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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 78

Chapter XII. — London and Berlin.—a Study in Contrasts.—the Course of the Unfolding Century

page 73

Chapter XII.

London and Berlin.—a Study in Contrasts.—the Course of the Unfolding Century.

Berlin is one of the most modern capitals in Europe, and it has a dignity and a spaciousness permeating the grandeur of its splendid thoroughfares that compares well with London. The contrast between the rival metropolitan aggregations is one of the most vivid things in all Europe.

In London there is a powerful survival of the historic in buildings, in public customs, functions and offices and the methods by which the work of a City surrounded by cities, that has no paralled on earth, is accomplished. London from Hampstead Heath to Streatham is a network of narrow, wide, cramped, ill-regulated thoroughfares straggling out without order or design to the remote horizons where the suburbs take up miles of brick and mortar and spread their story far into the hills of five counties. Its great buildings, which every year resound to the tramp of nations, are solid venerable piles to which is attached a sentiment and adoration that can wholly overlook any of their architectural shortcomings. None the less they peer strangely into the gloom and the hazy atmosphere that dominates the metropolis for more than half the year. Their beauty of structure and architectural adornment, smudged as it is in the mist and fog. Stare at one out of an incongruous surrounding of black squat buildings and cranky thoroughfares. It is this amazing medley of beauty and ugliness that in time grows upon one with a sort of horrid fascination. The Londoner believes that the extraordinary environment that huddles around places like St. Paul's or even the Abbey, gives dignity to the historic structures. He does not see that they in themselves only emphasise the hideousness of their setting.

A ride on top of a 'bus from the Abbey to St. Paul's on one of London's typically grey days, will reveal the extraordinary confusion of buildings and thoroughfares that passes as the most wonderful city on earth. The hoary old pile of the Abbey rises in harmony against the splendour of the Houses of Parliament that reach up to many a chiselled and fairy pinnacle and tower high above the river. But right opposite the beautiful facade with its two towers that Sir Christopher Wren pencilled into the noble pile of Westminster, is a modern hotel and a dingy hospital, whilst a thoroughly modern heavy suite of British Government offices starts blatantly into the vision from an adjoining frontage. Whitehall, begins by being a wide thoroughfare, but it takes unto itself the funeral pall, the strange dim wonder that blots the distance and softens the buildings out in uncertain outlines against the wild and turgid stream of traffic. The immense new pile of the war offices looms up white and dignified in the mist, but its beauty is mocked by a dirty rambling collection of buildings right opposite it, known as the Admiralty. The ragged arena of Trafalgar Square suddenly bursts into view dominated by a long lank column with a little figure on top. It is the Nelson monument of course—one of the most incongruous "works of page 74 art" that was ever perpetrated in the name of patriotism, and London has some notorious examples. It looks like an elongated jester's stick stuck into some blocks of stone guarded by four lions. Even Landseer, who was unquestionably British, could not help imparting to the lions a certain stolid respectability that nobody could mistake. Immediately behind it a low prison-like building sprawls out across the width of the square. Its only adornment is a painfully small tower shaped like an inverted egg-cup. This is the famous National Gallery. From between the classic columns that support the ponderous portico one gazes on to brand new piles of shipping offices and banks that cannot help flaunting their excessive modernity in the face of the gloomy old pile.

The name of the Strand promises something better, but it turns out to be nothing more than a succession of blatant shops, poking their wares out of plain, sour-faced buildings, modern hotels, banks, all squeezed together as tight as congelation can make it. Theatres elbow their way into the mass and hurl loud posters into the street. Amid all the roar of traffic and the hooting of motor buses, one seems to hear these ill-assorted buildings squabbling for room, each one striving angrily to get its face in front of the other. Only the white piles of the Savoy and the Cecil look down in a sort of calm, lofty indifference upon the clamour below. The Strand is a most distressing thoroughfare. It begins by being painfully narrow and cramped. Then it bulges out on one side as if something had given way under the pressure, only to lurch back again in a drunken outline and crowd an amazing amount of traffic and swearing 'bus drivers into the neck, where the Waterloo Bridge-road effects a junction. Beyond it widens into a kind of lagoon, where two churches rise into view, looking as though they had drifted and stuck there right in the middle of the channel of traffic. Ugly old Somerset House and a bright red tube station alternately frown and smile on them alike. It is only when the stately pile of the Law Courts swings into view, with the promise of Fleet-street to follow, that one begins to thrill. But it is Short-lived. One cannot see the Law C courts for the ugly crowd of buildings that peer at and hem them in, save for the solitary sweetness of Clement's Inn. Immediately beyond, the 'bus rumbles through into historic Fleet-street.

