Book Reviews - Winter 2010

The Tales Buildings Tell

Architects can overwhelm their creations; time can make a hash of great visions

By Stanley Abercrombie | December 1, 2009


The Secret Lives of Buildings: From the Ruins of the Parthenon to the Vegas Strip in Thirteen Stories, by Edward Hollis, Metropolitan Books, 338 pp., $28

What a happy tingle of discovery to come across a book that differs sharply from all the others in its field! Most books about architecture focus on buildings in pristine condition shortly after construction or unbuilt projects in the purity of their conception, their ideal states further idealized in painstakingly selective photography. The Secret Lives of Buildings has almost no pictures at all, just one small black-and-white image for each of the 13 structures it considers. There are no floor plans or sections, little discussion of materials, few descriptions of what it is like to visit the buildings, and certainly no polemics about design. It even seems that the author, Edward Hollis, an architect who teaches at the Edinburgh College of Art, has no reverence for—and perhaps no belief in—the concept of a building that remains pure forever, if only in our imagination or in the pages of books.

The book’s introduction evokes Thomas Cole’s 1840 painting The Architect’s Dream, an impossible cityscape assembling monuments from Egyptian, Classical, and Gothic times and places, with the dreaming architect surveying it all from atop a giant column. The introduction also quotes several times from Christopher Alexander, the architect (and at times anti-architect), theorist, writer, and advocate of changing architectural processes based on underlying patterns of building rather than finished architectural forms. “When a place is lifeless or unreal,” Alexander is quoted as saying, “there is almost always a mastermind behind it. It is so filled with the will of its maker that there is no room for its own nature.”

Then we begin our tour of a baker’s dozen buildings. Here even the chapter heads and subheads display an atypical quirkiness. For example: “The Parthenon, Athens: In Which a Virgin Is Ruined”; “The Basilica of San Marco, Venice: In Which a Prince Steals Four Horses and an Empire”; “Ayasofya, Istanbul: In Which a Sultan Casts a Spell and Moves the Centre of the World.” These are followed by sub-subheads such as Ruin, Theft, Evolution, Inheritance, Simulation, and Misunderstanding. The subjects are presented chronologically from the Parthenon to the Venetian hotel in Las Vegas (“In Which History Is So, Like, Over”), to the Western Wall in Jerusalem (“In Which Nothing and Everything Has Changed”), said to be “older by far than the Parthenon, and in some quarters much better known.”

Hollis is concerned with his chosen buildings’ metaphysical states, not as their architects conceived them but as we eventually come to regard them after they have endured the changes of their “secret lives.” Yes, but . . . What if the Parthenon had been spared the explosion of 1687? What if it had never been transformed into a Byzantine church or an Ottoman mosque? What if Lord Elgin hadn’t hacked off its carvings and shipped them to England? Wouldn’t it be a better Parthenon today? Maybe, maybe not, Hollis seems to think, for his ideal Parthenon is something beyond the building’s physical condition. “One day,” he writes, “all that will be left of the Parthenon will be fragments imprisoned in museums. . . . Then, liberated from physical being, the Parthenon will have become nothing but an idea, and at last it will be perfect.”

The often calamitous history of this not-yet-perfected building may even have benefited it, Hollis maintains:

For stories and for buildings alike, incremental change has been the paradoxical mechanism of their preservation. Not one of the buildings whose secret lives are recounted here has lost anything by having been transformed. Instead, they have endured in a way that they would never have done if no one had ever altered them. Architecture is all too often imagined as if buildings do not—and should not—change. But change they do, and have always done.

He gives a more specific example:

When the barbarians came to Rome . . . having no use for theaters, temples, and fora, they turned them into fortresses for their warriors, prisons for their captives, and enclosures for their cattle. . . . These were often brutal conversions, but it is thanks to them that any theaters, bathhouses, or fora have survived at all.

Many of Hollis’s building histories, however, have a less upbeat ending. Alberti’s unfinished 15th-century Tempio Malatestiano in Rimini is said to be “nothing more than an incomplete sentence, a non sequitur, a stutter.” Gloucester Cathedral “was a rumor, a cover-up, repeated and elaborated so many times that in the end everyone believed it.” When in 2006 Pope Benedict visited Ayasofya (Hagia Sophia), “The babble of the crowd echoed against a dark and empty dome, and their aimless feet trampled the stone that had once been the navel of the world.”

“The restored Notre Dame,” we are told, “was an arbitrary fiction, a combination of romance and science that would have baffled the masons who had built it in the first place. Like The Architect’s Dream, it characterizes less the grand sweep of history than the moment of time in which it was made.” And by that Hollis seems to mean not the 12th century when it was conceived but the 19th century in which Viollet-le-Duc undertook the impossible task of restoring it “to the state that had existed before time and man had wrought their destruction upon it.” Impossible, because “Not only had the contents of this encyclopedic library of the medieval mind been lost, but also the very materials of which it had been made and the very skills that had made it.”

The book closes poignantly but rather mysteriously with the complex history of Jerusalem’s Western Wall (or Wailing Wall, or Al-Buraq Wall, or Kotel), which “has been excavated and restored in prophecies and has become a tourist spectacle. It has been evolving for centuries, and in all likelihood it always will be. All of this has taken place in the blinking of an eye. Like all architecture, the Western Wall is nothing more than a miraculous blizzard that will have turned to rain by morning.”

Hollis thinks with such originality and writes with such flair that he is a pleasure to read, even when we are disagreeing with him. We are told this is his first book; I hope it will not be his last.

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