Preservation Act

The Secret Lives of Buildings: From the Ruins of the Parthenon to the Vegas Strip in Thirteen Stories BY Edward Hollis. Metropolitan Books. Hardcover, 352 pages. $28.

The cover of The Secret Lives of Buildings: From the Ruins of the Parthenon to the Vegas Strip in Thirteen Stories

New York City’s Two Columbus Circle is a sprightly forty-five years old, but it has already had quite a career. The ten-story tower opened in 1964 as the Gallery of Modern Art, endowed by supermarket magnate Huntington Hartford and designed by proto-pomo architect Edward Durell Stone. The gallery, a reflection of Hartford’s recherché, antimodernist tastes, bombed, and in 1969 he palmed the building off on Fairleigh Dickinson University, which used it as an academic pied-à-terre. That was short-lived as well, and the city took it over as office space. In 1998, the municipal bureaucracy departed, and the building sat shuttered until last year when, after a massive renovation, it reopened as the Museum of Arts and Design. Two Columbus Circle may have seen more action than most buildings in its relatively short life, but its story is hardly unique. The Tweed Courthouse is now the New York City Department of Education. Nashville’s neo-Romanesque Union Station, once one of the South’s major rail hubs, is today a luxury hotel. Just outside my DC apartment sits an old National Guard armory; it has since been a roller rink, a film studio, and a supermarket.

All of which makes Edward Hollis’s assertion that “architecture is all too often imagined as if buildings do not—and should not—change” ring slightly off-key. To be fair, Hollis, a British architect, isn’t thinking of my neighbor the armory. He means “great” buildings, like the Parthenon, which began as a temple to Athena but was later used as a mosque and an ammo dump, and the Hagia Sofia, which was a church before it was a mosque and a museum. Notre Dame wasn’t the image of Gothic perfection until Victor Hugo’s novel declared it so in 1831; afterward, preservationists nipped and tucked its centuries of stylistic carbuncles to render what, to their nineteenth-century minds, constituted a “medieval” cathedral. How could they know? After all, Hollis writes, “not only had the contents of this encyclopedic library of the medieval mind been lost, but also the very materials of which it had been made and the very skills that had made it.”

Hollis’s The Secret Lives of Buildings is built around thirteen chapters, each telling the story of a building that changed dramatically over time, either in physical terms (the Parthenon, Gloucester Cathedral) or conceptual ones (the Venetian hotel and casino in Las Vegas, which seeks to capture the image of the Most Serene Republic if not, exactly, the spirit). Hollis’s stories are engrossing—his history of the Hulme housing estates in Manchester, and their role as incubator for British post-punk rock, was completely new to me—and his writing is engaging. And yet his thesis—“the confident dicta of architectural theory are undermined by the secret lives of buildings, which are capricious, protean, and unpredictable; but all too often the contradiction is treated as the object of something of interest only to specialists involved in heritage conservation or interior design”—is a banal and useless point. Whether the Parthenon has been used for one purpose or twelve, what matters to students of architecture is the purity of its lines, the solidity of its construction, the perfection of its colonnade. Architectural historian Vincent Scully doesn’t ignore the latter-day uses of ancient Greek temples because he’s unaware of them; he ignores them because they’re irrelevant. If there’s a case for doing otherwise, Hollis doesn’t make it.

And that’s the real frustration with The Secret Lives of Buildings, because sitting just beyond Hollis’s reach, stated but unexplored, is a fascinating critique of architectural history and preservation. What would it mean for us to treat great buildings as living entities rather than precious, timeless objects? After all, preservation is a relatively new idea; for much of recorded history, mankind has reshaped even the greatest structures as necessary. Only since the late nineteenth century, and systematically only in the past fifty years, have we sought to preserve signature buildings in something like their original states. When postwar urban renewal was scything through historic neighborhoods, preservation was an imperative. But today our cities teem with buildings protected, as if in amber, by robust preservation laws.

Let’s return to Two Columbus Circle. Its latest incarnation, overseen by Portland architect Brad Cloepfil, engendered a bloody battle between the city, looking for tax revenue, and preservationists, looking to save a seminal example of late modernism. Both sides had a point: Yes, Stone’s building, with its “Venetian lollipop” colonnade, was an important aesthetic moment. But it was almost unusable, a warren of cramped spaces inside a load-bearing wall with almost no windows. There’s a reason it went through so many tenants.

In this case, utility won, and Cloepfil produced a renovation that stays true enough to the original for Stone to peek out from behind his successor’s robes. As this compromise suggests, we need, at the very least, to introduce a sense of pragmatism to architectural preservation while also recognizing the cultural value in preserving the best of our built environment. But Hollis never fully grapples with the preservationist imperative, and his assertion that even great buildings change over time is too blunt a tool with which to carve a new approach. The cases he presents are a refreshing fillip to the ideologies of contemporary preservation. Too bad he doesn’t explain what they mean; if he had, that fillip could have been a knockout punch.

Clay Risen is the managing editor of Democracy: A Journal of Ideas, a columnist for Architect, and the author of A Nation on Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination (Wiley, 2009).