I’ve just finished reading a fascinating book.
It’s “The Secret Lives of Buildings” by Edward Hollis (Metropolitan Books; 352 pages; $28).
Hollis is an architect and designer who teaches at the Edinburgh College of Art. As a practicing architect he specialized in alterations to historic buildings.
His book is about historic buildings, from the Parthenon to the (no kidding) Las Vegas Strip.
We tend to look at buildings as static, unchanging constructs. Like the great cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris or the Alhambra in Granada, Spain. There they are, solid stone, built for the ages.
Yes, but …
Hollis’ intriguing book opens your eyes. Buildings are no more static than the people who build and use them. They have lives of their own, lives that can stretch over centuries, even millennia. They are changed, altered, torn down, rebuilt to suit the desires of the people who use them. And those desires change with the times.
Take Notre Dame de Paris, for example. The cathedral stands there as solid as the Rock of Gibraltar, immortalized in Victor Hugo’s novel “The Hunchback of Notre Dame,” a monument for all time.
Yet, over the centuries, it has been altered, changed, refashioned time and again.
The cathedral’s construction was started in 1163 and was still under way in 1200. Hundreds, thousands of anonymous masons and other workmen toiled away, decade after decade, to raise this monument to the glory of their God.
The masonry walls they erected were thick and heavy; they had to be to support the vaults and towers of the cathedral. Their windows were small slits and the interior of the cathedral was dark and gloomy.
To brighten the interior, the windows were made larger. But then the walls threatened to collapse, so those anonymous workers invented the flying buttress: supporting arms that shouldered the weight of the building and allowed the walls to be pierced with large, beautiful, stained-glass windows.
Over the centuries many changes were made. Louis XIV, for example, encased the entire sanctuary in marble facades. By 1720 the archbishop of Paris had the cathedral’s floor repaved with white marble, to brighten up the gloomy interior. In 1741 the original stained-glass windows of the clerestory were replaced with clear glass. Three decades later the crumbling gargoyles that adorned the cathedral’s exterior were removed; now and again one of them would collapse and crash to the pavement below.
When the French Revolution ended the monarchy, mobs attacked Notre Dame and cast down the statues and all other relics of the medieval superstitions that had kept the people in chains. Within a few years Napoleon crowned himself in Notre Dame and founded a new monarchy for himself.
In 1831 Victor Hugo’s novel about Notre Dame was published to such huge success that by 1864 the cathedral was being “restored” to its original condition — or, at least, the condition that resembled Hugo’s description of what it must have looked like in 1482, the year his novel is set in.
After France’s humiliating defeat by Otto von Bismarck’s Prussia in 1870, Paris declared itself a commune and a band of Communards tried to burn down the cathedral’s interior furnishings, which they saw as symbols of the hated monarchy.
And so it has gone. Notre Dame has gone through many changes over the centuries. It is not a serene and inert pile of stone but an almost-living, almost-breathing monument to the people who use the building for purposes that change from one generation to the next.
The Acropolis, the crowning glory of Athens and ancient Greece, was originally built as a temple to Athena, the virgin goddess who is the guardian and patroness of the Athenians. But over the millennia it has been converted into a Christian church, a Moslem mosque and even an arsenal. Today it is a crumbling ruin, despite good-intentioned efforts to restore it to its original splendor.
Reading Hollis’ book will change the way you look at buildings, even very new buildings such as the gaudy hotels and casinos of Las Vegas.
Or very old structures, such as the Western Wall of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem.
“The Secret Lives of Buildings” is a unique book, beautifully written, thoughtful, insightful and full of pleasures.
Bova, a Naples resident, is the author of more than 120 books, including “Able One,” a thriller straight out of today’s headlines. Bova’s Web site address is www.benbova.com