The Secret Lives of Buildings: From the Ruins of the Parthenon to the Vegas Strip in Thirteen Stories

The Secret Lives of Buildings: From the Ruins of the Parthenon to the Vegas Strip in Thirteen Stories

by Edward Hollis

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A strikingly original, beautifully narrated history of Western architecture and the cultural transformations that it represents

Concrete, marble, steel, brick: little else made by human hands seems as stable, as immutable, as a building. Yet the life of any structure is neither fixed nor timeless. Outliving their original contexts and purposes,


A strikingly original, beautifully narrated history of Western architecture and the cultural transformations that it represents

Concrete, marble, steel, brick: little else made by human hands seems as stable, as immutable, as a building. Yet the life of any structure is neither fixed nor timeless. Outliving their original contexts and purposes, buildings are forced to adapt to each succeeding age. To survive, they must become shape-shifters.

In an inspired refashioning of architectural history, Edward Hollis recounts more than a dozen stories of such metamorphosis, highlighting the way in which even the most familiar structures all change over time into "something rich and strange." The Parthenon, that epitome of a ruined temple, was for centuries a working church and then a mosque; the cathedral of Notre Dame was "restored" to a design that none of its original makers would have recognized. Remains of the Berlin Wall, meanwhile, which was once gleefully smashed and bulldozed, are now treated as precious relics.

Altered layer by layer with each generation, buildings become eloquent chroniclers of the civilizations they've witnessed. Their stories, as beguiling and captivating as folktales, span the gulf of history.

Editorial Reviews

Kirk Savage
[Hollis] brings together an iconoclastic attitude and a lively writing style to create a kind of counter-history of architecture, one that starts where the original designers left off and narrates the subsequent biography of the "wonderful and chimeric monsters" that buildings are. Focusing on 13 stories from the ancient world to the present, Hollis weaves together fantasy and fact to turn each building into something akin to a legend passed down and constantly modified through oral tradition.
—The Washington Post
Library Journal
Hollis (interior design, Edinburgh Coll. of Art) uses a dramatic storytelling technique to provide a new and entertaining view of the context in which historic structures have existed. Buildings are not perfect static sculptures that exist for a single purpose; they live within ever-changing times and cultures and are transformed by events and ideas. An introduction sets the scene for the historic journey followed by 13 chapters, each devoted to the story of a monumental building. Hollis provides a description of the circumstances under which the structures were created, ruined, repaired, preserved, and sometimes destroyed completely. He interweaves stories about the people who may have used or been influenced by each building. Highlighted structures include the Parthenon, Gloucester Cathedral, Notre Dame de Paris, the Berlin Wall, and the Venetian hotel in Las Vegas. VERDICT Recommended to readers interested in architecture, the ideas of space and place, and intellectually stimulating historical tales.—Valerie Nye, Coll. of Santa Fe, NM
Kirkus Reviews
An architect debuts with a look at 13 iconic structures, each of which has altered greatly as newer generations have honored different deities, despots and dreams. Hollis (Interior Design/Edinburgh College of Art) begins with a rumination on Thomas Cole's 1840 painting The Architect's Dream and continually returns to it throughout this erudite series of connected essays. His other recurring reference is to the Parthenon, which has its own chapter but also serves as a polestar at which Hollis gazes before beginning each subsequent essay. Although the pieces appear somewhat similar-each begins with a brief meditation, and the lengths are approximately the same-they are mostly quite different in texture and tone. But the thesis remains constant: Buildings change, and they should change. Among the structures he discusses are the expected (the Parthenon, the Alhambra), the pleasant surprises (the Basilica of San Marco, Gloucester Cathedral, Jerusalem's Western Wall, the Berlin Wall) and the unexpected (the Sans Souci in Potsdam, the Hulme Crescents, a massive public-housing project, now razed, in Manchester, England). Hollis moves gracefully through both buildings and historical periods with an impressive command of detail and a sometimes surprising sensitivity to the people involved. Occasionally he wanders into the minds of the principals-e.g., his re-creation of the American-Chinese negotiations over the possible construction in China of a casino with a Venetian theme. As Qian Qichen talks with Sheldon G. Adelson, Hollis imagines the Chinese leader thinking, "It feels good being able to manipulate the third-richest man in the United States with a twitch." Among the most appealing essaysare the ones dealing with Gloucester Cathedral-how a massive structure arose around the tomb of Edward II-and with alterations of Notre Dame that occurred because of demands by readers of Victor Hugo. A strong, satisfying exploration of the history, beauty and wonder of Western architecture. Agent: David Marshall/Marshall Rights
From the Publisher

