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Pleasure of ruins

05 January 2010

William Whyte enjoys a vision of architecture


The Secret Life of Buildings: From the Parthenon to the Vegas Strip in thirteen stories
Edward Hollis

Portobello Books £25 (978-1-84627127-4)
ChurchTimes Bookshop £22.50

THIS is the most ambitious and absorbing book about architecture to have appeared for ages. It is part history and part meditation, part myth and part guidebook. It takes the reader from the Parthenon to Las Vegas; from the council houses of Manchester to the wailing wall of Jerusalem. It is a book to be savoured and enjoyed.

Now, it is fair to say that not everyone will agree. Consider this sentence: “It was all a delightful plaisanterie, of course, a post-prandial memento mori.” If you can get through that, then you will find this book as much a treat as I did.

If you cannot, then look away now. Part of the joy of this volume is the baroque richness of the writing.

Anyone who expects a book about architecture to be richly illustrated will also feel let down. There are only 14 rather grainy pic­tures in this one: a smudgy copy of a Victorian painting; a blurry photo­graph of a Renaissance medal; a much-reduced image of an 18th-century print — and so on. Those in search of visual delights will go away unsatisfied. Those looking for insights into architecture, however, will overlook the absence of pretty pictures.

Historians will object to the author’s insistence that there was such a time as the “Dark Ages” in which “Barbarians” destroyed archi­tecture. Architects and enthusiasts for architectural preservation will be infuriated by his belief that ruin and destruction are a natural, in­evitable, and even desirable part of a building’s life. Pedants will be baffled by his unwillingness to distinguish between myth and reality when telling the story of architecture.

But for anyone who is interested in architecture, and everyone who loves fine writing, this book is a real treat. It is also highly original. While most architectural histories show how the buildings were built, this one tells you what happened afterwards. Moreover, Hollis as­sumes that the stories told about buildings are as important as the buildings themselves. So he ex-plores the myths that clustered round San Marco in Venice and the Alhambra in Grenada, and traces the Holy House from Palestine, to Croatia, Italy, England, Canada, and beyond.

The result is not just a fascinating account of some familiar — and some less well-known — architec­ture. It is also a new way of looking at buildings. This is a wonderful book that deserves a wide reader­ship.

The Revd Dr William Whyte is a Tutorial Fellow in Modern History of St John’s College, Oxford, and Assis­tant Curate of Kidlington.

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