As a new book tells us, the best of buildings are much more than brick and sand, angles and arches, steel and iron. Vivid history lessons lurk in our most stunning landmarks, particularly the ones that have crumbled at the hands of humanity or nature, ground under the present's mastery of the past.
The Library of Alexandria, the Temple of Jerusalem, the Bastille. Hong Kong's Kowloon Walled City, India's Fortress of Golconda, Spain's Madinat Al-Zahra. James Crawford, a young Scottish historian, makes a perceptive virtual visit to each of these lost landmarks and more than dozen more in his hefty Fallen Glory: The Lives and Deaths of History's Greatest Buildings.
The architecture gets plenty of attention, but Crawford pulls back to paint a wider portrait. For each building – and he's happy to stretch the definition of the word – Crawford expands its meaning to those who built it, those who used it and those who preserved its memory.
After all, he writes, "if we let them, buildings have the potential to be the ultimate raconteurs." To put it another way: Oh, the things they've seen.
The book begins with the most famous legendary building in history – the Tower of Babel.
In the Bible, two prophets connect the tower to a leader's epic excesses in Babylon. In fact, something much older – a site called Eridu in Iraq – may have inspired the legend of Babel, Crawford discovers.
Eridu isn't just home to a half-built temple called a ziggurat. Archaeologists looked under walls and found 17 layers of buildings constructed over hundreds of years on top of each other, each bigger, suggesting "seam after seam of architectural evolution that rise up through the centuries" – over a millennium, in fact. At the very bottom: a chapel, possibly "the first temple, in the first ever city."
To Crawford, it reveals the story of an ancient people's "progress and ambition," the same potent combo that the Tower of Babel legend seems to warn against.
Buildings, of course, can also serve to inspire, even if they they're mostly or entirely gone.
The Citadel of Mycenae in Greece, which crumbled hundreds of before the birth of Christ, is thought to be Europe's first war memorial, a celebration of the warrior and "the spiritual home of every 'hawk' who ever took up arms and marched across continents in the footsteps of Agamemnon, the one-time 'lord of men.'"
The ruins of the citadel have drawn a "bizarre roll call of heroes and villains," Crawford writes, from Nazi leaders to philosophers, beat poets, Henry Miller, William Faulkner, and Agatha Christie.
But now, archaeology is painting a different picture of the time and place that produced the memorial, raising doubts about age-old assumptions regarding a warrior race. It appears that the Mycenaeans were "a civilization of traders and farmers rather than warriors, ruled over by diligent but dull bureaucrats." One can almost imagine them toiling in cubicles and gathering around water coolers.
More recently, the ruins of the Roman Forum entranced warlords like Adolf Hitler, who dreamed that the remains of his nation's structures would touch the world many centuries from now, beyond the fall of the "thousand-year" reich. To make this happen, he "ordered that steel and reinforced concrete should no longer be used for Nazi public buildings, and that architects must turn instead to the more durable materials of stone and marble." Ruin, however, came much earlier than Hitler expected.
The newest physical structures to appear in "Fallen Glory" are the towers of the World Trade Center, described by one architect as being "as successful as the pyramids" at the art of symbolism. But Crawford's flexible definition allows one more recent creation to make his list. It's GeoCities.
Wait, what? Yes, GeoCities, the doomed Internet community that once served 38 million people. "The biggest collective cultural endeavor in history," it became obsolete and vanished forever one day in 2009 when Yahoo pulled the plug.
Well, to be more accurate, it sort of vanished. The ruins of GeoCities exist online, a kind of "digital Pompeii" that offers a glimpse into the clunky early days of the Internet, when people embraced a new way of building a community. Then, when GeoCities failed to be useful anymore, it was snuffed out by a company with its eye on the next big thing.
As Crawford's book suggests, the glories of the past often can't compete with the imagined glories of the future: The old must make way for the next.
It all goes back to Babel: "Some fragment of the tower has always been present, every time man has looked to build something new.... It whispers, 'Beware, don't let ambition be your downfall.' And in the same breath it says, 'Build up to the heavens and don't look back. Go to it. And make a name for yourself."