What We Can Learn From The Rise And Fall Of History's Great Buildings

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"Fallen Glory: The Lives and Deaths of History's Greatest Buildings," by James Crawford. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
"Fallen Glory: The Lives and Deaths of History's Greatest Buildings," by James Crawford. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

For millennia, humans have built structures not only to house themselves, but to express their personalities and aspirations. But even history's greatest structures fall prey to time and conquest, and their destruction often reflects the society that created them.

James Crawford (@jdcrawf) collects 21 architectural histories in "Fallen Glory: The Lives and Deaths of History’s Greatest Buildings," and joins Here & Now's Meghna Chakrabarti to talk about the book.

  • Scroll down to read an excerpt from "Fallen Glory"

Interview Highlights

On Palmyra, Syria, and its recent destruction by ISIS

"It really grew up and reached an incredible level of opulence over a very short period from about 20 AD up to about 200 AD. And it was built on money and trade, because the flow of goods between the Roman and Sasanian empires moved through this desert oasis — the only way to go between the two was through the city. So they were sort of part of the Roman Empire, but they had a large degree of autonomy at the same time, and basically they taxed the flow of goods and became fabulously wealthy as a result. And I think the Roman viewed them as slightly tacky and nouveau riche in terms of how they developed."

"I think Islamic State apply an incredibly crude understanding of history, perhaps deliberately, because they don't really care. One of the reasons I think they attacked Palmyra so vociferously is because the Western press were so appalled. And us being appalled helped their cause. So they continued to demolish the buildings systematically, and then, they’re very propaganda-savvy organization — I wouldn't even give them the benefit of calling them a state. And they were using that. The reason they were using that is because we have emotive connections to buildings. In many ways, that's what my book is about. That sense that we shout with joy and we weep with sorrow when we destroy them. And we do continue to destroy them all over the world, all the time. And the lives and particularly deaths of buildings have an enormous impact on global politics today, still."

On the Berlin Wall

"I call it the 'mirror wall' because to me the Berlin Wall was also this dark fairy tale that I was aware of and it was this sense that you had a city of opposites divided in two. On one side, on the west side, the wall was there to keep people in, and on the east side, they perceived it as being there to keep people out, to keep this sort of aggressive, militaristic West out. There's a sense that when each side looked at the wall, they saw themselves reflected back, rather than understanding what was going on. And of course, this divided the city, but it also divided the world. It was very much the split between capitalism and communism, between East and West. It was the epicenter of the Cold War. It was such an emotive and powerful symbol, and of course, walls are very much en vogue again right now. So it's a very interesting one for us to talk about today."

"I think there still is an element that it's comic anachronism, and the satirists are getting a lot of joy out of the very concept of the wall between the U.S. and Mexico. But I think the interesting thing about it is, the wall was only brought down after there was a realization that it was a nonsense. It was a kind of diplomatic error that led to the people in the East believing that the checkpoints have been opened and the border was clear for access and for passing through. So, it was a psychological barrier. Initially, it wasn't even a wall. It was actually rolls and rolls of barbed wire, and over time it gradually became a wall. But it was perceived as a wall, because on that night in November 1989 when the wall fell, it didn't fall, but people came together, they stood on top of it, they danced, they kissed, they hugged. And suddenly it was gone. And then it was over the subsequent period that it was systematically torn down. But at the time that it was actually being torn down, a lot of people in East and West Berlin, suddenly faced with this absence, they had one in three West Berliners and one in four East Berliners saying that actually wanted the wall back because it played such an enormous part of their lives. So, while as a physical structure, it’s kind of a nonsense, it exists as an ideological, political and a psychological structure."

"I think that's been there from the very, very start — this understanding of legacy through what we create and through what we build."

James Crawford

On GeoCities — online cities — and whether their destruction was as detrimental as destroying a physical city

"GeoCities was effectively the very first internet city, and I suspect also the very last internet city. It was developed in the mid-1990s. It's creators wanted to try and give people a way of navigating, understanding the internet in its formative years. And they thought the best way to do that was to give people addresses, and they placed those addresses within the structural concept of a city. So, you lived in a district or a suburb that was related to your interest. So that might be sport, it might be fashion, it might be history, it might be music, it might be politics. You had this address and you had, at the time, two megabytes of space is effectively what you bought. And you were an internet homesteader. It became within a year, within two years, it went from no citizens to a million citizens. It was the fastest growing city in human history. And there was an attempt to monetize it. It was bought by Yahoo. And Yahoo failed to monetize it, and ultimately switched it off. But in switching it off, they perpetrated one of the greatest acts of cultural destruction, if you like, that’s ever occurred. Because people put all their data up there, it wasn't backed up, and it was wiped out in an instant."

"I think there was a lot of creative material put up on that. This was the development of personal webpages, almost like your Facebook profile page. People were putting photographs up there, they were putting poems up there, early blogging. All this material, which historians maybe hundreds of years down the line would be able to use to understand individual voices, is gone. There's very much this kind of danger — and people talk about this concept of a ‘digital dark age’ — that because a lot of what we do now exists in this digital plane, it can very easily be erased. Even though these things don't have physical presence, they have an enormous emotive presence. In a way, this is the kind of next frontier for structures and for development, and it may be where we suffer some of the greatest losses in the future without even realizing it."

