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

By Tom Wilkinson

Bloomsbury

352 pages, $30

By Jack Quinan

NEWS BOOK REVIEWER

Since its origins in the 19th century, the history of art and architecture has been defined as a chronological development in which one period builds upon or reacts against another: Michelangelo was tutored by an assistant to Donatello; Picasso absorbed the work of Cezanne; Louis Sullivan mentored Frank Lloyd Wright, etc. History – driven by 19th century industrialism and articulated by the ideas and theories of Hegel, Darwin, Herbert Spencer – is commonly understood as an inexorable linear progression.

Tom Wilkinson’s “Bricks and Mortals: Ten Great Buildings and the People they Made,” is a stunning antidote to such conventional histories in which prominent (usually male) architects create great buildings. Instead he argues that great buildings make people by which he means that buildings are sites of intense creative activity, conflicts and changes that involve clients, architects, builders, users, communities, and even entire societies far beyond their moments of design and construction.

Wilkinson, history editor of the Architectural Review in London, has structured his book around 10 buildings distributed across the world and through historic time. Each building serves as a point of departure for the exploration of one of the 10 themes of universal human concern such as Power (represented here by the Tower of Babel in Mesopotamia), Morality (Nero’s Golden House in Rome) and Memory (Djinguereber Mosque in Timbuktu, Mali). Additional themes include Business, Colonialism, Entertainment, Work, Sex, Health and the Future.

Wilkinson’s writing is informed by an astonishing breadth of knowledge gained through extensive research and travel to the sites, as well as the experience of having lived in Berlin, Shanghai and London. He explains his approach this way: “I’ve exchanged the parabola of time’s arrow for a game of snakes and ladders, less elegant, perhaps, but more appropriate for mapping my tangled subject … throughout this book I’ll follow a similarly meandering path, pinballing through time and space in order to flesh out my themes.”

The buildings featured in each chapter do, in fact, unfold chronologically from the pre-Biblical Tower of Babel to Oscar Niemeyer’s 2007 Roncinha footbridge in Rio de Janeiro, but within the chapters Wilkinson moves fluidly through time and space gathering and presenting evidence in support of his themes. His superb storytelling ability makes it all work.

Wilkinson’s chapters brim with a messy vitality. Solid doses of architectural history are enriched by an engrossing array of stories, meditations and historical contexts that humanize the buildings. One of the delights in reading Wilkinson is a sense of boundlessness and discovery on every page. We learn that Henry Ford, for all his success in business, was a rabid anti-Semite, anti-unionist and (not surprisingly) an admirer of Hitler who gave him an award in 1938. His oppressive treatment of his workers and their families precipitated the eventual eclipse of Ford by a more humanized General Motors.

Giovanni Rucellai, whose 15th century palazzo in Florence is one of the few truly great buildings featured in this book, is compared to Donald Trump, no less, in his zeal for building as self-advertisement. We learn that Eileen Gray designed a modernist love-nest for herself and Jean Badovici that Le Corbusier, with whom she occasionally collaborated, defiled with murals either out of jealousy or anger that she publicly rejected his famous axiom, “A house is a machine for living in.” Her house was more a machine for sleeping in.

Who knew that the 18th century western infatuation with Chinoiserie was reciprocated in the form of western style quasi-baroque buildings among the vast, ruinous, Garden of Perfect Brightness in Beijing?

Wilkinson is particularly adept at ferreting out the ambiguities, dualities and conundrums that accrue to buildings over time. A case in point is the arrival in 2006 of officials of the Aga Khan Trust for (Islamic) Culture in Timbuktu, Mali, to repair the failing mud-brick walls of the Djinguerber Mosque, a building that the people of Timbuktu had repaired annually for 687 years by climbing the protruding wooden spikes of its minaret to apply fresh coats of adobe. The result: modern preservationists meet an ancient culture, a riot ensues, people die, and the Aga Khan’s crew is forced to flee. But this is hardly the end of the story as Wilkinson goes on to explore and compare the causes, meanings and fates of other monuments in history from the timeless pyramids at Giza to erased monuments such as the Cathedral of Christ the Redeemer in Moscow that Stalin destroyed in 1931.

Although it vanished before the Bible was written, the Tower of Babel is a propitious site for the theme “Architecture and Power.” A veritable palimpsest of historical events somewhere in the Iraqi desert, Wilkinson weaves together the Biblical story of the Tower, Alexander the Great’s attempt to rebuild it in 320 B.C., a famous 16th century Flemish painting of the Tower by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, the site of a struggle between England and Germany over oil in 1912, the Gulf War in 1990-91, Babylon as a holy place for Rastafarians, and an archaeological site now believed to be the actual foundations of the original building. It is gone and yet it endures, even in our language.

Tom Wilkinson writes from the point of view of a humanist that is at once accessible and popularizing enough to include David Bowie, Harpo Marx, Cary Grant, video games and bits of slang but gives greater credence to the ideas and writings of Ovid, Siegfried Kracauer, Karl Marx, Friedrich Nietzsche, Walter Benjamin, and numerous contemporary critical thinkers. This requires deft footwork on the part of author and reader alike but for a curious reader Tom Wilkinson’s “Bricks and Mortals” provides a chance to travel the world with a guide of uncommon wisdom and talent to discover how buildings make us who we are.

Jack Quinan is the former curator of the Darwin Martin House and a former professor of art history at the University at Buffalo.