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Constructed lives

Imagine, suggests 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 University community.

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 don’t know how to talk about structures. “They have deep feelings about them but don’t 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.”

Harris, the 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.

The book, which grew out of a series of lectures he gave at Columbia University’s 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.

While acknowledging 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 people’s 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 moments—all worth examining.”

Harris explains how a building has a life whose milestones are marked with as much fanfare, or even more, than any human’s. 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.”

Likewise, special “topping out” celebrations mark when a structure’s 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 aging”—renovations, repairs, economic depreciation, conversion, and perhaps demolition.

“The fact 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 it.”

Harris now 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.

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