“Scintillating… Every so often, works on the building art capture the public imagination. Now Tracy Kidder and Witold Rybczynski are joined by Edward Hollis, whose new book, The Secret Lives of Buildings, offers an advanced seminar for graduates of Rybczynski's introductory courses… Provides the ground for a reinvigorated public discourse on the role of architecture in contemporary society… Worthy of wide consideration.” —Martin Filler, The New York Review of Books

“What a happy tingle of discovery to come across a book that differs sharply from all the others in its field!… Hollis thinks with such originality and writes with such flair that he is a pleasure to read.” —Stanley Abercrombie, The American Scholar

“A fantasia from the real and the imagined… An unusual sort of speculative history, almost a work of experimental fiction. The buildings, which are its nominal subjects, are only MacGuffins on which Hollis hangs a series of short stories on the themes of love, loss and time.” —Ian Volner, Time Out New York

“Hollis brings together an iconoclastic attitude and a lively writing style to create a kind of counter-history of architecture, one that starts where the original designers left off and narrates the subsequent biography of the ‘wonderful and chimeric monsters' that buildings are.” —Kirk Savage, The Washington Post

“Hollis exposes the surprisingly motley histories of some of the world's great landmarks… The chapter on the Parthenon actually brought me to tears.” —Jenna Russell, The Boston Globe

“Delightful... A beautifully wrought book... Here are wondrous stories writ in stone, and Edward Hollis has written about them very well indeed.” —Jonathan Glancey, The Guardian (UK)

“An accessible and ambitious exploration of the nature and meanings of architecture… Hollis has the gift of making these buildings seem real and alive.” —Simon Bradley, The Sunday Times (UK)

“There is something Sebaldian about The Secret Lives of Buildings: a digressive pleasure in the sheer strangeness of architecture and the mortal intrigues by which it was wrought… Hollis is particularly good on the history of architectural reconstruction.” —Brian Dillon, The Independent (UK)

“Engaging and erudite... Hollis is magical on the layers of myth and history in the classical world.” —Edwin Heathcote, Financial Times (UK)

“Tremendous... It's unusual for a nonfiction book to match a neat conceit with elegant execution, but Hollis has achieved it. The stories are actually stories, not mere scrolls of fact. It helps that he has a beautifully wry tone... Hollis experiments with structure, chronology, leitmotifs and repetitions, and makes his book a rare thing: nonfiction you can reread.” —Stuart Kelly, Scotland on Sunday

“A fascinating tale, a fairytale journey that shifts seamlessly between edification and revelation… Quite unlike any other recent book on architecture and a worthy nominee for the Guardian's First Book Award.” —Mark Cousins, Building Design (UK)

“A new and entertaining view of the context in which historic structures have existed… Recommended to readers interested in architecture, the ideas of space and place, and intellectually stimulating historical tales.” —Valerie Nye, Library Journal

“Hollis moves gracefully through both buildings and historical periods with an impressive command of detail and a sensitivity to the people involved.… A strong, satisfying exploration of the history, beauty, and wonder of Western architecture.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Not confined to world-famous monuments, Hollis's attractive approach attends to vernacular structures as well... He writes history eclectically, informatively, and entertainingly.” —Booklist

“Any architecture or history buff would be pleased to find The Secret Lives of Buildings under the tree... Iconic structures like the Parthenon, the Berlin Wall and even the Vegas Strip have led more storied lives than we realize. Hollis shares these stories with a fairy-tale charm.” —BookPage

“Edward Hollis rewrites architectural history in this beautiful and unsettling study of how the masterpieces of Western architecture have changed over time. Temples become mosques; monuments become ruins; deserts become cities, and deserts again. After reading this book, no building will seem quite the same.” —Christopher Woodward, author of In Ruins: A Journey Through History, Art, and Literature

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The Secret Lives of Buildings

From the Ruins of the Parthenon to the Vegas Strip in Thirteen Stories

By Edward Hollis

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2009 Edward Hollis
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-8210-8


The Parthenon, Athens In Which a Virgin Is Ruined


The Parthenon is the architect's dream. It is perfect. It is what architecture was, is, and should be.

Or so they say. To Pericles, under whose aegis it was built, the Parthenon symbolized an Athens that was "the school of Hellas," while Thucydides, who opposed its construction, commented that the Parthenon would cause future ages to imagine that Athens was a far greater civilization than it had ever been. Thucydides was closer to the mark, for Athens became the school not only of Hellas but of the whole Western world, and the Parthenon has been the model of architecture ever since.

