The Parthenon in Athens is inarguably one of the most famous buildings in the world. We think of it as the epitome of classical Greek culture. But the Parthenon was a Christian church for nearly as many centuries as it was a pagan temple. And for centuries after that, it was a mosque, complete with minaret. Yet we have chosen to restore the Parthenon as it was for only a portion of its history, largely because the men who made the decision in the 19th century had been educated to be Hellenophiles. As first-time author Edward Hollis, an architect specializing in altering historic buildings, demonstrates with much charm in The Secret Lives of Buildings, any structure is a cultural product. As the culture changes, so does the structure’s meaning, appearance and use.
The Parthenon’s shape-shifts are a leitmotif for Hollis as he takes the reader through the lively stories of a dozen other structures—not buildings per se, because he includes two walls (Berlin and Western) and a sculpture (the Four Horses in Venice). Each chapter illustrates a particular theme, from the “evolution” of Gloucester Cathedral through the work of masons riffing on their teachers’ legacies, to the “misunderstanding” that caused Charles V to build an unlovable Renaissance palace next to his beloved Moorish Alhambra.
This is not “just the facts” history. Hollis begins most of his chapters with “Once upon a time,” and deliberately gives them a fairy tale feel. The fascinating chapter on the “Santa Casa” of Loreto does not scientifically challenge the religious belief that it was miraculously transported from the Middle East to Italy, via Croatia. In fact, he uses such legends to help make his case.
A couple of interesting stories stray into more offbeat locales. The ghastly Hulme Crescents project in Manchester, England, was a 1970s public housing complex, a catastrophe from day one. It was eventually demolished, but not before becoming a birthplace of punk rock and rave parties. As the innumerable chunks of the Berlin Wall sitting on coffee tables around the world show, even bad structures can have interesting afterlives.