which examples are still left to our day in the Rialto and the Vecchio. There were barges with picture-illumined sails, and pleasure-galleys gay to the sights, and everywhere there were towers and spires, and crenulated walls, and the sculptured fronts of houses and churches and monasteries, and close at hand was the greenness of wood and meadow, the freshness of the unsullied country. Think only what that meant; no miles on miles of dreary suburban waste to travel; no pert aggressive modern villas to make day hateful; no underground railway stations and subways; no hissing steam, no grinding and shrieking cable trams; no hell of factory smoke and jerry-builders' lath and plaster; no glaring geometrical flower beds; but the natural country running, like a happy child laden with posies, right up to the walls of the town.

The cobbler or craftsman, who sat and worked in his doorway, and saw the whole vari-coloured life of a mediæval city pass by him, was a very different being to the modern mechanic, a cypher amongst hundreds, shut in a factory room, amongst the deafening noise of cogwheel and pistons. Even from a practical view of his position, his guilds were a very much finer organisation than modern trades-unions, and did far more for him in his body and his mind. In the exercise of his labour he could then be individual and original, he is now but one-thousandth part of an inch in a single tooth of a huge revolving cogwheel. The mediæval house might be in itself nothing more than a cover from bad weather, but all about it there was infinite variety; all life in the street or alley was richly coloured, even the gutter brawls were medleys of shining steel, and broken plumes, and many-coloured coats, and broidered badges, a whirl of bright hues, which sent a painter in joy to his palette....


Beauty is the safest stimulant, the surest tonic, the most precious inspiration; natural beauty first of all, and the beauty of the arts closely following, twinlike handmaids to Aphrodite. But to perceive this the mentally blind are as incapable as the physically blind; and such, mental cecity is as general in these days as myopy is common in the schoolrooms of this generation.

Every year all cities, and even all towns, are severed farther and farther from the country; every year the electric wires multiply for telegraph and telephone; the tramways and railways increase, the sickening grinding noises common to these methods of locomotion fill the air, and the extraordinary ugliness, which seems attached like a doom to any modern invention, is multiplied on all sides. That, in an age which considers itself educated, such hideous constructions as the great wheels of Chicago and of Earl's Court should attract sane persons as a diversion will alone prove how completely the instinct of correct taste, with its accompanying abhorrence of deformity, has become extinct in all modern crowds.




This is an extract from Chapter X of Critical Studies by Ouida (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1900). Ouida was the pen name of English novelist Maria Louise Ramé.