Just as Vitruvius prescribed, the Parthenon holds commodity, firmness, and delight in perfect balance. The Parthenon is beautiful in the Renaissance sense: nothing may be added to it, or taken away, but for the worse. For the dilettanti who visited it in the eighteenth century, the Parthenon was the model for all civilized art; for the citizens of the new nation who stood before it in 1837, the Parthenon was the symbol of Grecian liberty. The French architect Viollet-le-Duc described it as the perfect expression of its own construction, and Le Corbusier compared its refinements to the exhilarating styling of sports cars, calling it "architecture, pure creation of the mind."

There are Parthenons everywhere. There is one in Nashville, Tennessee, constructed for an exposition of the arts and industry in 1897, and another one by the banks of the Danube, near Regensburg. The High Court of Sri Lanka is lent an air of gravitas by the expedient of attaching a Parthenon to it as a porch, while Edinburgh College of Art in Scotland was designed to house casts of the sculptures that once adorned the Greek temple. Everywhere it appears, the Parthenon is used to symbolize art and civilization, liberty and eternal fame.

The Parthenon is what architecture is, and should be; but the perfect Parthenons of architecture have been conjured from a heap of broken stones that are anything but perfect. The Platonic philosophers of ancient Athens would have argued that the Acropolis was crowned by a maimed relic from the very beginning: that the physical Parthenon could never be more than a dim shadow of an ideal temple, which exists only in the mind's eye. Today, then, this model of architecture is but a phantom of a shadow of an idea: a ruin.

Circa 460

Once upon a time, a philosopher of Athens had a dream. As Proclus slept in his little house below the Acropolis, a goddess armed with a shield and spear appeared to him. "Make your house ready," she said. "They have turned me out of my temple."

Proclus knew exactly who she was, for he had spent his life waiting for her. Every day he would take his students up to the hill above his house, where he would show them the goddess and her temple, and he would tell them stories about the marble figures that were carved across the building.

He would point up at the figures in the eastern gable of the temple. These figures showed the birth of the goddess Athene, he would say, for Athene was not conceived of a womb but sprang from her father's head, fully armed, when the god Hephaestus split it open with an ax. Because Athene was not born of a sexual union, she vowed to abstain from such congress, and for this reason she was called Parthenos, which means "virgin." But Hephaestus, who had given her being with his ax, attempted to ravish Athene. He was so excited that his seed made it no farther than her thigh. Disgusted, she wiped it off and threw it on the ground of the Acropolis, from which sprang a monster, half man and half snake. Athene raised this creature as her son, and he became Erichthonius, the first king of Athens.

Then Proclus would take his students to the western pediment, where a man and a woman stood in opposition, their antagonism frozen in marble. Once upon a time, he would say, Athene was in dispute with her uncle Poseidon, the god of the sea, since both of them claimed the Acropolis for their own. The wise people who lived there suggested to the gods that the dispute could be settled quite simply. "Give us gifts," they said, "and the one whose gift we accept shall be our god."

Poseidon roared his assent, and he plunged his trident into the Acropolis. The earth shook, and a spring of seawater issued forth from the rock. Athene was quiet. She bent over the ground and planted a seedling. "Wait," she said. And from that seedling, which was the first olive tree, issued forth oil, and food, and timber, and tinder, and all manner of useful things.

And the people of the Acropolis, being wise, chose the gift of Athene and dedicated their city to her. Under Athene, the Athenians developed a passion for wisdom. Philosophers disputed and taught in an unbroken chain from Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, and Zeno all the way down to Proclus himself; and the grove of the Academy and the stoas of the marketplace gave their very names to concepts of learning and conduct. Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus wrote their sublime tragedies for the theater of Athens, while Aristides and Demosthenes perfected the art of rhetoric in its assembly, and Thucydides recorded their acts in his immortal history of the Peloponnesian wars. In the bright morning of civilization, the Athenians both invented and perfected all the arts: rhetoric, politics, philosophy, drama, history, sculpture, painting, and architecture, and in doing so made their city "the school of all Hellas."