On buildings' lifespans and architecture's power

"The very first story of architecture, one of the very first stories ever written down, the 'Epic of Gilgamesh,' is about an attempt by a mortal man to achieve immortality. And he goes on a quest to find the gods, and to find the secret of immortality. And he's basically told that he's a mortal man and you will never get this. And as he returns to his city and he walks through the gate and the great walls of the city he's created, he realizes that architecture is his best shot at it. Architecture's the best way to achieve life beyond your own life. So, I think that's been there from the very, very start — this understanding of legacy through what we create and through what we build."

Book Excerpt: 'Fallen Glory'

By James Crawford


Several years ago I visited the ruins of the palace complex of Knossos on the island of Crete. It was an early morning in September, but the sun was already very hot, and the surrounding olive groves throbbed with the scratching of the cicadas. I had just smashed my big toe against an ancient – and well hidden – flagstone, and was bleeding profusely into the ground: my inadvertent offering to a site that archaeologists believe was once used for human sacrifice. I liked to imagine I might be standing somewhere within the labyrinth built to hold the infamous mythological resident of Knossos – the Minotaur. Had I been one of the Athenian youths sent to feed the monster, I would have been in big trouble: limping through the maze in my cheap, plastic flip-flops, leaving a trail of blood in my wake. At the northern fringe of the ruins, I could see a broken chunk of portico propped up by three columns, each painted a deep orange. On the wall behind the columns, a bright fresco showed a bull bending its head to charge. This is one of the iconic show-pieces of the site, a fragment framed in a million tourist photographs, including my own. And it is a fake.

In 1900, the English archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans bought the entire site of Knossos and its surrounding land. He embarked on a massive programme of excavations, and then began what he called his ‘reconstitutions’. There is nothing ancient about the portico. It is, in fact, one of the very first reinforced concrete structures built on Crete, and its construction was overseen by Evans himself.

Evans has come in for a great deal of criticism over the years. Some say he was carried away by his passion for classical mythology and lost track of his duties as historian and scientist. The less kind verdict presents him as an odious product of Victorian Britain: egocentric and supercilious, he is accused of creating a skewed account of the origins of Cretan civilisation that was more about his own repressed sexuality than the actual archaeology. I suspect Evans would never make my personal dinner party dream team – how do you cater for someone who, throughout his time on Crete, continued to import his food by the crate-load from England, and refused to drink the local wine? – but I can’t help but feel some affinity with what he was trying to do at Knossos. After uncovering the remains of a building situated at the centre of one of the ancient world’s most significant cultures, Evans wanted to go further still. I think of him standing among the excavation works, looking out at the surrounding amphitheatre of green, terraced hills, letting his mind wander back to the mid-second millennium bc. He wanted to know the story of this great palace. How was it born and how did it die? Who were its kings, princes and queens? What did they believe in? What was the basis of their faith? What formed the inspiration for their wondrous art? Evans’ response to these questions was perhaps extreme and ill-judged, but I can’t fault his enthusiasm. I feel the same whenever I’m confronted by a ruin, or by a story that begins ‘where you are standing now there was once…’The scattered stones are not enough for me. I want to rebuild these fallen glories in my mind’s eye and let them live again.

I have experienced this sensation in a number of places around the world. I remember climbing the steps of the Paris Metro at the Place de la Bastille, to be greeted by a blast of car horns and a buzz of scooters. I took a seat at a pavement café and looked out over a roundabout and past a bronze ‘freedom’ column to the glass and stone bulk of the Opéra National. But there was no trace of the Gothic fortress-prison that once provoked a revolution. The only remaining fragment of dissident spirit I could spot was some anti-Sarkozy graffiti, high on an apartment wall.*

In London, I have crossed the Millennium Bridge from the Tate Modern many times. Faced with Wren’s masterpiece, I can’t help but picture a different city skyline. If the Pudding Lane bakers had been less cavalier about fire safety, would Old St Paul’s, one of the largest, most venerable – and most ramshackle – medieval Cathedrals in Europe, still crown Ludgate Hill in place of today’s iconic, baroque dome?

Once, on a summer road trip through Andalucia as we drove west out of Cordoba, a Spanish friend pointed through our windscreen across a grass plain towards a complex of stone buildings in the foot- hills of the Sierra Morena. These were, he told me, the remains of one of the greatest palaces in Spanish and world history, the Madinat al-Zahara. It was early evening and, with the sun dipping, we took a detour to the ruins. The battery in my digital camera was dead, but I can still see in vivid detail the low light turning the stones red and the dramatic panorama across the plain. I imagined the last caliph enjoying this same view a thousand years earlier – perhaps just days before a civil war erased this dream palace forever.

There is no question that we invest our greatest structures and constructions with personalities. We care about buildings – some- times, perhaps, more than we care about our fellow human beings. We shout with joy when we raise them up; we weep with sorrow when we destroy them. And, of course, we do continue to destroy them – buildings young and old, all over the world.

Even the longest human life barely exceeds a century. How much more epic are the lives of buildings, which can endure for thousands of years? Unlike the people who made them, these structures experience not just one major historical event, but a great accumulation of them, in some cases stretching all the way from the prehistoric era to the present day. In its lifetime, the same building can meet Julius Caesar, Napoleon and Adolf Hitler. What human could claim the same? If we let them, buildings have the potential to be the ultimate raconteurs. These are some of their stories.

*My visit was before the Je suis Charlie marches in January 2015, since when the Place de la Bastille has once again been covered in ‘dissident’ messages.

Excerpted from FALLEN GLORY: The Lives and Deaths of History's Greatest Buildings by James Crawford. Published by Picador. Copyright © 2015 by James Crawford. All rights reserved.

This segment aired on March 15, 2017.



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