The Life, Death and Afterlife of Buildings

There is a conscious effort being made in Wellington, and I’m sure other Colonial Cities ™, to build a sense of historical continuity by designating certain areas and certain buildings as “heritage”. I think civil authorities like the Wellington City Council look at cities of the old world, positively littered with amazing buildings, and aspire to the same sense of the modern world as just the latest caretakers of unbroken occupation going back to the mists of time. I have usually encountered this in a professional context, where various planning officers with an eye to preserving a particular aesthetic have categorically blocked visually obtrusive strengthening measures that at the time seemed imperative. In heated moments I’ve presented this as a stark choice between some visible steelwork and a pile of rubble. In a sense we’re both fighting to save the building – but the more I travel the less sympathy I have for those “historic” buildings; they should simply be torn down and something new constructed that’s better suited to the site, the evolving community, and the real hazards posed by seismicity. There are certainly buildings worth preserving in Wellington, that truly have an iconic status, such as the Odlins Building strengthened a few years ago by Dunning Thornton, or the old Wellington Children’s Dental Clinic, or the Embassy and Roxy Theatres, or my favourite the old Government buildings that have become Victoria University’s Law School buildings in Pipitea.

In my mind, what makes all of these buildings worth saving is that they’ve retained a utility, even if that utilisation is quite different from how they began their lives. The Oldins Hardware Company building is now tres chic apartments, as is the Wellington Children’s Dental Clinic, while the Embassy and Roxy have simply evolved from theatres into cinemas, and the Pipitea Campus is essentially just a different kind of office environment. These buildings have survived and will continue to survive on the basis of being useful, but in global terms they are still basically new. The old Government Buildings are also a marvellous architectural statement, a genuinely attractive building, and as a consequence are beginning the arc that a month of touring around Europe is becoming quite familiar to me – they are beginning to become Attractions ™. You can do guided tours around what is still a functional building, where they explain the history, the restoration concept, the necessary seismic upgrades – you can go and touch a base isolator. It’s not that hard to imagine the same kind of thing happening to the Embassy in another few years, given its age, location, and recent significance in what is becoming a major NZ industry: film.

As I’ve been travelling around Europe the largest class of buildings undergoing this metamorphosis from a real building into a mere tourist attraction is churches. I went to visit the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos on a Sunday morning, arriving about half an hour before the end of the Mass. The church was perhaps a quarter full, with a small flock of gawping tourists like myself hovering behind the pews trying to be respectful. As Mass ended, it was like floodgates had opened and the place was almost filled with the white noise of hard shoes on stone floors, the artificial clicks of digital cameras, and the muted roar of conversations on every conceivable topic even including some discussion of the building itself I’m sure. In any practical sense, we the unwashed masses, are the true users of the building, occupying it the vast bulk of the time, enjoying it on an aesthetic level rather than the spiritual level for which it was intended. The actual monastery has long since been abandoned by any higher authority, weirdly and ironically becoming almost a shrine to a secular hero of the Portuguese people Alexandre Herculano. Walking the cloisters I got the morbid sense that I was visiting a corpse of a building whose only meaning now is that it once had meaning.

I thought about my old drinking pal Jean Baudrillard and his adoption of Borges’ story of the map. A purposeful building like a monastery is structured in a particular way to construct a physical analogy to a spiritual concept for life’s meaning, and now all that remains are those spaces as empty signifiers, unintelligible to the mass of people taking selfies in accidentally attractive spaces. The included museum of the history of the site is like the little boy with a finger where the hole in the dyke used to be before it was washed away. I amused myself by taking selfies with the remaining statues and feeling superior to people not obviously thinking as deep thoughts as myself. If you’re going to be pretentious about these things, it’s important to double-down and commit to the part.

