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If Walls Could Talk: Bricks and Mortals

Tom Wilkinson’s vibrant and broad study takes the less well-travelled roads of architectural history, examining nuanced narratives that resonate over centuries

It is part of the inherent tragedy of so many buildings that they have within them something of the delusion of the ‘cargo cult’ − that is, as far as architecture is concerned, that they try in their design to recreate the circumstances in which the monuments they were inspired by were originally commissioned. And that’s impossible, of course. History never repeats itself, as my late uncle, a political scientist, used to say: the people involved were different, even if you could copy their forms and styles. In fact every building represents a particular moment, sometimes more than one, and they have a world that circles about it.

Those of us looking for alternative ways of telling stories about buildings will thus enjoy Tom Wilkinson’s Bricks and Mortals, because each chapter is a rich and satisfying discussion that revolves around one of 10 projects, from the biblical Tower of Babel (c650 BC) to the small footbridge designed by Oscar Niemeyer at Rocinha (2010), the one reminiscent in its form of a child’s drawing of someone’s bottom and connecting a favela with a sports centre across an arterial road.

I say that the discussions revolve, because they start and finish with the buildings themselves and the people behind them, the mortals of the title, but in between they weave long and complicated yarns involving not only others who were marginal to the original project but also some who were scarcely even tangential to it. This process is often very dense: the chapter on Nero’s first-century palace in Rome, the Golden House, moves quickly into a riff on the architecture of totalitarian builders: Wilkinson’s list includes Speer, Lutyens at New Delhi, Stalinist constructivists, Koolhaas in Beijing and the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. It returns to Nero and some details from Suetonius of the emperor’s ‘crazy lust’, then starts to ask about the connection between the design of buildings and bad people in general. Then it moves onto greed, pride and luxury; the Marquis de Sade; and Pope Leo X, who danced, in one of Wilkinson’s memorable phrases, ‘at the Grecian end of the ballroom’. A few pages later we have Ruskin (at some length, on sybarites) and then at high speed within three pages the security barriers outside the Foreign Office in Whitehall; the Israeli wall; a planner called William H Whyte; both Ernö and Auric Goldfinger; and then the Trellick Tower (‘a Mondrian for living in’).

It would be exhausting if it wasn’t so well written, and the range of subjects so large that all this dashing around has enough space − chronologically, geographically − in which to manoeuvre. In fact the effect is rather like seeing a flock of birds in the sky, perhaps not all flying in straight line, perhaps sometimes in fact more like the mad frenzy at the end of the Hitchcock film with Tippi Hedren trapped inside an attic with them. Yet it is, actually, going somewhere distinct in every chapter, this crazy, circling flock.

Wilkinson’s piece on the Djinguereber Mosque in Timbuktu is centred on political monuments, including Lenin’s tomb and Franco’s Valle de los Caídos, and also the permanence or otherwise of desert buildings. When describing Palazzo Rucellai in Florence he is talking about the symbolism of commercial architecture of all ages; E.1027 is about sex and the ravishing of walls. The other chapters are about the Garden of Perfect Brightness in Beijing; the Festival Theatre in Bayreuth; Ford’s Highland Car Factory in Detroit; and the Finsbury Health Centre. As can be imagined, he covers a lot of ground.

The building chapters are presented in chronological order, but nothing else is. In fact nowhere in all of this is there much architectural description, or any of the usual tools for presenting a conventional story of architectural history, such as style, or the developing ideas of an architect. So how do we know that it is an architecture book at all rather than, say, a collections of anecdotes about famous buildings? The answer lies in what it tells us about the cargo cult, the human need to build in order to try to recreate the appealing aspects of the past and to fail in doing so, and the difference between all this and great architecture.

Wilkinson’s great triumph here is that his riffs and stories impress on every reader the breadth of the circumstances that make a building worth remembering, both at the time and since, and why. In so doing, he explains, without ever actually saying so, what the difference is between the real thing and any number of stylistic impressions. It’s a very good way of telling stories about how and why certain buildings are important. For this reason alone this funny, clever and engaging book would be an ideal one for every student who up to now has been unable to see the point of learning the history of architecture.

Bricks and Mortals: Ten Great Buildings and the People They Made

Author: Tom Wilkinson

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Price: £25

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