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The Secret Lives of Buildings



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About The Author

Edward Hollis

Edward Hollis is an architect and designer who teaches at the Edinburgh College of Art. Trained at Cambridge and Edinburgh universities, he worked for five years in the United Kingdom as a practicing architect, specializing in alterations to historic buildings. This is his... More

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EXCERPT

Introduction

The Architect's Dream

Once upon a time, an architect had a dream. The curtain of his bourgeois parlor was rent, and he found himself reclining on top of a colossal column overlooking a great port. On a nearby hill, the spire of a Gothic cathedral rose above pointed cypresses in a dark wood; on the other side of the river, a Corinthian rotunda and the brick arches of a Roman aqueduct were bathed in golden light. This aqueduct had been built on top of a Grecian colonnade, in front of which a procession led from the waterside to an elaborate Ionic shrine. Farther away the austere form of a Doric temple crouched beneath an Egyptian palace, and behind them all, veiled in haze and a wisp of cloud, was the Great Pyramid.

It was a moment of absolute stillness. A perspective in time had become a perspective in space, as the past receded in an orderly fashion, style by style, from the parlor curtain of the present all the way back to the horizon of antiquity. The Dark Ages partially obscured classical splendor; Roman magnificence was built on the foundation of Grecian reason; the glory that was Greece lay in the shadow of the ur-architecture of Egypt. The array of buildings formed an architectural canon, each example dispensing inspiration, advice, and warning to the architect from the golden treasury of history.

All the great buildings of the past had been resurrected in a monumental day of rapture. Everything had been made new, and neither weather nor war nor wandering taste had scarred the scene. Everything was fixed just as it had been intended to be: each building was a masterpiece, a work of art, a piece of frozen music, unspoiled by compromise, error, or disappointment. There was nothing that could be added or taken away except for the worse. Each building was beautiful, its form and function held in perfect balance.

The scene was what architecture was, and is, and should be. But just before he awoke, the architect realized that he was dreaming, and he recalled the words of Prospero renouncing his conjured dominion at the end of The Tempest.

  The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,
  The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
  Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
  And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
  Leave not a rack behind: We are such stuff
  As dreams are made on, and our little life
  Is rounded with a sleep.

***

The Architect’s Dream was dreamed by an émigré from the Old World to the New. Thomas Cole was born in Lancashire in 1801, but he spent his adult life among the crags and forests of the Hudson Valley north of New York City, where he painted pictures of an arcadia not yet buried under towers and palaces and temples. Cole could not prevent himself from thinking about the Old World he had left behind, and he knew that one day the New World would come to resemble it. His cycle of paintings titled The Course of Empire depicted the Hudson Valley at five different stages: in The Savage State, The Arcadian or Pastoral State, at The Consummation of Empire, at The Destruction of Empire, and in Desolation. In these five images, a virgin forest at dawn becomes a great city at noon. By dusk it is a broken heap of stones, whited under a watery moon.

In 1840, the architect Ithiel Town commissioned Cole to paint The Architect’s Dream and paid him in pattern books. Town didn’t much like the painting, but it came to be regarded as Cole’s masterpiece. Cole’s funeral eulogy extolled it among the “principal works . . . of his genius” as “an assemblage of structures, Egyptian, Gothic, Grecian, Moorish, such as might present itself to the imagination of one who had fallen asleep after reading a work on the different styles of architecture.”

Cole’s vision still haunts architects. Pick up any classic work on architecture, glance at the pictures, and you will find yourself lost in a similar panorama of “the different styles.” Crisp line drawings describe the masterworks of antiquity looking as new and fresh as the day they were born; blue skies, clean streets, and a complete absence of people lend architectural photographs the timeless quality of The Architect’s Dream. It’s not just the illustrations; the written history of architecture is also a litany of masterpieces, unchanging and unchanged, from the Great Pyramid of Giza to its glass descendants in Paris or Las Vegas. The great buildings of the past are described as if the last piece of scaffolding has just been taken away, the paint is still fresh on the walls, and the ribbon has not yet been cut—as if, indeed, history had never happened.