The best that a dead building can hope for is to become a metonymy for the culture that created it, which was my experience of the Palacio Nacional se Sintra, occupied by the royal family into the 20th century. The rooms of the palace are still largely as they were, and my guide explained the significance of the combination of Moorish and Portuguese decorative motifs. Because it was reasonably intact, it was ironically able to convey a far more comprehensive sense of what life must have been like than the near-corpse of the Mosteiro dos Jeronimos. All that required imagination was to insert people into the spaces, whose purposes were still relatively clear and whose history was carefully explained.

The best explanation I’ve had though, converting the physical geography of a space into a sense of the life of the space was the guided tour of Castelo de Sao Jorge. This building, like the Papal Palaces at Avignon, was a living building deliberately murdered in order to bring about a monument to the past. Both buildings had been converted into military barracks and training grounds, and as a consequence had had major structural alterations performed to suit their new use. At some point the sheer historical interest of both sites was recognised by someone with the power to instruct a reconversion. In the case of Castelo de Sao Jorge this meant demolishing a range of perfectly functional buildings to reveal older buildings they obscured, with some limited re-building and alteration to restore accessibility. The restoration of the Papal Palaces was far more extensive – they substantially rebuilt the whole front edifice to match the historical understanding of the structure. In both cases, while a thousand-year-old history was thus revealed, centuries of adapted use were discarded as valueless on the basis that all change is bad – and the 18th and 19th centuries are too modern to earn any respect!

Is this a genuine restoration, or is this too a symbol that mostly refers to itself to derive meaning? Both are fascinating spaces, whose reconstructed geography convey a powerful sense of how the spaces were used – but why is that ancient use more valid than their more recent uses? It strikes me that both spaces are attempting to legitimise a sense of historical value and importance by straightforwardly eliminating the medium-term past. In the case of Castelo de Sao Jorge, the historical claim being made is for the legitimacy of Portugal as derived from the reconquest in 1147 – never mind the period where Portugal was ruled by Spain, never mind the more recent dictatorship. It is history to justify an amplify a modern sense of self-value. The castle serves no practical function, and nor is it a purely intellectual exercise in historiography, it is propaganda. It is an advertisement to the world that Portugal can draw legitimacy from a key historical moment when it was brought into existence by an act of will.

It was in some senses this kind of act of will which caused the creation of the Bronze Age civilisations in the Aegean such as the Minoans [sic] and Mycenaeans [sic]. The Minoans in particular left behind such a scant archaeological record that if it weren’t for certain Egyptian sources, you could virtually make up anything you liked about them with impunity. I’ve been to each of the great palaces and I studied Phaistos in particular. Everything we think we know is based on layers and layers of speculation based on inferences from fragmentary information. The best study of the palaces was by Graham Walter in The Palaces of Crete, but the most compelling study was by the original archaeologist, Arthur Evans. In order to ensure funding for his work continued, he recreated key rooms from the palace complex as he imagined them to be; as statements to exhort money from funders they were successful because they forcefully presented the inarticulate slabs of stone as living spaces.

I expect this is similarly why Barcelona makes such a fuss about the Roman colony of Barcini – you think an origin in 1147 conveys legitimacy, well, nothing is more legitimate than being Roman. They have a series of underground excavations showing ancient roman streets, with accompanying audio-guides and illustrative panels. The modern, relatively modern, medieval buildings above are supported by a new concrete substructure, allowing the roman world to exist simultaneously with the world that followed – a neat trick!

More interesting though, is Barcelona’s advocacy for its place as a centre for modern architectural influence and legitimacy. I suppose in a continent absolutely littered with Roman junk, being able to trumpet an equally impressive modern power is a great way of gaining an advantage over what are essentially still medieval towns, like Avignon which still seems contained within its ancient walls. Their main tool for this is Gaudi. Wherever I’ve gone people have recommended Barcelona to me as a great world city, and most have then waxed lyrical about the power and value of Gaudi’s architecture. By the time I arrived I almost expected him to have designed the entire city single-handed – ridiculous of course. He’s left behind a few buildings, but the two monument-scale creations that remain are Park Guell and the Sagrada Familia. Park Guell is the poster-child for artificial remembrance; it’s a failed real-estate development (thanks Sean!) that was intended to create a particular upper-class lifestyle borrowed from England, which is a kind of fantastic appropriation of the ideal of another civilisation. It’s ended up immortalised as an attraction, effectively it is a monument to the idea that inspired it, a monument to itself. There can hardly be anything more hyper-real than that, a system of signs that end up pointing at nothing, just the ghost of an idea for which this is the perfect synecdoche.