It was their leader, Pericles, who persuaded the Athenians to set their achievements in marble and to build a magnificent temple to Athene, so that her holy wisdom might be apprehended by the eye as well as the soul, the mind, and the ear. The temple was, like any other shrine, just a darkened chamber surrounded by a colonnade; but it possessed a splendor that set it apart from its rivals and predecessors. This splendor had nothing to do with size or expense. Rather, it resided in the proportion and the refinement of the architecture of the building, whose stones possessed the same undying youth and strength as the carved bodies that adorned it. There was not a single straight line in the Temple of Wisdom. The platform upon which it stood was built very slightly convex, so that it seemed to push upward from the earth. The columns of the peristyle were not simple cylinders, but were wider at the bottom than at the top, and subtly curved, as if they were flexing to support the architrave and the roof above them. They also leaned inward toward one another, so that if each column were extended upward it would meet all the others several miles above the center of the temple. The building was not even symmetrical, but tilted slightly toward the south, so that it might appear more imposing from the plain below the ramparts of the Acropolis.

The Temple of Wisdom was no mere building. The columns that surrounded the inner sanctum were as vigorous and as beautifully proportioned as gods or heroes. Arranged in a phalanx guarding the goddess within, they were in such perfect harmony with one another that it might be said that they were themselves one body: that of the virgin Athene herself. And because the temple was the body of a divine virgin, it never aged. The historian Plutarch saw it some five hundred years after it had been built, yet even then he was moved to write, "There is a sort of bloom of newness upon these works ... preserving them from the touch of time, as if they had some perennial spirit and undying vitality mingled in the composition of them."

After he had shown his students the outside of the building, Proclus would lead them into the interior, which was known as the hekatompedon — the "hundred footer" shrine. Therein stood an image of Athene, over eighteen feet tall, made of gold and ivory. She wore a helmet, and brandished a shield and a spear, and held a winged figure of Victory in her hands.

This image of Athene, Proclus would say, was wrought by the sculptor Phidias, who was the friend of Pericles. One might imagine that, when he had finished it, he would have been honored by the Athenians for his artistry. But instead they accused him of stealing gold from the statue. He was flung into prison, where not even his friendship with Pericles could save him, and there he died. And so Athene was ravished a second time by the very man who had made her.

After he had taken them inside the temple, Proclus would bring his students outside again and show them the sculpted frieze that ran around the outer walls of the inner sanctum. This frieze depicted a procession of horsemen, officials with their staffs, and women bearing jars of water and oil. At the head of this procession was a child holding up a folded gown.

Once upon a time, Proclus said, a Macedonian warlord named Demetrius Poliorcetes — "the besieger of cities" — became the king of Athens. In order to honor him, the Athenians wove a great gown and embroidered it with scenes of all his victories. In accordance with annual custom, this gown was ceremonially carried in a procession to the Athene of Phidias. It was woven, like all the other gowns before it, by a group of young virgin women — the parthenoi — who inhabited their own space in the rear of the temple, a room that was named after them and the goddess they served. Now, since they had no royal palace to give him, the Athenians invited Demetrius to take up residence in this parthenon, the room of the virgins, so that he could be close to the goddess who now wore the gown decorated with his triumphs.

But Demetrius was a barbarian despot who had at least four wives, countless mistresses, and a sexual appetite so voracious it was said that one young man jumped to his death in a cauldron of boiling water in order to escape his advances. And Demetrius's gown, embroidered with his own image, turned out to be a dubious gift with a blasphemous price. You can imagine the way he had with the weaving virgins and their unfortunate goddess. Demetrius didn't last long. His rival Lachares seized Athens from him and took up residence in the sanctuary of Athene; he stripped her image of its gold and cut it up in order to pay his barbarous soldiers.

Athene had been ravished many times, said Proclus, but somehow she remained the virgin goddess, enshrined in her virgin temple, perfect, beautiful, and unchanging. In the nine hundred years since it had first been built, the temple itself had acquired the name of her virginity: the Parthenon. The Romans, the Herulians, and the Visigoths had done many terrible things, Proclus said. They had reduced Athens to ashes, had enslaved her citizens, and had carried off many treasures, but they had left the Parthenon intact. The Roman emperor Nero was so captivated by the beauty of the temple that he adorned it with his name in bronze letters, and Alexander the Great gave the temple three hundred Persian shields in recompense for the three hundred Hellenes who had fallen at Thermopylae. "May it ever remain so," Proclus would say; and he would conclude his lesson and return to his little house on the southern slope of the Acropolis, where he would meditate on the inviolate wisdom of Athene.

Then, in the year of Our Lord 391, Theodosius, the emperor of Constantinople, sent a proclamation throughout his empire: "No one is to go to the sanctuaries, walk through the temples, or raise his eyes to statues created by the labour of man." He had the festival days of the old pagan gods declared as workdays, and the doors of the temples closed.