It is a timeless vision because timeless is just what we expect great architecture to be. Nearly a century ago, the Viennese architect Adolf Loos observed that architecture originates not, as one might expect, in the dwelling, but in the monument. The houses of our ancestors, which were contingent responses to their ever-shifting needs, have perished. Their tombs and temples, which  were intended to endure for the eternity of death and the gods, remain, and it is they that form the canon of architectural history.

The very discourse of architecture is a discourse on perfection, a word which derives from the Latin for finished. The Roman theorist Vitruvius claimed that architecture was perfect when it held commodity, firmness, and delight in delicate balance. A millennium and a half later, his Renaissance interpreter Leone Battista Alberti wrote that perfect beauty is that to which nothing may be added, and from which nothing may be taken away. The modernist architect Le Corbusier described the task of his profession as “the problem of fixing standards, in order to face the problem of perfection.”

In the discourse of architecture, all buildings, in order to remain beautiful, must not change; and all buildings, in order not to change, must aspire to the funereal condition of the monument. The tomb of Christopher Wren in the crypt of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London is a simple affair for so great a man, but the inscription on the wall above the sarcophagus belies its modesty. “Si monumentum requiris, circumspice,” it reads; “If you seek a monument, look around you.” All architects hope that the buildings they have designed will memorialize their genius, and so they dare to hope that their buildings will last forever, unaltered.

***

But The Architect’s Dream is just that: a dream, an illusion, a flat picture imprisoned in a frame. Imagine, for a moment, that the architect woke up from his dream, stepped out of the painting, and walked out of the museum where it is exhibited.

He might still find himself on top of a colossal column, but it wouldn’t command some monumental prospect. Instead, he would be looking into a tenement stairwell, which is just what he’d see if he’d climbed to the summit of the surviving columns of the Temple of Augustus in Barcelona. The Gothic cathedral would not be in some dark forest but right next door, and the walls of its crypt might be made from the foundations of a shrine to Apollo, as they are in Girona. The columns of that shrine might form the cathedral porch, as they do at Syracuse; and the altar would be an upturned Roman bathtub, just as it is in the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin in Rome. The cathedral would, like Chartres or Gloucester, have taken hundreds of years to build, and it would be a chaotic collage of different styles, overlaid with Victorian restorations of great enthusiasm and dubious accuracy. The Ionic temple, like that of Diana in Ephesus, would have been burned down by indignant Christians in the fifth century, while the Corinthian rotunda would have been turned into a fortress, just as the Pantheon was in medieval Rome. The Doric temple would have flitted away: its sculpture would be on display in London, like the Elgin marbles, and the building itself would have reappeared elsewhere, as the altar of Pergamene Zeus has been reconstructed in Berlin. The arches of the Roman aqueduct would be buried under the crowded slums of Jerusalem or Naples, its vaults now hiding places for criminals and the secret police. Only the tomb, the Great Pyramid, would have remained unaltered—marooned, monumentally useless, in the suburban sands of Giza.

The Architect’s Dream would have become a Jazz Age Manhattan, a twenty first century Shanghai, an Ottoman Istanbul, a medieval Venice, a noisy, dirty entrepôt of multitudinous architectures in the process of constant change. This city would be anything but still. In the process of its perpetual and simultaneous construction and decay, buildings would appear and disappear; they would be built on top of one another, out of one another, or inside one another. They would do battle, and then they would mate and produce monstrous offspring. Not a single building would survive as its makers had intended.

And the architect, who might be excused for finding his awakening a nightmare, would realize that the real world is stranger and more dreamlike than a painted dream. Before returning to his column within the picture frame, he might cast one last glance at the stormy scene outside and recall another passage from The Tempest.

  Full fathom five thy father lies;
  Of his bones are coral made;
  Those are pearls that were his eyes;
  Nothing of him that does fade,
  But doth suffer a sea-change
  Into something rich and strange.

