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We are as much tormented by “views” as delighted by them. For every soothing green prospect that pacifies the heart, modern life throws up a vista of destructive uglification. Progress heartlessly tramples tradition.
Yesterday, this newspaper reported concerns that the view of the summer solstice at Stonehenge could be obstructed by the construction of thousands of soldiers’ homes by the Ministry of Defence. But the outbreak of anxiety stretches across the nation, from Salisbury Plain to the City of London. There, views are being threatened by gross and artless new intrusions. In particular, the holy site of St Paul’s is surrounded by an encroaching army of mirror-glass monsters. Wren’s great cathedral – which endured Hitler’s Blitz – may not survive the ambitions of German pension funds with a need to maximise profit on allowable plot-ratios.
There is an argument, however, that view anxiety is just indulgent, naive sentiment. Nostalgia, after all, was originally defined as an illness. The English may have invented the idea of the picturesque, which gives us a special attachment to an 18th-century notion of visual delight. But that exquisite Palladian villa located in its man-made park is at least as artificial a creation as a hypermarket. And what exactly is the difference between the hated wind turbine – source of much agitation among defenders of views – and the delightful 18th-century windmills that John Constable painted? His were industrial scenes. Constable was a modern man.