The Christians took possession of the Temple of Wisdom, and they turned it into a church. The parthenon, the room of the virgins at the back of the building, became the front porch, and the hekatompedon the nave of the church. They blocked up the door to the hekatompedon and placed their altar there, and they opened a new door where Phidias's image of Athene had been, so that the faithful who entered the church now shook the dust off their sandals onto the pavement where the goddess had stood. The temple, whose doors had opened to the east so that the light of the rising sun would come through its doors, now faced in the opposite direction, so that the altar of the Christians faced the dawn. In a final irony, the Christians named their new church Hagia Sophia, or Holy Wisdom.

A few decades later, the goddess of wisdom completed the Christians' work for them. Athene appeared to Proclus in his dream and whispered an order into his ear. "Make your house ready," she said; "they have turned me out of my temple, so now I come to live with you." Proclus wept, and then he prepared himself. The goddess, it is said, went to live with him in his little house on the southern slopes of the Acropolis, and she was never seen again. Her empty image was removed from its sanctuary and shipped away to Constantinople by the emperor's agents. And so the Parthenon, whose virgin goddess had been cast out of her own sanctuary, was ruined for the first time.

Eight hundred years later, the Christian rabble of Constantinople would tear an ancient statue to pieces because they were convinced it was the habitation of a demon. It was said that this statue stood over eighteen feet tall. She wore a helmet and held a shield and spear, and a winged figure of Victory fluttered in her hands.


When it was some twenty-one centuries old, the Parthenon was ruined a second time. A Holy League of Christians descended on Athens, now a city in the Ottoman Empire, and laid siege to the Acropolis. Cannonballs rained onto the marble, and smoke blackened the sky and choked the air. Terrified, the harem of the Ottoman garrison, who were trapped on the rock, gathered their children about them and took refuge in what was now their mosque. Holed up in the shadows as the cannonade rumbled and cracked outside, the women told their children stories to reassure them.

One woman recounted tales from the Turkish traveler Evliya Çelebi. This mosque had been built as a madrassa by the wise man Plato long ago, she said, and he had delivered his lectures from the throne now used by the imam at prayer time. He had dwelled here with the goddess Athene, to whom he used to pray for wisdom. The mosque had been standing here for many thousands of years, the woman told her children, and it was not about to fall down now.

This Plato had constructed the mihrab, the niche pointing toward Mecca, in sheets of alabaster, which glowed even now in the darkness of the bombardment. The women pointed at the niche: "See, it glows still; Allah has not deserted us yet." Plato had taken the bronze gates of Troy and had made them into the doors of his Academy. "The gates of Troy, which were never breached except by treachery, will keep us safe and sound," said the women.

A Christian woman of the harem recounted tales from another traveler, the Italian Niccolò Martoni. Plato had lived long before the time of Jesus, let alone the prophet Muhammad, she said, and in those days many came to study the arts of wisdom in this building. One day, a young student called Dionysius was standing in the porch when the sky went dark and the earth began to tremble. This young Dionysius felt that some event of great significance was happening. Something moved him, and he turned to the mighty column next to which he was standing. With his knife, he carved an emblem into the marble: a cross. And the day on which he carved it, the Christian woman of the harem said, was the very day on which Jesus Christ was crucified for all our sins; and she crossed herself.

Later, when the Christians came and converted the building into a church, they repeated the little vandalism of Dionysius again and again. They worked their way around the friezes of sculpture, and they hacked off the heads and faces of the horsemen, the officials, the women bearing jars of oil and water, and the small child who carried the sacred gown; these were pagan idols and the habitation of demons. Just one sculpture — a pair of robed women, one seated and one standing — was left alone by the Christians, because they imagined that it represented the Annunciation. Centuries passed, and every passing archbishop cut his name into the marble walls, just as Dionysius had once carved his cross. In those days, the woman said, this darkened hall had been gorgeous with golden mosaic, clouded with incense, ringing with bells and chanting. There had been an icon of Our Lady that had been painted from life by Saint Luke himself, a copy of the gospels that had been transcribed by Saint Helena, the head of Saint Makarios, the arms of Saint Dionysios, Saint Cyprian, and Saint Justin, and the elbow of Saint Maccabeus.


Excerpted from The Secret Lives of Buildings by Edward Hollis. Copyright © 2009 Edward Hollis. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Edward Hollis is an architect and designer who teaches at the Edinburgh College of Art. Trained at Cambridge and Edinburgh universities, he worked for five years in the United Kingdom as a practicing architect, specializing in alterations to historic buildings. The Secret Lives of Buildings is his first book.

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