Monday, 8 June 2015


Europa Nostra and the age of remarkable machines

The awards of the Europa Nostra, celebrating European culture and heritage are little known in a continent that still celebrates barbarianism and has an entropic rush back to the dark ages, but one award stands out this year, and not only because it is in that most sacred of spaces, a Belgian brewery, but because it recognised the ‘restoration of exceptional machines.'
This is, of course, because exceptional machines are a rarity in the modern world, indeed they have become iconic, through what is called ‘steampunk’ a blend of Victoriana and science fiction, the past and the future; but not the present.
Now, we’re all preoccupied with technology, making devices that as as functional as they are bland and boring. Apple are spoken with a reverence that is usually accorded the Sistine Chapel when it comes to design, but white, featureless and a couple of slight curves is to my jaded eyes a lot less impressive, or inspirational than, say, the Anderton Boat Lift.
We used to make things, wondrous things, built in factories, shipyards by people who had muscle and inventiveness. Now, our tech is produced by Chinese toddlers.
This was the produce of a time when urban power was overtaking the rural aristocracy, when the non-conformists and Quakers were finding ways of doing business that transformed everything and there was a sense that no challenge was too great that brain and brawn couldn’t match as they set out to build Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant lands.
At their best, these new industrialists were building a reality that tried to lift people, sure it was paternalistic, but it was about building a better world, a better ‘us.’ This was also the time of the ideal town, the Bournville’s and New Brighton’s, where innovations like gardens, libraries and so on gave factory workers opportunity and dignity.
At their worst, they transformed the rural peasants into the urban poor, reduced people to an economic unit, stored in cramped housing, uncared for.
The wrong type of business won out and we’re all poorer. Now our leaders are trying to figure out a way of making our working class so poor that they can compete with Asian peasants while claiming they value human rights and dignity.
The Rowntree and Cadbury families could teach us all valuable lessons for our future, instead we’re placing a blind bet on technology companies whose business plan is basically ‘Do not be taxed’. The Victorian philanthropists tried to build businesses that helped build a better society, because they saw themselves as part of society.
Many of their achievements stand today, the libraries, concert halls and more that they built, the parks they made as well as their extraordinary machines.
We also need their social conscience, their can-do approach and the lack of fear when faced with the most daunting of challenges.
What extraordinary machine today will win an award for heritage in the future? Perhaps the CERN hadron collider, a stunning achievement will, or possibly the definitely breathtaking Viaduc de Millau bridge, all 2.6km of it, or the Three Gorges Dam, although it loses green points.
My choice is a little old, Voyager 1 and 2, the craft that have completed the tour of the solar system and are heading towards interstellar space, still working, still making discoveries.
We still make extraordinary machines, let’s build more.

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