***

This is a book of tales about the lives that buildings lead, in the course of which they all change into “something rich and strange”; and their cumulative argument is that the history of architecture is nothing like The Architect’s Dream. Indeed, these tales are told as the waking antidote to Cole’s vision and its hypnotic hold over architectural orthodoxy. That is why buildings have secret lives: all too often, the existence of their stories has been either overlooked or willfully ignored.

At the heart of architectural theory is a paradox: buildings are designed to last, and therefore they outlast the insubstantial pageants that made them. Then, liberated from the shackles of immediate utility and the intentions of their masters, they are free to do as they will. Buildings long outlive the purposes for which they were built, the technologies by which they were constructed, and the aesthetics that determined their form; they suffer numberless subtractions, additions, divisions, and multiplications; and soon enough their form and their function have little to do with one another. The architect Aldo Rossi, for example, observed of his own northern Italian milieu that “there are large palaces, building complexes, or agglomerations that constitute whole pieces of the city, and whose function now is no longer the original one. When one visits a monument of this type... one is struck by multiplicity of different functions that a building of this type can contain over time, and how these functions are completely independent of form.”

More often than not, the confident dicta of architectural theory are undermined by the secret lives of buildings, which are capricious, protean, and unpredictable; but all too often the contradiction is treated as the object of something of interest only to specialists involved in heritage conservation or interior design. We know all about the biographies of Le Corbusier or Frank Lloyd Wright, but much less about the biographies of the buildings they designed. It is more difficult by far to find studies that talk about the evolution of buildings themselves, as the wonderful and chimeric monsters that they are, than to find gossip about the monsters who designed them.

There are a few exceptions. In the nineteenth century, Viollet le-Duc in France and John Ruskin in England founded rival schools of conservation philosophy, whose twentieth century exegesis has been undertaken by such writers as Alois Riegl and Cesare Brandi. In the modernist era, obsessed as it was with the future, only Jože Plecnik and Carlo Scarpa seriously addressed themselves to the alteration of the buildings of the past, designing fascinating hybrids where modern architecture is collaged over the layered substrates of previous historical epochs. In more recent times, Fred Scott’s On Altering Architecture and Graeme Brooker and Sally Stone’s Rereadings have addressed the practice from the point of view of the interior architect, whose profession consists almost exclusively of the alteration of existing buildings.

Still, 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. This book argues not only that buildings will change, but also that they should. It is both a history of the alteration of buildings and a manifesto for the same.

***

The buildings whose secret lives are related here are a familiar cast, some of whom are more or less directly recognizable from The Architect’s Dream. The book begins, as all European architectural narratives must, with the Parthenon, which is followed, in orthodox fashion, by a textbook parade of masterpieces, from San Marco in Venice to a version of Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse. All of these are firmly situated in the orbit of Europe an culture, whose ultima Thules in this context are the Strip in Las Vegas to the west and the Western Wall in Jerusalem to the east. (The architecture of the rest of the world is less afflicted than that of the West by an obsession with permanence—the ancient buildings of Japan, for instance, are made of paper—and has less need, therefore, of an antidote.)

But the orthodox frame of this study is an ironic one, for these masterpieces, so called, are too capricious to answer to any one master. They are ruined, stolen, or appropriated. They flit away and reproduce themselves, evolve and are translated into foreign languages. They are simulated, prophesied, and restored, transformed into sacred relics, empty spectacles, and casus belli. It is the contention of this book that their beauty has not been made by any one artist but has been generated by their long and unpredictable lives. As the American theorist Christopher Alexander has argued, “When a place is lifeless or unreal, 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.” Timeless beauty “cannot be made, but only generated indirectly, by the ordinary actions of the people, just as a flower cannot be made, only generated from a seed.”

