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The landscape of the streets

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Over the last few years, on most weekday mornings and evenings, I have walked along London Bridge railway and underground station in Central London, watching the ongoing building work change the London skyline and the feel of the very streets themselves. It’s actually hard to recall what lay before on the spot of the now towering Shard–the tallest building in Western Europe. In London, and indeed in many UK cities, the construction of new buildings has embraced bold, sometimes controversial architectural styles. In this respect, there have been both success and failures, as in any enterprise.

Take a street in nearly any UK city and look at photographs of the same place taken twenty or even ten years before, and notice how much has changed. Perhaps a shop has closed or a new one opened. A few buildings may have had some work done. A street has been repaved. Small changes add up over the years and produce dramatic differences. Sometimes, the changes come at once–something that was once proud and bold is demolished, only to be replaced by whatever is now in vogue. Presumably, the demolition-fodder of the future.

I once used Google Street view to find the old block of flats in which I mostly grew up. I was a bit disoriented when I finally found the correct street, only to realise it was because the building I was looking for was no longer there. Just a large gap on the place where the better part of my childhood had been spent.

Now, in just under a month I will be in Florence, and will, time permitting, wander down the long road from the Piazza del Duomo to the little street on which we lived while in Italy. Suffice to say that I shall be incredibly surprised if the same building is no longer there, with the same colour, the same window blinds, the same roof. Perhaps the shops opposite will be a little different but the essence of the street will have changed little, if at all, in a decade and a half. There will be no skyscraper to give the Dome of Santa Maria del Fiore some competition for the ownership of the Fiorentine skyline. No avant-garde glass buildings rising near the station of Santa Maria Novella. It is hard to imagine such overt modernity biting into the cityscapes of Parma or Palermo. Of course there is much new construction in Italy, but most of it tends to blend into the surrounding architecture, giving the impression, overall, that little has changed since Dante took flight from the Fiorentine city fathers.

This, I think, is part of the charm of Italy, certainly for foreigners–the rustic buildings that seem timeless and part of the landscape, whether basking under the sun of the countryside or hiding in the depths of the city. It is unlikely that the citizens of Rome or Florence would wish to see the feel of their cities changed by jarring additions. Would we admire the ruins of the Colosseo and the Foro Romano as much if giant glass buildings soared on the horizon? Perhaps, perhaps not.

But I doubt we shall be finding out soon.

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