Imagination was never more disastrously disillusioned. It is a thoroughfare of advertisement hoardings with windows in them. Every paper that ever was seems to glare at one in gilt letters. The medley of words that flash by on either side is appalling. The whole street is written all over with its calling, and the wonder of it is that beneath the pile of squat, ugly buildings tumbling down towards Ludgate Circus, there are hundreds of presses hurling forth the story of the world in a feverish haste and clanging amid the din of thousands of fierce panting voices. Over the whirlpool of Ludgate Circus, beyond a rusty overhead railway bridge, that chops the view in half, rises the ponderous towers and dome of St. Paul's. It is a wonderful bit of perspective that, even though a plain slab of a church tower half-way up "the hill" pokes itself into the vision. The City Cathedral dwarfs everything about it into insignificance, but all its imposing effect is lost, crowded in as it is by drunken rows of buildings that eddy with uncertain outline round the base. The mixture of architecture is wholly incongruous. It reminds one of a plum pudding set in a dish of asparagus The whole spirit of the surroundings seems to be personified in a particularly ugly and fat statue of Queen Anne, that turns page 75 [unclear: ts] back on the Cathedral and tip-tilts [unclear: a] snub nose at the distant Fleet-street.

In all this medley of streets and [unclear: uildings], struggling spasmodically to [unclear: onform] to order and beauty, but each [unclear: ement] running its own sweet will ir-[unclear: respective] of its neighbour, one sees an [unclear: adication] of national thought and char[unclear: eter]. It is an architectural demonstration of "the liberty of the subject." The [unclear: onception] of any collective plan or [unclear: rheme] that might have .shaped London [unclear: ito] a city of splendid avenues and [unclear: rell-ordered] properties has been [unclear: suboranate] to the individual will. It is a [unclear: use] of every building for itself, and the [unclear: ounty] Council take the worst. That [unclear: olicy] recently cost the ratepayers six [unclear: millions] sterling to wipe? out a dirty [unclear: um] and compensate the owners who [unclear: ad] built it, in order to make a street [unclear: a] quarter of a mile long, and let a little [unclear: aylight] into the heart of the metro-[unclear: olis.] But let us look at Berlin.

Just as London is divided in two by [unclear: he] Thames, the German capital is sliced [unclear: a] half by the Spree. At the Branden[unclear: urg] gate, one stands at the entrance to [unclear: he] city and the finest thoroughfare in [unclear: he] Empire. The secluded and deeply-[unclear: ooded] depths of the Tiergarten are be [unclear: ind]—an immense park lined with drives [unclear: an] walks winding round lily-clad [unclear: igoons], statuary, and classic fountains. [unclear: n] the edge of this city forest stands [unclear: n] immense pile reaching up to the [unclear: oftiest] of domes. It is the Reichstag—[unclear: a] noble building set in a wide-spreading [unclear: rea] of garden and tree-lined avenues, [unclear: he] Brandenburg gate, true in its beauty [unclear: a] the best traditions of Athens, makes [unclear: dignified] entrance to a classic square—[unclear: a] Parisier Platz, and the broad and [unclear: acious] Unter den Linden, reaching out [unclear: o] nearly 200 feet in width, and lined [unclear: a] far as the eye can reach with a double [unclear: ow] of trees. The latter forms a remarkable and pretty avenue of limes and chestnuts for pedestrians down the centre of the thoroughfare, whilst on either side the roadway stretches with the buildings beyond. A summer day gives brightness to the scene as one strolls down the cool avenue, wondering at the cleanliness of the buildings and the buoyancy of the people. Here there seems to be no wrangling between the structures which shall thrust its most aggressive feature into your vision. The architecture of the one flows into the other. They are the creations of order and cleanliness. At the junction with Friedrich Strasse, Berlin presents some of its gayest and happiest aspects. Cafes abound and spread their innumerable tables and chairs under the trees. Beyond a statue of Frederick the Great commands the way, and points to the architectural grandeur of the city. It is past this point that a remarkable area of public buildings spreads out through open spaces, gardens, and park-like plots, grouped together to secure collective effect. On the right are the palaces of Kaiser Wilhelm and Empress Friedrich. Between the two, set in a large open square pictured by flower gardens and turf, rises the Opera House. On the opposite side, planned' out with dignity and space, are the University building and the Arsenal (or Museum)—one of the finest buildings in Berlin. Over the whole group there is harmony of design and setting that cannot be altogether dissociated with grandeur. A canal is crossed immediately beyond with a single span, and an immense square, filled with trees and monuments, opens out on all sides to the beautiful buildings that guard it. There is the Royal palace designed by the celebrated architect, Schinkel, on one side rising in contradistinction to the simple classic splendour of the Altes Museum that faces it—a creation of the same mind. Through the angle of the square, soaring above the page 76 sunlit flood of the Spree, and peering over the trees and gardens that surround it, rises the National Grallery—a pure Grecian building that flows serenely into the composition. But dominating the whole square, and commanding a magnificent view of the Unter den Linden itself, is the immense Cathedral, the sight of which fills every true German heart with patriotic pride. It is emblematic of the character of the race, profound, aspiring, and commanding. Just as may be seen in London's busy congested thoroughfares the materialisation of national thought, Berlin's architecture, set out with space and dignity, reveals the broad conception of order and beauty that is behind the Teutonic mind. No individual will, irrespective of the communal welfare, has moved in the creation of London's rival capital. It is the direct action of the State and the Municipality, having mutually the ambition to build a great city, that gave to Berlin its comprehensive design, its spacious thoroughfares, its collective harmony and dignity.

