Kurt Vonnegut noted, “Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance.” The consequence, of course, is that everything we build, that has any longevity, eventually crumbles and decays. No matter how magnificent and finely crafted, no matter how excellent the materials and elegant the craftsmanship, time and wear makes even the best things eventually look tired and tatty.
This is nowhere more true than in works of art, architecture or invention. Engineers, in particular, are a kind of artist whose best works are destined to be neglected, abused, overused and eventually demolished and replaced, rather than preserved and restored.
Over the summer, I spent some time in Monaco and Genoa. These places have known real wealth and opulence. The fabric of these cities owes its character to the application of massive power and sheer money. Whatever the builders decreed was constructed and sometimes to the very highest standards achieved by mankind. Works of quality were lavishly adorned with priceless artworks; impeccable and irreplaceable, but exposed to the elements and hence destined to fade and erode. The problem bequeathed to subsequent generations is how to restore these once magnificent edifices to their former glory. It’s quite literally a monumental task.
Sometimes, the skills simply no longer exist. Without the charity of benificent patrons, those crafts were simply not viable as ways to earn a living. Once the money and power evaporates, the guilds that once sculpted, carved, painted and gilded cease to exist. They are unsustainable, in a world of marked income inequality – an inequality that, today, is widening at an accelerating rate. Without the opportunity to perfect crafts skills over a lifetime of learning, through actual doing, it is impossible for anybody to meet the same standard of workmanship from a cold, standing start, no matter how well intentioned the effort. Money cannot buy skills accumulated over decades. They can’t simply be recreated on demand.
One route to keeping the artisans match-fit would be to engage in maintenance on a grander scale than we typically do. Why don’t we? It seems that most business models fail to make provision for the cost of maintenance and everybody wants to build something new, instead. Both the artists and their sponsors would rather create something afresh, rather than honouring the work of a forebearer, by lovingly preserving or restoring it. They call it “creative destruction”, but we should never forget that it is also plain old vanilla destruction, at root. This being the case, it’s also somewhat wasteful. Precious materials are often wantonly discarded – materials that are now extinct and unobtainable, through over-exploitation.
The interesting question, for me, is whether or not it is possible to be a creative maintainer. Can you find creative satisfaction in restoring, rather than starting from scratch? I propose that you can. Although it’s not your signature on the finished work, the restorer is worthy of placing their signature on the restored work (though they never do). Their contribution to the idea and concept is to give it new life and extended longevity, so that future generations will also be able to enjoy the intentions conveyed by the artist, in their original work. As such, restorers are worthy of much more recognition, reward and respect than they are given, today.
Monaco and Genoa are crumbling. While the new constructions are magnificent in their own way, what makes you sad is the things people come to see, which give these cities their unique signature, are the buildings, frescos and monuments that are, at best, a generation away from extinction. Even now, their existence is so precarious and their splendour so faded, that it’s often a disappointment to see them in this state of disrepair. It’s almost distressing. Who wants to go on vacation in a once beautiful city to experience the emotions of despair and distress?
As wealthy and opulent as the owners of these magnificent artefacts were, you’re also left with the disturbing feeling that, for all their munificence, is this it? Is this all money could buy? Renaissance palazzos are, after all, sadly lacking in creature comforts, such as heating, air conditioning and basic plumbing. Electric lighting and network connectivity was still science fiction, when these places were built. Surely the patrons of these monuments should have invested a little of their wealth in the invention of central heating, HVAC and stronger, more durable building materials, such as steel. What condemns a lot of the older buildings, splendid as they are, is the fact that they are not fit for modern purposes. Inhabiting them is more like a sentence in purgatory, than a brilliant experience.
Even the redevelopment of the Genoese old harbour, a multi-million dollar Renzo Piano extravaganza, only relatively recently completed, is already showing signs of inadequate maintenance. You can sense that the decay will only accelerate, leaving the good intentions only a memory and the newly built infrastructure unfit for purpose. The elevated bypass roadway nearby, a marvel of sixties engineering and bold urban planning, is a rusting eyesore. In the absence of any official attention to aesthetic pleasure, it is covered in random acts of graffiti. Ironically, it is daubed in anarchist slogans and symbols, as if to point an accusing finger at the authorities and hierarchies that allowed the infrastructure to fall into this state of disrepair and ugliness. Set between the crumbling Renaissance palaces and the foreshore redevelopment, it amply illustrates the sheer lack of attention to maintenance and its consequences. Conmen operate beneath it, ripping tourists off through their sharp patter and well-rehearsed scams. It’s a microcosm of what happened here centuries ago, but on a grander scale.
Corrosion is really hard to combat, because like so many things in life, it creeps up on you. There isn’t a crisply defined moment when it is obvious that something needs maintenance, because it’s self-evidently broken. Instead, things lose their beauty and utility by degrees, demanding that we make a judgement and choose the moment when we have to pay attention to bringing those qualities back, before they are lost entirely. Humanity is not very good at picking that moment correctly. Things often get way out of hand, before we rein them in.
We also have to recognise that some things cannot be restored without effectively remaking them. Reworking a masterpiece painting cannot hope to exactly reproduce each brush stroke, in its correct order, as originally applied by the artist. What the restorer is actually doing is making a brand new painting, using the masterpiece as an underlay and guide. If they are good at their craft, you won’t see the departure from the original, but rest assured that what you are seeing is less the work of the original artist and more the work of the repainter. We pretend that isn’t so, but that doesn’t change the actuality. Newly applied pigments are definitionally a new painting, whether or not the substrate is a blank canvas or a priceless masterpiece.
So, good maintenance is, I argue, a fundamentally creative act of the highest quality. We condemn our favourite pieces of art to eventual extinction, by not crediting the skill and creativity of restorers and consequently discourage anybody from aspiring to become one. This is, I claim, to our ultimate detriment, especially in a world where the greenest thing you can do is prolong the useful life of finely made things. We lose the things we love and further degrade our environment, if our first instinct is always to destroy, discard and replace.
Creativity can have lots of guises and maintenance is one of them.