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Rob Hardy: Secret lives of buildings


Rob Hardy



We were touring a castle in England years ago, and came to the banqueting hall. "This hall has been remodeled many times," the sign in the room said, "the last time in 1654." It was a reminder of how old buildings in the Old World really are, and a cause for doubt: can it be that this room looked just the same as it did more than 300 years ago? I thought of that sign many times as I was reading "The Secret Lives of Buildings: From the Ruins of the Parthenon to the Vegas Strip in Thirteen Stories" (Metropolitan Books) by Edward Hollis.  


The author is an architect and teacher who has specialized in alterations to historic buildings. Hollis says that "architecture is all too often imagined as if buildings do not--and should not--change." An emblem of this idea is included here, "The Architect''s Dream," a painting from 1840 by Thomas Cole, which shows an impossibly rich array of buildings all together, from pyramids to a gothic spire, each of them looking as new as if they had been built yesterday.  


A dream, indeed, a complete fantasy; an architect might design a building with initial perfection, but buildings do change. " ... the fact that all great buildings mutate over time is often treated as something of a dirty secret, or at best a source of melancholic reflection." Hollis argues otherwise. If we insist that pristine buildings are the only ones that count, we eliminate examples of architecture that are important, and not just the ancient ones. His book includes some famous buildings, some infamous ones, and some not buildings at all. The eccentric choices and sometimes whimsical narratives belie that this is a serious book of architectural appreciation. 


It is good to start with that icon of the ancient world, the Parthenon. It was built as a home for the gods, but served many more centuries as a Christian church, first Roman and then Orthodox. Then it was a mosque. Then it became a magazine for ammunition; in all these versions, it was remodeled and changed to suit each new use. When the ammunition blew up, it became an unusable ruin, the pieces of which we see on the Acropolis hilltop today.  


Hollis maintains, however, it is not even the ruin from the old days. It has been subsequently ruined by depredation, with fragments dispersed not just as the famous Elgin Marbles to London, but also to the Vatican, to Vienna, and who knows where else. Not only have important pieces of it left their site of origin, but both earthquakes and attempts at renovation have made a jumble of what is left. Even if we think that the Parthenon was once a perfect building, that perfection was based on the individuality of every stone in it; each of them were cut to have only one home, none will fit precisely anywhere else, and any reassemblage like the current one is not only not perfect, it is not the Parthenon.  


The current recreation is arbitrary; the men who made the decisions about remaking the temple in the 19th century were Hellenophiles, but (and this is one of the lessons of Hollis''s text) renovation could just have well gone back to, say, its period as a mosque if the religious or historic enthusiasm of those in charge had been different. The Parthenon has been reproduced full size in many locales, not to mention being reproduced in snow globes or on tea towels. The Parthenon is going away, and is an idea rather than a building; when it inevitably dissolves away, "liberated from physical being, the Parthenon will have become nothing but an idea, and at last it will be perfect."  


Hollis begins many of his chapters with "Once upon a time," calling upon legends and stories to help examine the meaning of the bricks and mortar. This is most fitting in the flitting of the Holy House of Loreto, which, like the Parthenon, is better as an idea than as a real building. The house was the very building where an angel flew in through the window to tell Mary that she was going to be having the baby Jesus. The house became a shrine within a church, and then it disappeared and flitted away to Europe, and attracted a mass of people including thieves, so it flitted to a meadow, and when those responsible for it fought over the profits it could give them, it flitted to a hill, and so on.  


Not only that, but copies flitted to other places; there were 50 of them in the Czech Republic alone. Some were built by carpenters, but others showed up by some sort of angelic copying and transportation system. This is why Our Lady of Loreto is the patron saint of air travel. Hollis''s story-within-a-story retelling of the flittings nicely mirrors the peculiarities of this legendary building, one which he admits has none of the splendor or architectural interest of the others he describes.  


For me, the most interesting of the chapters was about Notre Dame de Paris, one of the most-visited cathedrals in the world. If you have been, you have been impressed by the medieval gloom of the building. Indeed, the oppressiveness of the building was felt acutely by the Communards who attempted to destroy it in 1871. It had not been so gloomy just a few years before. Victor Hugo''s novel about the cathedral''s hunchback came out in 1831, and was a sensation. People wanted to see the dark and Gothic old place where Quasimodo hung out. They could not. The cathedral had "enlightened" during the Revolution, with transparent windows taking the place of the pictorial colorful but dark ones, and the interior had been coated with multicolored marble, resembling "nothing so much as a gilded salon at Versailles or a scene at the opera." The call for re-gothicizing the cathedral was answered by architect Viollet-le-Duc, but he was reimagining a building that had never been built to an original design; it had originally been built by generations of craftsmen who changed the design as they went along, and then changed what had gone before. The skills and the materials of the time had been lost; what you see now isn''t actually medieval, but a nineteenth century imagining of what medieval ought to be. 


There is a chapter about another reimagining, that of the Venice imported to Vegas (and now to China) as a gambling environment. There is a chapter here on what happened to the Berlin Wall, both the traces of it upon the city and the chunks of it that were processed to be sold to lovers of freedom (and knickknacks) the world over. A fascinating chapter gives the story of the Hulme Crescents in Manchester, a utopian housing plan that turned out to be doomed futurism. Hollis can tell a story well, adapting each chapter''s style to the construction involved. For all its quirkiness and often heartfelt subjectivity, the book is bound to impress any reader with its marshalling of facts on each building and with the lively way Hollis has described the often bizarre ways people and natural forces have changed the buildings, sometimes beyond recognition. 



Rob Hardy is a local psychiatrist who reviews books for a hobby. His e-mail address is [email protected]


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