The Secret Lives of Buildings

Review of Edward Hollis, The Secret Lives of Buildings: From the Ruins of the Parthenon to the Vegas Strip in Thirteen Stories (Picador, 2010). Published in PopMatters (10 Mar 2011).

In a recent interview, the architect Norman Foster, looking back at the success of the buildings he had designed, pointed out that any such success or failure was ultimately down to the fact that buildings are “made by humans, designed by humans, and used by humans who are by nature imperfect”. Going on to describe those involved as “perfectionists chasing the end of the rainbow”, Foster also suggested that the architect is in many ways powerless due to the vast amount of other human and environmental factors governing what gets built and where, who uses it and for what purpose, and how it may come to be seen years later.

Architecture is also about immortality, about leaving something that will outlast oneself, a kind of writing of one’s being on the pages of the world. In The Secret Lives of Buildings, architect Edward Hollis chronicles the often egotistical and obsessive people behind the preservation, destruction and modification of historically important construction projects from the Parthenon to the Berlin Wall. Playing on the word “storey”, Hollis elects to describe his case studies as “thirteen stories”, thus highlighting the notion of building as writing. However, it’s more the act of storytelling that Hollis is interested in; how tales get passed down from one generation to another, how, in their telling, stories range across time and space, making magical and mythical connections.

To underline both the synchronic and mythological aspects of his enterprise, Hollis opens his book with a meditation on Thomas Cole’s 1840 painting The Architect’s Dream, in which the artist presents an impossible vista comprising Greek and Roman buildings, a Gothic spire, a port of uncertain vintage, and, in the distance, an Egyptian pyramid. The vista is impossible, not because these styles could not be imagined in the same space (most urban spaces are a palimpsest of different architectural styles, after all), but rather because it omits any evidence of everyday habitation, focusing only on the spectacular. As Hollis notes, “the great buildings of the past had been resurrected in a monumental day of rapture”. But where are the tenements, the housing estates, the industrial and commercial quarters, the barriers and ruins?

The Architect’s Dream becomes the leitmotif that Hollis calls up throughout his work; it acts as reminder of the utopian drive behind the architectural projects he describes, as metaphor for the perspective, or “scape” adopted by anyone reaching across time and space to forge such descriptions, and, ultimately, for the sleight of hand undertaken in any such enterprise. Hollis is nothing if not a stylistic illusionist, adopting a variety of voices and storytelling modes as he weaves his tales of dreams, ambitions, follies, and ruins. Whether such ventriloquism will be to every reader’s taste is another matter.

The devices Hollis uses for his storytelling change with the time periods he is covering. There is more use of “once upon a time…” and “now at this time there lived…” in the earlier chapters, on the Parthenon and the Basilica of San Marco in Venice. Chapters describing later developments, such as the Hulme tower blocks of Manchester and the Venetian development in Las Vegas, engage in more contemporary (and, in the Mancunian case, “gritty”) styles. Other chapters utilize a backwards-then-forwards structure, interrupting each story to refer back to another time before putting the pieces back together again. There are echoes here of the mechanics of restoration itself (reflecting Hollis’s work as an architect working on historic buildings) and of the classic storytelling modes of One Thousand and One Nights or, more recently, Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler…. Hollis’s use of Calvino’s Invisible Cities in the Vegas chapter suggest the influence of the Italian maestro of storytelling.

This is all very clever. Architecture, writing, and storytelling overlap in many ways. As James Fentress and Chris Wickham show in their brilliant book Social Memory, the structural devices uses by storytellers over the centuries work as mnemonic aids to orators and writers, and recognizable “landmarks” for listeners and readers. Storytelling, in this sense, relies on both the temporal and spatial aspects of memory and is, for want of a better term, architectonic. Then there are Gaston Bachelard’s “poetics of space” and Calvino’s endless attempts to describe Venice, a city that remains invisible behind the descriptions of other fantastic places. Writing, in this sense is archeological and architecture is nothing if not a palimpsest, a build-up of layers on layers. Beneath one building there is the glimpse of another, just as beneath one story there is a glimpse of another. History is written all around us and we read its tales as we wander the streets of our cities.

Even so, I have to admit to finding Hollis’s use of multiple voices an annoying distraction from what is otherwise a fascinating project. Much has already been made of his ability to do architectural history in a different, “fresh” way. But, to my mind, he is at his best when being “himself”, assuming that is who we are reading in the passages between each story, the moments when he reflects back upon his opening meditation and sets up his next account of architectural fantasy. It is here that he makes grand but believable statements. “Any architecture that aspires to completeness will eventually fall into … decay and ruin”, he writes in the preface to a chapter on Sanssouci, the palace built for Frederick the Great at Potsdam. The page and a half of prose here is exquisite; the subsequent chapter, however, begins “Once upon a time, when the world was without care, there was a lake in a forest.” Hollis has already proved himself perfectly able to tell us that architectural fancies are based on fallacies without having to resort to such falseness himself, so why resort to this clumsy device?

Moving backwards (as Hollis likes to do), we find a remarkably pellucid conclusion to an otherwise rather confusing chapter on the Tempio Malatestiano of Rimini. Following a typically labyrinthine account of the place and its people’s stories, Hollis describes Alberti’s unfinished building as “an incomplete sentence, a non sequitur, a stutter”. Hollis brings an equal clarity to his later chapter on the restoration of Notre Dame de Paris, explaining how Eugène Viollet-le-Duc’s attempt to restore the building to its pristine status inevitably led to the creation of a new building, a nineteenth-century imagination of the twelfth. The “finished” version of 1864 was “an attempt to to fix a moment in time”, a seemingly apt description of all architectural projects.

If this returns us to Foster’s perfectionist chasing the rainbow’s end, we should also remember the structures that are used to fix people in time and in particular places, the architects of which are not those who design the edifices but rather those who design the ideologies that call them into being. Hollis’s chapter on the Hulme Crescents of Manchester discuses one aspect of this–the “futuristic” solution to the problem of housing a growing urban population–but his chapters on the walls erected in Berlin and Jerusalem offer more chilling testimony to the ways in which ideology is mapped onto physical terrain.

More recognition of the ways in which the colonial imposition of power has been reinforced via the superimposition of architecture outside of Europe would have been good, perhaps redirecting eclectic style from the mode of storytelling to the sites in which such stories evolve. Mention might also be made of the numerous ways in which rural societies have used the built environment to fashion stories that connect inhabitants to their locales and landscapes (especially relevant if one is going to resort to such obviously non-urban storytelling styles as those deployed here). These are big asks, though. Hollis has already found plenty to say with his baker’s dozen of mainly European sites and sensibilities, and his book can serve as an invitation to others to take up other untold or forgotten global stories.