The Sagradia Familia is even more interesting in some ways. The official ticket-selling website entices the potential tourist to spend money by claiming that they will help make history, since it is still under construction for over 125 years. Cathedrals have always taken long time to build, so this hardly sets any kind of record for construction time. Cathedrals have also always been an explicitly monumental form, an expression of God’s power in stone, and an expression of socio-economic power for the city in which it is built. Archaically, your settlement wasn’t a city until it had a Cathedral. The difference here is again the way this system of signs has collapsed; Barcelona doesn’t need another great monumental church to serve the needs of a congregation, nor to prove its authority as a city – the tour guides all make clear that the infrastructure from the ’92 Olympics took care of any lingering requirements on that front. The Sagrada Familia is most famous for being the Sagrada Familia, a monumental church without an accompanying role in history or religious society. The touted History in which the visitor participates is just a perpetuation of that ultimate self-referentiality. Perhaps there is a dedicated and genuinely religious core at the centre of the operation, but for the throngs of people traipsing through it each day the experience is one of pure aesthetic contemplation, and the completion of the ritualised checking-off of the top item on any Barcelona itinerary.

The Sagrada Familia and Park Guell have reached the great Building Afterlife without having had a life to begin with, embracing and perfectly demonstrating a key operational process for true post-modernity, of true Baudrillard-style hyper-reality. I wanted to enjoy these spaces a lot more than I did; their innate lifelessness and uselessness rendered them into something like pure sculptures in a style I found interesting but not compelling.

This issue is one presently confronting the United Kingdom, in the form of the Palaces at Westminster. The houses of parliament are patently inadequate for the function they are intended to serve, and are nightmares of “deferred maintenance” not to mention adaptations necessary for modern technology. I’ve heard and read many pragmatic arguments saying that what’s needed is to convert these spaces fully into museums – they are half way there already, with frequent tours and infrequent actual parliamentary function. The argument is that a purpose-build and therefore efficient building could go anywhere, and the palaces could be preserved as museums and monuments to English democracy – as if this is a noble or useful thing to preserve! When I stood in the commons, the resonance and power of the place was in part the sentiment that Churchill had sat there, but it was mostly the sense of being actually inside the nerve centre for a great European power. The thrill was not historic, though it had a historic perspective, but more presently-engaging. I wasn’t imagining myself as a statesman of years’ past, but reaching an understanding of the present order of things. Standing where the Prime Minister stands at Prime Minister’s Question Time and seeing the proximity of the enemy was the point of the experience.

I’ve spent a few thousand pounds now travelling around looking at old buildings, museums, palaces, and I’ve enjoyed all of those experiences. No doubt the things I’ve seen and places I’ve been will inform my understanding of the world for the rest of my life. Yet I can’t help but be a little wistful about the ossified spaces and enthusiastic about the living ones.


As a post-script, I wrote a satire on Museums that has been well-received by some friends, and your reward for having made it this far is a link to that much more cheerful read.

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2 Responses to The Life, Death and Afterlife of Buildings

  1. stephaniepegg says:

    I remember going to Westminster Cathedral once, and they make a point of letting you know that “it’s a working cathedral, there are people there for prayer and private contemplation and would you leave them alone, and also, would you do them a solid and not take photos, there are some nice postcards in the giftshop.” So of course as we wander around, I kept seeing all these people surreptitiously taking blurry weird angled photos with their phones. It was a bit surreal. Also, as you say with the British Houses of Parliament – tourism doesn’t fit in so well with being a working building.

  2. stephaniepegg says:

    Btw – thanks for the postcard!

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