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Of Brick Facades and Fallen Culture

IT'S certainly odd the things you remember from college. An art professor once told me that the decline of the Roman Empire could be explained by their use of marble veneer on stone buildings - as opposed to the Greeks who used solid marble blocks. His comments popped into my mind again recently. A large brick building is being constructed within view of my apartment. It has climbed rapidly to what Washington happily considers the appropriate height for buildings. Then, this morning, I noticed brick had appeared on the outside of the first few floors - almost instantly.

I investigated and found that large sheets of brick were being applied to the building's skeleton. These sheets, I learned from a worker, were actually composed of 1/2 inch bricks laid into a mold and then covered with three inches of poured concrete. The brick veneer is swung into place with the use of a crane. The sheets are positioned and then fastened to the skeleton with bolts. The workmen seemed to be going about their jobs cheerfully, unaware that they were participating in and contributing to the decline of their culture.

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Think about my professor's explanation. What it's really saying is that dishonesty is the prelude to decline. Are things in our culture honestly what they seem? We live in an age of false fronts - from fake brick to fake bosoms. Doesn't this use of subterfuge imply a certain lack of respect for each other? What does it mean to build a building that says it's one thing when it's another?

Certain assumptions go along with brick buildings. First, they are composed of tiny objects that are transformed into very large objects by the application of careful and repetitious industry. Second, they were built by people who respect and are willing to foot the costs for the careful, time-consuming labor required of such construction. Such assumptions about this building would be wrong. It's being constructed efficiently and economically, but it isn't what it appears to be.

Do we care if our buildings lie to us? Apparently not. Every third house in suburbia has frilly curtains in the windows of its garage - for the comfort and visual pleasure, presumably, of its automobiles, lawn mowers, and garbage cans. But the implication is that the dwelling contains more living space than, in fact, it does. Its be-curtained windows, in all likelihood, are made of insulated glass with fake, snap-in panes. Its shutters are plastic. All over America plastic or aluminum siding is posing as wood.

Occasionally even the authentic is made to appear fake. Real wood cabinets in many new kitchens have been varnished to an unreal perfection. They look vinyl. Some people prefer the imitations - prefer the taste of coffee whitener to cream, and willingly choose Corian over marble.

That we want these materials to represent something other than what they are is a nostalgic nod to the past - a weak attempt to say ``I am a person who respects our traditional culture.'' But when choosing between respect for tradition and faster and cheaper, the latter win all too often. Oddly enough, those who consider themselves conservatives and traditionalists most often practice these deceptions.

I first heard about the decline and fall of the Roman Empire when I was a child. The image conjured up was truly apocalyptic. In my mind this historical event represented total destruction and an annihilation of the people. It was a long time before I realized that the Romans are still here - we call them Italians. And Italy is a pretty nice place to go and the Italians seem to be fairly happy people.

A good decline might not be such a bad thing. England is in a decline, but it can be a very comfortable place to live. And the inevitable loss of power from a decline is not a total negative. Many people I know are ``powering down'' in a conscious effort to enjoy life more.

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If my art professor is right, the building going up next door is clearly signaling the decline and fall of the American Empire. If all this means is that we're going to have to endure outdoor cafes, good food, snappy shoes, and Rome's relaxed approach to life, perhaps it won't be that bad. But if, on the other hand, our leaders believe in maintaining a position of national strength, then we'd better put integrity and honesty higher on our list, and rethink the implications of applying sheets of brick to reinforced concrete. Clearly, the handwriting is on the wall.

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