Less Beautiful Cathedrals

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It is easy to think that the world used to be more beautiful. In some ways, it was.

Spend a week in Paris and you’ll frequently find yourself in awe at some of humanity’s most spectacular structures — places like the Notre Dame and Versailles. 

And then you fly back to your (relatively) newly built American hometown, where the local watering hole might look more like this:

It’s easy to come away from experiences like these and wonder:  Why don’t we build beautiful structures (like cathedrals, palaces, and monuments) anymore?

The intuitive answer might be something nostalgic. Maybe the world was just better back then, or people had better taste, or modern values are sucking the soul out of our architecture. This is the kind of answer you’ll tend to find in conversations with friends, online, or in the media.

The actual answer is more optimistic.

Where did all the cathedrals go?

The correct answer to “why don’t we build so many beautiful structures anymore?” is that we have changed how we prioritize resource allocation — and mostly for the better. Below are a few examples of beautiful, world-famous structures that were built primarily by governments (monarchies, dictators, etc.) over the years, along with their costs:

  • Versailles: During a period in France's history in which much of the working-class population struggled for basic sustenance, Louis XIV decided to build Versailles. More than 35,000 workers built the palace over 40 years, and it cost up to $300B to build (in today’s money).

  • Hagia Sophia: In 532, Christian emperor Justinian I of the Byzantine Empire ordered that the Hagia Sophia (located in modern-day Istanbul) be built. The project likely cost billions of dollars in today’s money, and involved more than 10,000 workers over a period of more than 5 years.

  • The Great Pyramid of Giza: While most of the population was living in mud-brick houses, Pharaoh Khufu ordered the construction of the Great Pyramid of Giza. The pyramid, built by thousands of people (some of whom may have been slaves), took decades to build. Historians have a difficult time estimating the price, but today it would cost something like $4B to build.

  • Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral: Having conquered the Aztec empire and having slaughtered many of its inhabitants, the Spanish Catholics decided to build a cathedral on top of a sacred Aztec site. Building with the stones of an Aztec temple the Spanish had toppled, generations of indigenous slaves were put to work for more than 200 years before the cathedral was finally finished. There is no great estimate on cost, but it would likely be in the billions today.

While places like Versailles and the Hagia Sophia are magical to visit (and constitute the most important parts of many vacation itineraries worldwide), they were built by governments that did not care about their people in the way that many representative republics and democracies do today. Catholic rulers built monasteries on the backs of abused laborers and stolen resources because they believed it would please their god. People like Louis XIV just had lavish, superficial personal whims — and near-infinite resources to pursue them. In the past, building these structures meant making sacrifices you could not justify now.

Today, we do things a bit differently. Just imagine a politician in your local area suggesting that, instead of providing some social benefit (e.g. supporting the homeless, free healthcare), they were going to redirect the funds to build a massive building — because it would look cool or because it would shower glory on their preferred god. In most republics and democracies today, we no longer make extreme human sacrifices and trade-offs to build things that look cool. (We still can and should build things that look cool, but we shouldn’t be killing people in order to do it.)

We typically don’t use public funds to construct things like Versailles anymore — we build the International Space Station. We don’t build the Hagia Sophia anymore — we fund research that cures diseases. We don’t build the Pyramid of Giza anymore — we do our best to provide ample housing for people who need a place to sleep. We don’t build the Mexico City Metropolitan Cathedral anymore — we create beauty in other ways. 

A closing note on the beauty of cities: Paris is more beautiful than somewhere like Cleveland for many reasons, not just because of its cathedrals and palaces. There’s more to it, but that’s perhaps an essay for another day.

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1: This is explicitly stated in the essay above, but just in case, it’s worth noting that we are not writing about cities in general here. We are writing specifically about the grand old structures you find in older cities. 

2: It’s very hard to put the cost of building a lot of these massive structures in a modern-day figure that makes sense. (At the time building some of these things may not have been particularly expensive — the Mexico City cathedral, for example, was built mostly by slaves).

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