The buildings described in this book shapeshift from century to century, so the traditional chronologies of style that order architectural history are useless here. Instead, if there is an overarching structure to the sequence of stories, it derives from the ways in which attitudes toward architectural alteration have changed over time. The Visigoth, the medieval monk, and the modern archaeologist have all stood in front of the same classical building with wildly divergent proposals for its future, ranging from a good sacking to iconoclastic exorcism to careful excavation; each one of these approaches represents a commentary, if not necessarily an improvement, upon the attitude it has inherited.

All histories are in some sense commentaries on their predecessors, and acts of architectural alteration—those sackings, exorcisms, and excavations—can be seen as critiques, in built form, of the buildings they alter. “Anyone can be creative,” Bertolt Brecht once said; “it’s rewriting other people that’s a challenge.” Every performance of every play or piece of music is a reinterpretation, a rereading and rewriting of a script or score, and these performances take place without any of the anxiety we associate with the alteration of existing buildings. Musicians and actors are regarded as creative heroes without ever having had to produce a new work from scratch. It is accepted that their interpretations of Bach or Brecht are as valid a contribution to our culture as any original composition.

There are analogie here to the alteration of existing buildings. The problems that face early music ensembles or “period” performances of Shakespeare, for example, are very similar to those that faced the preservationists of the nineteenth century. Meanwhile, “modern” performances, from Karajan’s renditions of Beethoven to Hollywood reinterpretations of Jane Austen, may be compared to the operations of a Renaissance architect trying to translate a Gothic church into the classical idiom.

It might be objected that the difference between architecture and literature or music is that while scripts and scores exist independently of performances, buildings are not independent of the alterations wrought upon them. These are always irreversible and can therefore destroy their “hosts” in a way that dramatic or musical productions of a classic work cannot. But there is one field in which the performance and the thing performed are inseparable: the oral tradition. If a story is not written down, the only script that exists for the next performance is the previous telling. This means that the development of every tale is iterative; each retelling sets the conditions for the next, and stories from The Iliad to “Little Red Riding Hood” were both preserved and altered by countless narrators until they arrived on the written page. The classic case is the story of Cinderella, which first appears in the Europe an written record in the Middle Ages. The glass slipper on which much of the plot turns is made of gold in German and is a rubber galosh in Russian. In the German telling of the tale, the ugly sisters even cut off their toes to fit their feet into the slipper and spatter it with their blood. There is a ninth-century Chinese telling of the tale in which the fairy godmother is a fish and the palace ball a village fete; but Cinderella is still Cinderella all the same.

Buildings are less portable than stories, but there are significant parallels between their modes of transmission. As Christopher Alexander observed, “No building is ever perfect. Each building, when it is first built, is an attempt to make a self maintaining whole configuration. But the predictions are invariably wrong. People use buildings differently from the way they thought they would.” Accordingly, people have to make changes in order to maintain the fit between a structure and the events that take place in it. Each time this happens to a building “we assume we are going to transform it, that new wholes will be born, that, indeed, the entire whole which is being repaired will become a different whole as a result.” Each alteration is a “retelling” of the building as it exists at a particular time—and when the changes are complete it becomes the existing building for the next retelling. In this way the life of the building is both perpetuated and transformed by the repeated act of alteration and reuse.

This is exactly how stories are transmitted from generation to generation. Preserved and remade again and again, the buildings whose secret lives are recounted here have undergone metamorphoses that have the character of fairy tales or myths. The story of the transformation of the Berlin Wall into precious relics always makes me think of Rumpelstiltskin’s captive, trying to spin straw into gold, while the tale of the Wondrous Flitting of the Holy House of Loreto always provokes the question: “but what actually happened?”

I do not know what actually happened, and to answer such a question would be as useful as identifying the real Little Red Riding Hood. It is not the purpose of this book to deconstruct the stories (or the buildings) we have inherited from our forebears, but to narrate them, so that others can do the same in the future. Stories are like gifts; they must be accepted without skepticism and shared with others.

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. Buildings are gifts, and because they are, we must pass them on.

 
Excerpted from The Secret Lives of Buildings by Edward Hollis.
Copyright © 2009 by Edward Hollis.
Published in 2009 by Henry Holt and Company, LLC.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

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