The past is a prettier place

But the older fabric with which European cities can work is a true gift. It gives far greater scope to mould cultural resources. You can work with layers of history and the patina of ages, blending old and new. You can contain the car and make places walkable, and the density makes public transport very efficient. Yet finding novel, vibrant roles and purposes for the more ancient European towns, beyond keeping them pretty for tourists, is hard. Nothing wrong with tourists, but when there are too many the lifeblood of a city can be sucked out. A place can fossilize. Think, almost at random, of Delft, Rothenberg, Vaasa, Cortona, Broadway in the Cotswolds and thousands more from Italy, France, Germany, Britain and the Netherlands. Antiques and souvenir shops are fine as far as it goes, but is that wealth creation? Going up a notch or two, Europe has a plethora of mid- to large-scale cities which seem to define what we mean by urbanity: Nice, Parma, Munich, Lucca, Lyons, Reims, Heidelberg, Graz, Orvieto, Utrecht. North America has few cities of this type as most cities there were constructed to feed the needs of the car. The great Italian or French cities and the cities defined by 19th century urban bourgeois architecture in particular have something handsome about them: a touch grand but not overblown, not overwhelming in height but manageable, with mixed uses - ground floor shops, first floor offices and residential above. The streets are tree-lined, wide enough to take parking and often boulevarded to reduce the visual impact of endless asphalt. The vibrancy generated can stretch across the emotions: self-satisfied when the bourgeois sense of self is too confident; gutsy when the urban grime and grot creeps in as the poor and better off coexist; and purposefully calm when you know business is being conducted behind façades encrusted with the urban sweat of ages.

However, Europe, like everywhere else, has it share of ugliness: cheap buildings in the modernist vein, inappropriate design, grim outer estates, shed culture at the urban edges. The functional buildings of the industrial age often had a proud presence and solidity in marked contrast to the throwaway, portal-framed sheds that allow for vast covered spaces, with a built-in 15- to 20-year cycle. Can you imagine the artists and hip designers of the 2030s recycling these sheds for inspiration or trendy middle classes converting them into designer apartments? Another thought. We think of Italy as an apex of the urban experience: the walkable, mixed-use city clustered around a historical core enlivened nightly by the hubbub of the passegiata. Yet if we only consider Italian post-war settlements, forgetting pre-war grandeur, you sense they have lost the art of city-making. True, the grid-patterned streets and boulevards are leavened by ground-floor uses in apartment blocks. There are messily parked cars, ubiquitous cafés and general hanging around -outdoor life to give the city a greater street presence. But beyond the ring roads that hug the centres and probe into the estates, there can be a dull bleakness to match anything else other countries can offer.

Although there is increasing convergence, we can still contrast Eastern and Western Europe 15 years after the fall of the Soviet Union and the Berlin Wall. Ironically, as Western Europeans yearned after lost architectural grandeur, they rediscovered Krakow, Prague, Budapest, St Petersburg, Ljubljana, Lvov, Odessa and Timisoara, where there were few resources to allow modern development to take them apart, and where budget airlines now ply their trade. Their faded, dilapidated elegance, as that of Havana, reminded people of what their home cities could still be. Interestingly it was often the more successful places of the past in the West that suffered most in terms of losing their grandeur. Birmingham, Manchester and Bristol had their hearts transplanted and renewed or torn out, depending on perspective. Those cities struggling in the 1960s and 1970s boom, like Glasgow, were by contrast able to maintain most of their fabric. Thus the example of Eastern Europe represents a mixed blessing. Grandeur is often preserved through lack of economic good fortune. A washed-out charm - peeling delights mixed with grey clad buildings in a Soviet style - can take some beating.

Some of the best buildings of the earlier Stalin period have a grandeur and self-confidence, especially in Moscow, Warsaw or even Kiev. Ex-Yugoslavia had its own socialist modernism that still has much to offer in places like Belgrade or Zagreb. Kenzo Tange's brash, bold Skopje reconstruction plan of 1966, after the 1963 earthquake, particularly stands the test of time. But as money ran out, standards dropped and an obsessive homogeneity began to tighten its grip, leaving a beaten-up feel: the 'joys' of Bucharest, Katowice, Iasi, the outer estates of Sofia, Kishinev or St Petersburg, the Nova Huta steel factory and its estates in Krakow come to mind. With rust seeping through the reinforced concrete, these buildings are nonetheless difficult to destruct. Here are tired metal bus shelters, twisted concrete benches, concrete cancer, weeping cement, bent metal shutters. Now political posters from last year's election add to the visual cacophony. There are more adverts for Coca Cola, West and Marlborough cigarettes, beer, vodka, the swoosh of Nike and mobiles than a Westerner will ever have seen. Sometimes they take up entire sides of six-story buildings. They are placed inappropriately. In Odessa I was bemused by 4x3m flashing, noisy ads covering the windows and sightlines of 19th Century buildings. And for visual clutter, the surrounds of Bucharest airport must be breaking some records. One senses and knows this was not planned, however - a great deal of corruption and backhanders have played their part. And one sees on occasion a calming relic: old hand-painted giant adverts for collectivized firms. The larger cities at least have some buzz to go with the visual pollution, but less-known, smaller cities like Kraljevo, Ucize, Elbasan, Durres, Nickel, Tetovo, Banja Luka, Bitola and Kosice have less to offer.

Then there are moments of surprise, originality and inspiration. Tirana's mayor, Edi Rama, ordered the painting of several hundred old buildings, using the drab and dismal grey buildings as a fresh canvas and creating a riot of brash colour and Mondrian-style designs to beautify the city and change its psychological state. It is more reminiscent of a Pop Art painting than an urban restoration project. For a couple of years, around 4 per cent of the city budget was spent on paint in an attempt change the psychology of citizens. Rama noted that the main challenge was to persuade people that change is possible. The former artist noted, 'Being the mayor of Tirana is the highest form of conceptual art. It's art in a pure state.'

In contrast, in the drive for modernity in most of the East, a pervasive, new hyper-capitalist style has spread. Cheap reflective glass - if you're lucky, in fake gold or luminous green - throws your image back at you. Sometimes you can catch yourself in the mirror against the backdrop of an old building. Pressed and anodized aluminium, plastic sheeting and panelling, fibreglass, crushed aggregates and insulation materials collude to flimsy, mean and miserable effect. Patterns are cruder, colour definitions as yet still too unsubtle. These materials are not flexible and do not weather well. Bits are bolted on to the main structures rather than being designed in, giving buildings an unrefined, mechanical feel. Modular design and new techniques able to produce larger panels, much bigger than bricks, have made buildings lose texture. The ability to extrude sections and shape and bend segments in enticing ways is limited. Able to get greater access to the West's new materials of 25 years ago, the Eastern European city planners aim to get as much fanciness as possible for the minimum cost. Yet the results can be tawdry and cheap. This was (and to an extent remains) no different in the West across the whole developed world. Its scars splatter the horizon. The buildings are technically fine - they do their job functionally - but not aesthetically. In the East costs remain more important than aesthetics, whereas in the West the value-adding impact of design and quality is now more recognized.

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