historian Neil Harris, if the U of C lost the buildings that make
up its Gothic quadrangles and moved to an entirely new campus, or
rebuilt over their ruins in the interests of economy, efficiency,
or modernity. This, he suspects, would deeply disturb much of the
We are attached
to the buildings that share our lives in profound ways, he
says. They form part of our identity as individuals and as
institutions. But even so, Harris argues, people dont
know how to talk about structures. They have deep feelings
about them but dont quite know just how to describe them,
he says. In an age of mass photography, we usually lack the
very vocabulary necessary to describe or evaluate buildings.
Preston and Sterling Morton professor in history, the Committee
on Geographical Studies, and the College, has himself spent a lot
of time looking for the right words to talk about buildings. His
research and teaching focus on the evolution of American culture,
particularly on the social history of the built landscape, art,
design, and technology. In his new book, Building Lives: Constructing
Rites and Passages, released this February by Yale, he shares
some of his insights, offering both specialists and everyday architecture
lovers a new way to think about buildings.
which grew out of a series of lectures he gave at Columbia Universitys
Buell Center for the History of Architecture, presents buildings
as a distinct living species, applying the familiar divisions of
conception and birth, growth and maturity, and aging and death.
that each culture has its own way of recognizing the importance
of its built environment, Harris has concentrated upon American
structures erected over the past 150 years and focused on the rituals,
from groundbreakings to anniversary celebrations to demolitions,
that connect people to the structures they occupy. Though such rituals
may not be at the top of peoples minds when they think about
buildings, Harris proposes that the life history of structures
deserves a little more attention. Most books treat the design and
architecture of buildings and stop there. But buildings have different
momentsall worth examining.
how a building has a life whose milestones are marked with as much
fanfare, or even more, than any humans. For example, he writes,
the groundbreaking is a promissory note on a larger outcome,
something suggesting a baby shower, held before the fact,
while the cornerstone ceremony represents an opportunity to
introduce a broader public to a coming attraction.
special topping out celebrations mark when a structures
highest elevation has been reached, and a grand opening, writes
Harris, offers not only the chance to honor donors and supporters,
to invoke history, to measure the progress made since the earlier
ceremonies; it also encourage[s], at a moment of maximal attention,
definition and emphasis of purpose.
Like a person,
Harris says, a building naturally ages and requires treatment
for disease, which he details in a discussion of the role
of janitors and building superintendents. And the growth and
maturity of many buildings are marked through promotional
brochures, magazine articles, urban-planning decisions, anniversary
celebrations, organized tours and souvenirs for building visitors,
and building directories. Later, buildings face the inevitable
pains of agingrenovations, repairs, economic depreciation,
conversion, and perhaps demolition.
that buildings are major investments of time, energy, and decision
making is apt to be reflected in what we do with them, says
Harris. Buildings such as churches or courthouses also exemplify
concepts beyond functionality. They are receptacles of value. In
honoring the building, we are honoring the institution that erected
plans to explore the same topic in greater depth by focusing on
one specific type of building: big-city newspaper headquarters.
Before radio, television, and the Internet, they were major
information and entertainment sites, and in many ways were more
powerful symbols of local community than city halls, Harris
says. Their number, variety, and significance testify to the
power of the press in the heroic age of the American city. And their
appearance says much about the ambition of architects and builders
to define civic ideals.C.S.