The Lives and Deaths of Twenty Lost Buildings

Fallen Glory: The Lives and Deaths of Twenty Lost Buildings From The Tower Of Babel To The Twin Towers
James Crawford
Old Street Publishing  576pp  £25

Why are ruins so attractive? Vandals destroy beautiful buildings, yet aesthetes haunt the remains with sighs of pleasure.  In the 18th century some romantics put up purpose-built ruins in the grounds of their country houses, even artfully constructing imitation stone grottoes which housed ornamental hermits clad in robes and long white beards, real, living relics of what had never been. 

Crawford cites Sir Christopher Wren, who redesigned and rebuilt St Paul’s Cathedral in London after the Great Fire: ‘Architecture aims at Eternity’. Perhaps, in part, it is this hubris that we like to see tumbled down – in decay buildings are like us – merely mortal.

In this subtle, ambitious, well-researched study, the author considers the concept of ‘building’ in the widest possible terms: moving chronologically from the Tower of Babel (which never actually existed ) to the internet ‘city’ on the World Wide Web called ‘Geocities’ which was created in cyberspace only in 1994 and closed in 2009; he also allows in as ‘buildings’ the Berlin Wall and the tent city of Ghengis Khan at Karakorum. This is in no sense an anthology of architecture but rather a series of essays in cultural history, using structures to explore social and historical milieux from a humanist perspective. It is the people who built, lived in, destroyed, rediscovered, excavated and rebuilt the buildings he has chosen which stimulate – and sometimes infuriate – Crawford.

This is certainly an ambitious, wide-ranging enterprise and has involved a great deal of research. Some of the buildings have vanished entirely – the Bastille in Paris, Kowloon Old Town (demolished and now a park); some are famous and have been studied for years – the Roman Forum, the Temple in Jerusalem, Mycenae in Greece; some are very obscure – the ruins of the city of Madinat al-Zahra outside present-day Córdoba or the St Petersburg Panopticon prison. Some I had never even heard of, such as the Pruitt-Igloe public housing development (1951-76) – a folly of over-ambitious civic modernism – in St Louis, Missouri.

Crawford manages the difficult feat of engaging each of his chosen buildings with an equal degree of passion and engagement: he does not seem to have any favourites or dislikes, though some of the personalities come in for severe criticism. Sir Arthur Evans who excavated and rebuilt Knossos in Crete comes in for censure. 

This is a very personal study, bearing the taste, judgement and sensibility of the author on every page. I found the essays on buildings that I knew nothing about more stimulating than those about which much more is known. Industrial ruins are under-represented, as are the religious. A gold-mining town in the US or Australia and the abandoned monastery at Skara Brae in the Hebrides, for example, would have given Crawford much on which to ponder. Distance is no object with Crawford, though, as he takes in Vilcabamba, the Inca city in Peru, and Golconda, the diamond emporium in India. Sometimes Crawford gets carried away. More on Knossos itself and less on Evans for being what he could not help being – a Victorian Englishman – would have made for a more balanced read. At times the author rambles and the book does often feel over-long and under-edited. A less indulgent publisher might have reined him in to advantage: sometimes less is more. 

Robert Carver is the author of Paradise with Serpents: Travels in the Lost World of Paraguay (Harper Collins, 2009).

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