There are points of difference in the administration of the two metropoli that but serve to emphasise the contrast between them. London, up to within recent years, was the home of the policy which gave the private company preference over the Municipality in the conduct of its affairs and needs. It is now in a state of transition, but one must necessarily emphasize the traditional order of things if the contrast with Berlin is to be effective. By reason of its enormous vested interests and pecuniary offices that bad come down from the bad old days, London was excluded from many of the reforms that gave life and soul to the municipal work of the north. It was mainly because the city laboured under a medieval survival known as guilds. These guilds, eighty in number, were originally designed to regulate the callings or trades they were associated with, such as the Mercers, Grocers, Drapers, Goldsmiths, Merchant Tailors, etc. They were societies of gentlemen, entrance to which could only he gained by purchase, patrimony, apprenticeship or honorary vote. They were the borough councils of medieval towns. But in later days, when industry revolutionised the towns, government by these self perpetuating guilds became totally obsolete and intolerable. England wiped their existence out everywhere except in London, where to this day they survive and practically dominate the city. These guilds have long lost their original purpose. Their total membership is now only 8800, and they derive enormous incomes from houses and business property they own in all quarters of the Municipality. They are, at best, fossilised relies of the out-of-date, carrying with them immense privileges and powers that are held at the expense of the rest of the community. These privileges and powers are still strong enough to keep municipal progress back and stifle reform. London also labours under the incubus of private water companies gas, electric lighting, tramways, and docks and other commercial concerns monopolising public services for individual gain. It was against all these close concerns and vested interests that the Progressives of the London County Council directed their brilliant work, but the Moderates, the representatives of private enterprise, succeeded in frightening London into a wave of re-action, and now the old battle for progress goes on again.

In Berlin, the administration is based upon the principle that it is the Municipality and the Municipality only that can best conduct its affairs. In order to secure the highest technical skill and efficiency, Berlin pays a handsome salary page 77 to its Mayor, Deputy-Mayor and seventeen out of the thirty-four members of the City Council, after the manner stated in the chapter following. Since 1873, the Municipality has been providing every class of public service, including abattoirs, markets, hospitals, gas, railways, bouses, water, sewerage, street cleaning, sanitary and food supply inspection, charitable aid, lodging houses, labour colony, insurance against sickness and old age, savings banks, pawn-shops, parks, recreation grounds, police, elementary, secondary and technical schools, etc. Owing to the services being in an experimental stage at the time, Berlin allowed private companies to conduct electric cars and lighting under the strictest municipal supervision. Both companies pay heavy fees to the City for the right of service, and pay over annually a considerable percentage of their profits. In the course of the next few years the whole of their plant and property will revert to the City. In recent years, a magnificent drainage system has beer inaugurated complete with extensive areas of sewage farms. These farms contain numerous orchards, vegetable, cereals and grass plots, and supply the city extensively. Within a short period the profits from this source will be enough to pay 'back all that was invested in them, and eventually they will be a source of surplus income that will go in the direction of lessening municipal taxation.

In London the County or Borough Councils have practically few powers over the cutting up of private lands for residential sites and building operations other than those provided a set of cast-iron by-laws that have only succeeded in producing acres and acres of fairly wide streets lined with depressing rows of houses of a prevailing type and design. In Berlin, the Municipality plans out the whole of its suburban areas, and with the assistance of the most expert and scientific knowledge the land can offer, it determines the width of its street?. Amid a multitude of powers it can even alter the exterior design and position of a house or a series of houses so that picturesque effect and harmony can be maintained throughout a street. The result is that the modern suburbs of Berlin are a succession of charming houses, hidden amongst trees and shrubberies or adorned with garden fronts. Open spaces and parks bound in conformity to the needs of the area. They are creations of art and nature, presenting an environment of health and beauty that cannot but leave its impress upon the people: Nor is it simply an area of which only a particular class gain the advantage. The Municipality provides for the labouring classes, in these districts, cheap, clean, and healthy homes wherever possible, so that all ranks of the community receive the benefits of enlightened methods.

The contract stops short when one recalls the miles of dirty congested areas in the greater and older metropolis in such districts as Mayfair, St. Pancras, "the East End," Bermondsey and Rotherhithe. It is only fair to say that London moves rapidly in the track of Berlin, despite the handicaps of antiquity and vested interests that retard it. But the contrast in methods must surely convey a striking lesson to an age in which health, sanitation and sociological betterment illumine the course of the unfolding folding century.