Crawford aims for the soul, examining the relationship between the spaces we occupy and at which we marvel and what they reveal about us.
Fallen Glory: The Lives and Deaths of History’s Greatest Buildings sweeps across millennia as author James Crawford, who bides his time at Scotland’s National Collection of architecture and archaeology, tells us a remarkable story or, if you like, series of them. This is not about the utility that buildings provide and it’s not just about the awe they can inspire. Instead, Crawford aims for the soul, examining the relationship between the spaces we occupy and at which we marvel and what they reveal about us. Or, if you like, the “us” at that moment in time. For lovers of buildings and history and for those who love to contemplate art and immortality, Fallen Glory stops time. There will be late nights of pages turning and maybe a more leisurely lunch break or two. In either case, the reader will feel that all-too-familiar tension of wanting to know what happens next and not wanting the journey to end.
That he writes of the buildings as though they did indeed have lives is not hyperbole. For author and reader these are not merely structures built as tribute to the powerful or the wise but places that inhaled and exhaled the truths and falsehoods of their times. He begins with the Tower of Babel, a place that drew its first air in 5,000 BC and sloughed off its mortal coil in 323 BC. To imagine it in its peak era is to gain a deeper appreciation for our own architectural and cultural marvels or, in some cases, the lack of them. Today’s abandoned malls and shopping centers have more in common with Rome than we might think. Rome’s Forum went from an epicenter of political thought and life to a ghostly patch overrun by plant and animal life in seemingly no time at all.
We’ve heard mention of the Library of Alexandria and perhaps have enough of a thumbnail pilfered from dinner conversation and some drunken rambles at our favorite college bar but Crawford brings it to life for us in language that allows us to remember that most storied of structures with a newfound relevance.
Our author does more than wander around in the darkened halls of history, attempting to rebuild these places from fragmented accounts and his imagination, he touches on more recent places, ones that have been incredibly well documented and some of which his readership will have taken in with their own eyes. The Berlin Wall and the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers receive generous discussion while GeoCities is also given its due. Place is as real or imagined as we want it to be, an idealization that’s ultimately temporary.
The transitory nature of these buildings also uncovers some truths about where the structures stand. For the most part, they’re not particularly sacred space. Before the current World Trade Center and Twin Towers before that there was a port for lower Manhattan with a flavor all its own, a place where people worried and worked and imagined that there was something on the order of permanence to their daily lives.
A stroll through your own city might offer similar experience. Find the most recently gentrified area and seek to roll back the layers. Work backward and soon you’ll realize that the warehouse begat the office space that begat the eyesore that begat the short-lived clothing boutique that begat the hair salon that begat the coffee shop where you sit with your laptop and try to imagine the street before there was a Starbucks or a lot filled with food trucks. Those spaces will be gone one day too. As the consumer market is driven less by storefronts, we won’t walk through doors for a pair of cowboy boots or exotic tobacco and the smells of those rooms, their lighting and the voices that echo through them will be silenced, given over to something else.
Though there is a tendency to mourn the loss of that which we’ve come to frequent and consider “ours,” the loss is nothing new. It’s been there since humans have sought shelter and sought out spaces to learn and live before realizing they could do better until they couldn’t anymore. We’re perhaps at that moment now when so much is repurposed and maybe a sense of awe in our surroundings seems out of grasp. Perhaps the longing for it, the hope of its return is part of what Fallen Glory allows us to experience while also reminding us that the disappearance of all the physical stuff surrounding us is inevitable.