A searching survey of some of humankind’s greatest architectural accomplishments.
Whereas a human life is usually less than 100 years, writes Scottish preservationist Crawford, “in its lifetime, the same building can meet Julius Caesar, Napoleon and Adolf Hitler.” Buildings have come to stand for whole civilizations, have indeed been practically all that survives of a civilization, whether the now-fallen city of Palmyra or the ruins of Angkor Wat. In an arresting vision, Crawford juxtaposes the ancient Tower of Babel and the recently fallen twin towers of the World Trade Center, imagining that the American soldiers who invaded Iraq in 2003 “would have been able to see, had they known what they were looking for, the place where it all began.” The author’s “it all” includes some grandly noble experiments, such as St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, one that both royalists and republicans knew even in a time of civil war “still mattered,” so much so that huge energies and treasuries went into rebuilding it after the Great Fire of 1666. Along the route of his detailed but lightly told tour, Crawford stops in at places such as Karakorum, the ancient Central Asian city that afforded the Mongol Empire a stronghold from which to conduct an unusually enlightened kind of administration, encouraging free trade and suppressing the usual bandits and robbers of the caravan routes; the long-gone walled city of Kowloon, victim of a perhaps not so enlightened modern colonizer; and even the imagined metropolises of the here-today, gone-tomorrow virtual world of GeoCities. Some of the most affecting passages, though, concern the World Trade Center and its wealth of intertwined stories, from its designer’s acrophobia (hence its narrow, containing windows) to the destruction of old lower Manhattan that preceded the building of those towers. Crawford closes this elegant, charged book with a view of cities now destroyed in the wars of the Middle East, ones that, hopefully, will one day rise from the ashes.
A well-written prize for students of history, archaeology, and urban planning.