Towers that fell to dust

by
04 December 2015

Ted Harrison reads a set of ‘biographies’ of yesterday’s buildings

courtesy of Galleria d’Arte Moderna, Venice

Based on Josephus: Francesco Hayez’s painting The Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (1867), from the Gallery of Modern Art, Venice, is one of the plates in the book reviewed above

Based on Josephus: Francesco Hayez’s painting The Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem (1867), from the Gallery of Modern Art, Venice, is one of the...

Fallen Glory: The lives and deaths of twenty lost buildings from the Tower of Babel to the Twin Towers
James Crawford
Old Street Publishing £25
(978-1-908699-93-0)
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

 

EVERY one of today’s great buildings will, one day, crumble to dust. The Taj Mahal, Canterbury Cathedral, the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul — they stand today secure in their seemingly perpetual splendour, but will all eventually and inevitably be reduced to nothing.

James Crawford’s Fallen Glory tells the story of some of the greatest buildings of history, from the Tower of Babel to the Twin Towers, in New York, that have now completely disappeared.

He even includes buildings that never were, such as the all-seeing Panopticon prison; some constructions that were never intended for habitation; and a final chapter telling of a virtual creation, "Geocity", that once had millions of real inhabitants before being electronically erased.

The book is a series of 20 biographies of fabulous monuments of the past. They are seen not simply as inanimate collections of stones or concrete, but as objects imbued with personalities. Their dates are given as they might be for a human life. The Hippodrome of Constantinople (born AD 200, died 1500); The Bastille, Paris (born 1356, died 1789); The Berlin Wall (born 1961, died 1989).

Sometimes, the construction is the main thrust of the story; other times, it is the function that is of most interest; in some instances, the destruction is the most telling part of the narrative. One chapter is devoted to the infamous Pruitt-Igoe project, the 33 identical housing blocks in St Louis, Missouri, which came to epitomise soulless modernity, and were spectacularly demolished. In the case of the Temple at Jerusalem, all three elements are equally important.

Archaeological fact and legend often collide, as in the history of the rediscovery of the Cretan palace of King Minos. The curiosity of later generations, and their search for evidence of the past, plus their willingness to fit what they find into their own contemporary narratives, is researched and described.

The book is well over 500 pages in length, and one best dipped into. Each chapter can be read in isolation. The various and wide-ranging "life-stories" do not even have to be read in chronological order, and can be chosen as the mood takes. There is an unexpected nugget of fact on almost every page.

The book shows how destruction need not be the end. Many great architectural works live on in myth. Or, as in the case of St Paul’s Cathedral, which was destroyed by fire in 1666, rise again to new glory.

 

Ted Harrison is a former BBC religious-affairs correspondent.

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