If we choose, we can avoid most forms of art. Architecture is not one of them. It is all around us. In his wide-ranging and stimulating new book, Bricks and Mortals: Ten Great Buildings and the People They Made, Tom Wilkinson explores many of the aspects—morality, power, economics, psychology, politics and sex are some—that help us better understand how architecture “shapes people’s lives and vice versa,” from ancient times to the present. His diverse selection of buildings includes Nero’s Golden House in Rome and the Festival Theatre in Beyreuth, as well as the Finsbury Health Centre in London and the Footbridge in Rio de Janeiro. Ten buildings are covered in detail, serving as springboards to discussions of related subjects.
Wilkinson begins by expressing his skepticism about the various myths concerning the origins of architecture. He demonstrates that historians writing on the subject often conveniently overlook their own limited knowledge and biases such as nationalism and colonialism. He is keenly aware that buildings have great potential to inspire and empower people, while the same structures may enslave others and cost them their lives. Wilkinson introduces us to Giovanni Rucellai, who was not an architect but devoted his energies to architecture and his business of building (and self-promotion) became an art in itself. We learn of Le Corbusier (a pseudonym), the 20th century’s most famous architect, and his mad passion for a house in France designed by Eileen Gray and her resentment of his obsession.
Monuments honor the memories that communities and nations are built on. They may appear eternal but they can be damaged, restored or destroyed and given new meanings by rulers or the populace. The Bastille had a double image, changed by revolutionary action from a symbol of despotism to a symbol of freedom. It should be pointed out that when the Bastille was liberated there were only seven prisoners, none of whom were allied with tyrannical oppression. Monuments are often built by the “winners” in history and are frequently, as Walter Benjamin has written, “documents of barbarism.” Wilkinson cites what may be “the most controversial modern mausoleum,” located outside Madrid, built by Francisco Franco to commemorate the Spanish Civil War. Although the complex has been called a monument to national reconciliation, most of those interred there were nationalists and fascists. As for Franco himself, the numerous statues of him were removed from every public space in Spain under the Law of Historical Memory passed by the government in recent years.
The only U.S. building of the 10 is architect Alfred Kahn’s Highland Park Car Factory in Detroit, a collaboration between the unlikely team of anti-Semitic industrialist Henry Ford and Kahn, the son of a rabbi. Their Highland Park plant, a huge, austere shed, led to greater production and changed the world of business. After four years, the original plant was obsolete, so the two men worked on more appropriate structures. “Perhaps more than anything else, it was the contingency of Ford’s buildings—his and Kahn’s reconception of architecture as a process rather than something fixed and eternal—that marks them out as new,” WIlkinson writes. Kahn’s sheds had a great influence on European modernist architects. He had one of the biggest architectural practices in the world, and by 1929, he was producing one million dollars’ worth of new buildings a week. Kahn’s view was that architecture was 90 per cent business and 10 per cent art.
Oscar Niemeyer, Brazil’s most famous architect, said that “Life is more important than architecture.” Wilkinson picks up on that idea and points out that many people in the world today live in inadequate buildings made without architects. “The biggest challenge facing architecture is the provision of housing for ordinary people,” he argues. Reaching this goal is not impossible; he says; “examples of superb, cheap design abound in developing countries.”
This thought-provoking exploration of different kinds of architecture helps us better understand something we often take for granted or consider too specialized.