A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I first saw this book and turned its pages with delight in the London Review Bookshop, on a day when I couldn’t possibly contemplate an impulse buy like this – too many places to go, too much to do, travelling light. Think ‘coffee table book’, but mostly because it is a book that needs a whole table to itself to support it while the reader carefully turns the pages. Yes, it is a large format art book, so it will not fit into even the most capacious handbag, is really hard to prop comfortably on the knees in bed, and certainly does not lend itself to the ebook reader. So my sneaky solution was to buy it later as a present, ensuring it went to a place where I could borrow it freely (having cleared a place for it on a handy coffee table).
I enjoy and admire Jonathan Glancey’s writing very much. Now that he no longer writes regularly for The Guardian I miss him, but the excellent result seems to have been more books published. As well as architecture, he has written books on design icons such as the Spitfire, and the newly built A1 Pacific locomotive ‘Tornado’. So he is a firm favourite in our house.
I was quite entranced by the idea of this book. Even though it is quite reasonable for successive generations to build anew, there is something rather moving about a lost building, particularly a monumental one that spoke of the age, and something exciting about its rediscovery. The arresting cover of the book has on it the iconic Lost Building of our time, the World Trade Center, which is dealt with in the chapter ‘Lost in War’. There is, of course, no room in a survey like this for more than a page or two and a handful of images for each building, but Glancey’s style is concise and sharply intelligent, and he manages to distil in that small space the essential facts and significance of the building and its loss.
Glancey divides his catalogue of lost buildings into a series of categories – lost in myth or the mists of time, lost in peace, in war and through politics, through natural disaster or self-destruction, and for one reason or another never built. Buildings lost in myth leave strong traces in the imagination and in art, and this chapter attempts to look for the physical survivals that might tell us what sort of structures might have fed the myth, such as the Tower of Babel, or Xanadu.
Although history and human progress sweep countless buildings away, Lost in Peace charts some of those that have lingered in the collective memory, some that deserved to be remembered but are forgotten, and charts the reasons for their heedless loss. The building that in my initial browsing drew me into the book is Nonsuch, Henry VIII’s fairytale renaissance palace, that Charles II gave to Barbara Castlemaine, only for her to have it dismantled to the very foundations and the building materials sold to pay her gambling debts. It’s a great story of a great loss, that stands for the rise and fall of monumental buildings from the deep past to the present day. The utilitarian destruction of buildings that no longer serve their purpose has led to the loss of iconic buildings that could, and in these more conservation-minded days possibly would have been saved and given a new purpose. With more time, these buildings experience an up-swing in the collective mind and become worth preserving again.
Periodically, society develops a cult of the modern, or even, paradoxically, a cult of the past, and that is when the buildings of the previous generation are most at risk of being regarded as ugly and superfluous. In post-war Britain, the rush to modernise towns and cities took its toll; now the better buildings of that age are under threat. Some iconic buildings rapidly outlive their usefulness, in the eyes of the planner and developer and are Lost Too Soon, and there is a chapter charting their short, sad life and the loss of the aesthetic and aspiration that created them. Then there are structures that stretch physics and mechanics too far, and contain the seeds of their own destruction, including particular favourites of mine from Fonthill Abbey, an impossible dream of a house that DID leave its creator’s imagination and become real – for a while; to the Tacoma Narrows Bridge, (aka ‘Gallopin’ Gertie’), the suspension bridge that twisted itself apart and taught civil engineers so much about the limits of design.
Losses in war and conflict are to be mourned, and this chapter charts and examines buildings lost that stand for the pity and terror of war, such as Coventry Cathedral, or the World Trade Center. In some cases, the destruction of a building can stand in for victory over the twisted values that inspired it – the example here is Hitler’s Bavarian retreat at Berchtesgaden. The meaning of these losses is trenchantly examined for their symbolism – the shell of Coventry as a shrine to reconciliation, Ground Zero standing for defiance against terror. Political ideas too inspire destruction, in the cause of stamping out the past and the obsolete ideas that might threaten the new regime, from the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem to Stalin’s depredations. Democracies are not immune from this, and the rush to modernise in post-war Britain is also included here.
It is a delight after that to have chapters on buildings that never left the imagination of their creators to take physical form, from Xanadu to Toad Hall to Metropolis to worlds in space to the reimagining of the modern city by architects such as Le Corbusier. Some narrow escapes for older buildings are recorded too, such as the survival of the Langham Hotel, destined at one point to disappear under a Norman Foster building for the BBC.
This is an informative, but also, I am happy to say, an opinionated book. Of the buildings that are put on record here, some Glancey truly laments, and does not hesitate to tell us why. I think he excuses Barbara Castlemaine as someone who 350 years ago wasn’t to know better, but the destroyers of the iconic Pennsylvania Station in New York get short-shrift, as do the post-war planners who sealed the fate of the Euston Arch, still a live controversy now its stones have been rediscovered. Less well-known is the loss of the astonishing Gothic fantasy Columbia Market in Bethnal Green, which I knew nothing about, with its fairytale pinnacles and pointed arches looking like a miniature St Pancras Station. He takes a balanced though regretful view of the loss of sixties brutalist buildings, recognising the strength and courage of the best of them, such as the Tricorn Shopping Centre in Portsmouth, but the limited lifespan of city centre developments and the difficulty of converting them to other purposes. But the Tricorn Centre is here on record, lest its bold sculptural properties be forgotten.
The overwhelming message from these case studies is that we do not know how much we will miss a building until it is gone. It is a rather melancholy pleasure to be reminded of what has disappeared, and in some cases to be told of something I never knew existed – doubly melancholy, that. The lesson in some of the cases is that excellent buildings speak of their age, and are in the greatest danger shortly after that age is past and they become in the collective mind ugly and old fashioned. Given that mind-set, one might say that the miracle is what has survived, rather than what has been lost.
There are pure pleasures in reading a book like this – the glorious illustrations, turning the heavy silky pages. But above all, I was completely reeled in by the theme, the melancholy and nostalgia and occasional rage at being reminded (or informed) of buildings we have lost and what they might mean for us.
Jonathan Glancey: Lost Buildings: Demolished Destroyed Imagined Reborn. London: Goodman Books, 2008. 256pp
ISBN 13: 9781847960016