Surveying the world’s lost wonders and lesser structures

  • Fallen Glory: The Lives and Deaths of History’s Greatest Buildings

Washington Post
Sunday, May 07, 2017

James Crawford’s Fallen Glory is a curiously old-fashioned book. It is divided into 21 readable and engaging chapters, each one just about bedtime length and all of them ending with a gentle parable about that ambitious and vain species known as Man. It surveys great buildings, cities and technological marvels that are now lost or have fallen into ruin. Mostly these are things that a reader educated in the English-speaking world will find familiar, even if the recollection is slightly hazy. So among the obituaries in this book devoted to “The Lives and Deaths of History’s Greatest Buildings” are the Tower of Babel, King Minos’ palace on Crete, the Roman Forum and the Bastille in Paris.

Fallen Glory recalls, perhaps, Richard Halliburton’s Book of Marvels, written in the late 1930s, though without the first-person adventure narrative. It appeals to the school-boy curiosity in all of us, the desire to scramble over old ruins and dream of a past that seems more coherent and meaningful than the scattered, nervous present we inhabit. It is also full of digressions and intriguing asides, and even readers who subscribe to National Geographic and watch Jeopardy will be surprised here and there with facts they didn’t know. Did you know that the Roman temple of Divius Julius was reduced to rubble and baked into lime for the mortar that holds together St. Peter’s Basilica? Did you know that the cathedral vault of the Old St. Paul’s in London was once rented out to a public house for storing wine? Or that the Tartars, the nomadic groups that helped Genghis Khan spread his empire, took their name from Tartarus, the lowest part of hell?

Based mainly on secondary sources, but thoroughly footnoted, Crawford’s book proceeds from curiosity to curiosity, often jumping back and forth between recent history and the distant past. The choices of buildings, or places, reflect a particularly Anglophone view of history, with many of the more remote subjects having some connection to British history, if only through the depredations of colonialism. If you were going to pick one magnificent church that is no more, it would have made sense, perhaps, to chose the Abbey at Cluny in France, which certainly had a much bigger impact on the architecture and culture of Europe than St. Paul’s in London. But St. Paul’s is closer to home and more deeply embedded in the emotions of English readers. Also, Kowloon Walled City, a Chinese-built enclave in Hong Kong that was torn down to make a park in 1994, recalls the heavy engagement of the British Empire in that part of the world and offers a chance to recount the Opium Wars; and the St. Petersburg Panopticon, a partial realization of an architectural idea for perpetual surveillance, lets the author tell the intriguing story of the English philosopher and exponent of utilitarianism Jeremy Bentham and his brother, Samuel.

But not everything is so chummily close to home. The book grows stronger the more the author expands his notion of place, or great buildings, and the last third of the volume breaks with the Wonders of the World format to explore the forlorn housing project of Pruitt-Igoe, in St. Louis, demolished in 1976 after only two decades of use; the Berlin Wall, torn down after the end of the Cold War in 1989; and GeoCities, the online “city” of personal web pages deleted by its corporate owner, Yahoo, in 2009. The book ends with a new chapter, added since its original publication in Britain in 2015, devoted to the tragedy of Islamic State destruction in the Syrian city of Palmyra.

The more recent chapters benefit from a richer historical record, and the author deftly sifts through this material to treat his subjects with skepticism and an even hand. The pages on Pruitt-Igoe are particularly good, as Crawford deals analytically with the lazy argument that the complex was doomed to disaster simply because it was a high-rise, or too modern, or too ugly to be congenial to its residents. There were many other factors in the decline of a project that was designed to attract residents back to the city’s inner core and offer them a clean, contemporary, community-oriented habitat for raising families and pursuing the American dream. “Plans drawn up to surround the towers with children’s playgrounds, landscaping and ground-floor public toilets ended up being scrapped,” Crawford writes. And “the quality of the hardware was so poor that doorknobs and locks were broken on initial use.” Rules regulating who could live there precluded working men from cohabitating with women receiving financial aid for dependent children, which only furthered a spiral into social malaise.

But for all this skepticism, the book is too eager to find simple truths, and the author frequently grasps at gossamer ideas that aren’t particularly interesting or enlightening. The Berlin Wall, for example, was a “mirror,” reflecting back at the people on either side a sense of themselves: “At stake was the ultimate judgment: who was good and who was evil? It was this that made the Wall not just a wall, but also a mirror. For those on either side, to look at it was not to see through it or over it, but to see their own reflections.”

Almost every chapter descends into similar piffle. The Fortress of Golconda in Hyderabad, India, was once the main defense of a kingdom that grew wealthy on the diamond trade. But all things must pass: “If diamonds are cursed, as the legends say, then it is the curse of longevity. They live to see everything else die: People, buildings, nations, civilisations, species. They are fated to outlast the world.” Of the great, now-lost Library of Alexandria: “What other destiny could have awaited this first universal archive – the store of all human intellectual achievement – than total destruction?” Why? Hubris, of course.

This is a fault as old fashioned as the book’s format: bad writing. Indeed, the dreadful sort of writing you hear on BBC documentaries aired during pledge week or PBS travel shows. One senses, given the prevalence of this hyperventilating, cliche-ridden focus on simple things like hubris, and the sands of time and the Ozymandian ruins of the arrogant past and the necessity that all great empires will fall to dust, that the book has been written self-consciously with a TV series in mind.

That’s unfortunate. There is good material here, engaging description, a quirky sense of history and often fine analysis. But good taste demands that a book should be better than a TV script. Consider the following, about the loss of the World Trade Center towers in the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. If you make it through and still want to read the book, then by all means buy it: “Perhaps the attack itself, despite its implausible scale and terrifying spectacle, was itself a relic: unoriginal and derivative, the product of too many Hollywood movies. Perhaps the hijackers hit the towers but missed the point. Perhaps.”