Reviewed by Sharon L. Irish (School of Architecture, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign)
Published on H-Urban (February, 2000)
THE UNTOLD LIFE OF BUILDINGS
On my desk I have a six-inch high version of the Empire State Building with a mini-King Kong clinging to it. A tiny toy bulldozer rests next to a miniature Eiffel Tower. And I have a paperweight made from a stone from York Minster, sold in an effort to raise restoration funds. These items aren't surprising in the life of an architectural historian, I suppose, but Neil Harris offers a refreshing way to think about my toys and countless other ephemera of the architectural world. He has a larger purpose too and that is to prompt looking at the built environment from new angles. In his book, Building Lives, Neil Harris applies the metaphor of a life cycle to buildings, extending the birth, maturity, and death phases to include discussions of rituals that often accompany these stages. In his "quest for narrativity" (p. 3) Harris has written a book that is fun to read. Not only does Harris investigate long-neglected dimensions of building history, but the associations sparked by the life cycle and attendant rituals actively involve the reader. Many of us can connect a personal life experience like a graduation to "the life rituals of constructed forms" such as a ground-breaking or cornerstone ceremony. "First of all," Harris remarks, "examining buildings through their life stages and modes of representation encourages us to conceive of them not simply as places but as sets of events..." (pp. 163-64). To the temporal issues Harris adds ways of understanding buildings as they exist in relation to other phenomena, such as social expectations, real estate publicity, and patronage. Finally, Harris notes that architectural meaning often "reflects and legitimates power relationships and hegemonic patterns" (p. 165). To get a better view of architecture intertwined with dominant systems, then, Harris suggests we look at the rituals surrounding buildings.
Harris focuses on the built environment from the eighteenth century to the present, mostly in the United States. The three essays in this volume were initially lectures (at the Buell Center for the History of Architecture at Columbia University, New York City) and they have a conversational tone. Even so it is a far-ranging conversation. In the first section, "Meeting the World," Harris reports on how masonic practices matched the social need for new public ceremonies in the colonies and new republic, and how cornerstone ceremonies served as communal time clocks, to name two examples. Openings, "whether statue unveilings or for world's fairs," were media events that both drew upon and shaped memory. Harris considers celebrations of bridges, canals and tunnels as well as public monuments and commercial structures. "Architecture...is one area of life where an arcane ceremonialism has survived to an extraordinary degree" (p. 50).
The second section on "Signs of Life" expands on themes introduced before, including threshold markers and housewarmings, but stresses public image and physical maintenance. Here we meet construction records, promotional brochures, and anniversary volumes that extol the layout, the technical innovations, and the views of a building to a popular audience. As one might keep a baby book or a family photo album, promoters boosted their locales or attempted to educate the public about scientific principles behind structures, using drawings and photographs. (There's a great photo of three men modeling the way in which the Firth of Forth bridge is supported, p. 75.) This self-presentation, as souvenir models, postcards and guidebooks, fostered the creation of structures as civic icons. In my many wanderings into these civic icons, I have long appreciated helpful guards and knowledgeable custodians. Thus I was delighted with Harris's discussions of janitors, building managers' associations and elevator operators, as well as signage to help the visitor find her or his way.
Harris's final section is "Saying Good-Bye." He stretches the point I think with the comment: "Nothing better reveals the linkages made...between building and human life cycles than the powerful emotions raised by the expiration of a structure's time on earth" (p. 117). Nevertheless I found this topic of dying and death the most stimulating. The informality of Harris's essays made me want to have a book chat: have you seen this? Did you think about that? For example, with muted humor, the critic Herbert Muschamp recently suggested inaugurating a Blitzker Prize "to honor the world's most creative demolitions." Recognizing that destruction precedes most construction, Muschamp considers the power of market forces in the life cycles of buildings and the land they occupy. Architect-critic Lebbeus Woods in his Radical Reconstruction presents his drawings of disintegrating urban structures and polemical texts that are related to Harris's discussion of temporality in buildings. On this constant change Woods wrote: "Art and life flow together, inseparable. Architecture then concerns itself with dynamic structures: tissues, networks, matrices, heterarchies." Woods's renderings show the layers of building materials crumbling away, visually portraying usage and the passage of time. Often Woods is concerned with the effects of violence and war on architecture. "Architecture must learn to transform the violence, even as violence has transformed architecture." While Harris makes mention of the effects on buildings of natural disasters and city planning, he considers so many other issues in the life cycle that I found Muschamp and Woods valuable in following the particular thread of destruction caused by urban neglect and weaponry.
Also in the "Good-Bye" section, Harris asks "How long should a building live" (p. 117)? Closely related to that question is why do we value certain buildings over others? Again, because Harris is sketching a large picture of life cycles, tangents are not developed. Harris states: "To a large extent, subsidies, tax breaks, and other official inducements to build represent some kind of political consensus about the potential communal significance of individual structures and have largely replaced the religious and civic imperative as an assignment of value" (p. 126). To explore this topic of preservation values in depth I recommend Paul Spencer Byard's recent book, The Architecture of Additions: Design and Regulation (New York and London: W.W. Norton and Company, 1998). Byard carefully explains ways in which the importance of buildings might be evaluated, as well as how a range of buildings in Europe and the United States have been adapted over time through renovation and addition. Harris mentions adaptive reuse but also instances of "desperate nostalgia," where extraordinary means were taken to rescue a building (p. 132). An illustration of the neo-classical Ohio State Building from the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition shows it being floated, columns, pediments and all, to San Mateo County, down the bay from San Francisco.
Harris dug up some terrific images. Oddly, they are not numbered or indexed, so the reader is sometimes left to guess just how an illustration dovetails with the text; even the captions are minimal. I entirely agree with Harris that the rituals related to structures reveal important cultural information, but certainly some of the most valuable details can be gleaned from the visual material, which receives scanty analysis. Ultimately, however, Harris has provided us with more tools, hung on a framework of good ideas, with which to study why we do what we do. Sometimes the rituals arising out of social needs for place-making prove to be all that people have when their buildings have been bombed or they have been driven from their homes, so they are mighty important indeed.
. Herbert Muschamp, "Peeling Off Architecture's Tranquil Skin," The New York Times (June 19, 1999).
. Lebbeus Woods, Radical Reconstruction (Princeton University Press, 1997): 14.
. Woods, p. 16.
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Sharon L. Irish. Review of Harris, Neil, Building Lives: Constructing Rites and Passages.
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