The Secret Lives of Buildings

hollisI was sent this by Portobello and assumed it would be some dense treatise on architectural theory. I was therefore pleasantly surprised to find myself hooked on The Secret Lives of Buildings almost from the get-go. In it, Edward Hollis writes about the history of iconic buildings from antiquity to the Las Vegas strips. And he does it with warmth, love and style.

The work manages to be both erudite and accessible, even if like me you know almost nothing about architecture. Hollis has the knack of making human civilisation seem like some bizarre fantasy world (which of course it is) troubled by strange and careless gods. His prose gives you that same feeling of intimidation that you get on looking at some huge and famous structure that has seen more than you will ever know. But it’s a good intimidation, somehow.

Highlights of the book, for me, include the chapter on the Parthenon: subtitled ‘Ruin’, the centre of classical Athens has its virginity chipped away with each reinvention. One day the revisions will destroy the building utterly, and ‘liberated from physical being, the Parthenon will have become nothing but an idea, and at last it will be perfect.’ 

There is a fascinating section on the Berlin Wall. Hollis starts with its construction in 1961, and quotes the government pamphlet that accompanied it, with its eerie Q + A – ‘Did the wall fall out of the sky? No. It was the result of developments of many years’ standing in West Germany and West Berlin’ – giving the reader that intimidating empathy with a people whose lives are tugged and wrenched by hidden, capricious powers.  He describes an Eastern citizen being shot in the back by police while attempting to jump the wall: the man took hours to die, writhing and screaming at the barrier’s base while West Germans bobbed above the parapet in curiosity. And did you know that the Wall’s eventual demolition came about as the result of a PR gaffe by a communist apparatchik?

The best part for me though was the section on the Hulme Crescents, a series of housing schemes built by Manchester City Council in 1971 as a drive to combine a ‘homes fit for heroes’ modernist mission with a repository for the state-dependent poor. Unfortunately, haphazard maintenance and a depressing utilitarian environment led to the residents demanding, and finally getting, a transfer out of the buildings. By the early 1990s the Crescents had been taken over by squatters, ravers and pillheads, who set up Red Stripe bars and knocked down partition walls to create makeshift nightclubs. The Crescent scene is still remembered on social networking groups and community sites today, and Hollis quotes ex-tenants in his marvellous book.

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