It is now known that a perfection of planned layout is achieved only by institutions on the point of collapse. This apparently paradoxical conclusion is based upon a wealth of archaeological and historical research, with the more esoteric details of which we need not concern ourselves. In general principle, however, the method pursued has been to select and date the buildings which appear to have been perfectly designed for their purpose. A study and comparison of these has tended to prove that perfection of planning is a symptom of decay. During a period of exciting discovery or progress there is no time to plan the perfect headquarters. The time for that comes later, when all the important work has been done. Perfection, we know, is finality; and finality is death.
Thus, to the casual tourist, awestruck in front of St Peter's, Rome, the Basilica and the Vatican must seem the ideal setting for the Papal Monarchy at the very height of its prestige and power. Here, he reflects, must Innocent III have thundered his anathema. Here must Gregory VII have laid down the law. But a glance at the guide-book will convince the traveller that the really powerful Popes reigned long before the present dome was raised, and reigned not infrequently somewhere else. More than that, the late Popes lost half their authority while the work was still in progress. Julius II, whose decision it was to build, and Leo X, who approved Raphael's design, were dead long before the buildings assumed their present shape. Bramante's palace was still building until 1565, the great church not consecrated until 1626, nor the piazza colonnades finished until 1667. The great days of the Papacy were over before the perfect setting was even planned. There were almost forgotten by the date of its completion.
That this sequence of events is in no way exceptional can be proved with ease. Just such a sequence can be found in the history of the League of Nations. Great hopes centred on the League from its inception in 1920 until about 1930. By 1933, at the latest, the experiment was seen to have failed. Its physical embodiment, however, the Palace of the Nations, was not opened until 1937. It was a structure no doubt justly admired. Deep thought had gone into the design of secretariat and council chambers, committee rooms and cafeteria. Everything was there which ingenuity could devise—except, indeed, the League itself. By the year when it Palace was formally opened the League had practically ceased to exist.
It might be urged that the Palace of Versailles is an instance of something quite opposite; the architectural embodiment of Louis XIV's monarchy at its height. But here again the facts refuse to fit the theory. For granted that Versailles may typify the triumphant spirit of that age, it was mostly completed very late in the reign, and some of it indeed during the reign that followed. The building of Versailles mainly took placed between 1669 and 1685. The king did not move there until 1682, and even then the work was still in progress. The famous royal bedroom was not occupied until 1701, nor the chapel finished until nine years later. Considered as a seat of government, rather than a royal residence, Versailles dates in part from as late as 1756. On the other hand, Louis XIV's real triumphs were mostly before 1679, the apex of his career being reached in 1682 itself and his power declining from about 1685. According to one historian, Louis, in coming to Versailles, 'was already sealing the doom of his line and race'. Another says of Versailles that 'The whole thing . . . was completed just when the decline of Louis' power had begun.' A third tacitly supports this theory by describing the period 1685–1713 as 'The years of Decline'. In other words, the visitor who thinks Versailles the place from which Turenne rode forth to victory is essentially mistaken. It would be historically more correct to picture the embarrassment, in that setting, of those who came with the new of defeat at Blenheim. In a palace resplendent with emblems of victory they can hardly have known which way to look.