By Peter Preston (THE GUARDIAN, 09/07/07):
So, 90 million votes later – plus a Lisbon awards ceremony touting turns by J-Lo, Hilary Swank, Chaka Khan and Bernard Piccard – we have a winner, or rather seven of them. The new, internet-sanctified, blog-consecrated wonders of the world, as elected by you lot, logging in from round the globe, are Chichen Itza, Machu Picchu, Rio’s Christ the Redeemer, Rome’s Colosseum, the Taj Mahal, Petra and the Great Wall of China. Except, of course, they’re not: because, just like the gardens that once hung in Babylon, these are sites and sights for gawping by tourist hordes. And there’s nothing very wonderful about that.
No: the true wonders of human existence involve humanity itself. They are living, breathing, bustling, constantly changing things. Unfashionably, it seems – because we spend most of our time complaining about them or trying to escape from them – they are cities.
You may find that tangentially acknowledged in the longer list of 21 from which the magnificent victors were picked. The Eiffel Tower is imposing enough, with a nice if expensive restaurant on the premier étage, but its only real significance comes as a shorthand, postcard symbol for Paris. Ditto the Acropolis, looking better from afar than close up (which rather sums up Athens). Turn left at the Statue of Liberty and head straight for Guantánamo Bay. Let Christ the Redeemer – redeemed by location, location – do symbolic duty for all of them. Let Petra, a rose-red ruin lost down a rather long hike from the bus station, remind us what might have been if people actually lived there.
Cities are different. Great cities hum with restless energy. Small cities and towns need communities to make them whole. Their amazement lies in the inter-reaction between surroundings and people. You don’t get that tramping the Colosseum behind a Japanese guide. You don’t even feel it as you go through the gates of the Taj Mahal (turning off the busy, dusty street of carpet shops and Coke stalls where the life of Agra goes on day by day). Yet, time and again, it’s the personal chemistry that counts.
Higher authority may, or may not, have carved the Grand Canyon, but we groundlings, we scuttling ants of this earth, are always contriving something to wonder at – if only we stop to look. You want big and instant? Then I remember, two decades ago, wandering out of CNN headquarters into Atlanta’s sudden nest of skyscrapers across the road and pausing in awe at the 22-floor atrium of the Hyatt Regency as the ants piled into lifts. Catch it quick before the bulldozers arrive: Unesco doesn’t stand sentinel here.
You want small and intense? Then stand on the terrace in front of the church of Bom Jesus do Matozinhos in Congonhas amid the 12 soapstone statues of the prophets carved by a genius, Aleijadinho, barely known outside Brazil. Those prophets look down over a small square that, when it fills with folk criss-crossing, seems to create a bizarre dialogue. Those prophets are talking to us.
You want lushly civilised? Take the funicular down to Ouchy from central Lausanne and watch those who wander au bord du lac. Or raw and rumbustious? Then Lahore, where the women of Pakistan climb on to the backs of motorbikes and roar through the centre, skirts twitching in the wind, is a great place for great surprises. Would anyone in their right mind nominate Tirana for sanctification? Yet, blue, red and yellow, its houses daubed bright by mayoral decree, it says more about resilience and ambition than a hundred old statues from the Balkan beyond. Or Portland, Oregon, riven crudely along the river by a roaring freeway but, just up the hill, contriving a mesh of relaxed avenues like no America Hollywood acknowledges.
These are all wonders of my world, six starters for seven caught for a while in shifting memory. A seventh, years ago, would have been Pier Head, where the ferries across the Mersey gurgled in the shadow of the Liver building; but that was then, and now – decades down in the Smoke – you stand on Waterloo Bridge and see a city transforming itself around you. There, in the fabric of the bridge (as Peter Ackroyd, supreme lover of London, observes) is the bed of the Upper Jurassic Sea that once covered our capital; and there, beyond St Paul’s, are the concrete temples of lower Jurassic Livingstone.
Who wants to vote for any of these, conjunctions as ephemeral as the last Big Brother eviction? Who, indeed, needs more lists over a weekend where TV has dished up the 100 “best war films” and 50 “worst decisions ever” before moving to do C4’s lousiest 100 100-list programmes? But it’s still the best place to start: not havering and block voting over wonders that are gone, but wondering where the brilliance of humanity, living and creating together, goes next.