Review: Lost Buildings 03.10.08

lostbuildings copy

This book has a whiff of the desk drawer about it. Being a journalist, Jonathan Glancey is no doubt a compulsive note-taker and hoarder of press cuttings, as a great many of his profession are. The notes and clippings, concerning things that the journalist finds interesting and of possible later use, accumulate in desk drawers. If enough of them share a theme, then sometimes these particles of information coalesce into a book.

Deyan Sudjic's entertaining The Edifice Complex (Penguin, 2005) is a previous example of this kind of book. It started life as a collection of press photographs of political leaders leaning over architectural scale models, and grew into a diverting study of the ways the powerful use buildings. It was interesting, but its ability to draw general conclusions was undermined by its magpie eclecticism. Glancey's Lost Buildings is very similar, but it is almost as if the Guardian's architecture and design editor has tried to learn from the errors of his former opposite number on the Observer. Lost Buildings shies away from sketching general conclusions, and indeed barely has a narrative structure at all; it's more of a compendium. And while Sudjic included no pictures, Glancey has been lavish with them.


Lost Buildings, then, is a collection of buildings from the past that have been destroyed or demolished or have otherwise disappeared. This is a vast and powerful theme. As things that literally shape our worlds, we become incredibly familiar with buildings, even ones that we only see in pictures or on television. They are the stage-sets of memory, the moulds of life, and their loss can be as devastating as the death of a person. Perhaps in recognition of the strength of these emotions, the cover of Lost Buildings has a photograph of the World Trade Center in New York on it, by far the most traumatic lost building of recent history. But the real strength of a collection of buildings lost to savagery, stupidity, natural causes or even eventual necessity is not the inclusion of buildings like the Twin Towers or the Frauenkirche in Dresden, which we're depressingly well-informed about; it's the extent to which we discover buildings we didn't know so much about. This book contains scores of buildings that will be less familiar to the reader – such as Erich Mendelsohn's Schocken department store – and is therefore a source of diversion and delight. To read about a lost architectural treasure that one has never known about before is to enter a lost world, and to open up fresh avenues of the imagination, to conjure what was and what might have been. For those who treasure cities and what gets called our "built heritage", this book will strum on your sense of poignancy with pornographic reliability. And the pictures are top notch.

lostbuildings2Erich Mendelsohn's Schocken department store in Stuttgart; built 1928, demolished 1960

Glancey has, however, fallen prey to magpie syndrome in an effort to clear out the desk drawer. On top of plain old lost buildings, we also get mythical buildings (Atlantis and the Tower of Babel are carelessly tossed in next to very real places like Carthage and the Parthenon), buildings that were proposed and never built, and buildings "lost in dreams". These are books in themselves, and the third strand is frankly bizarre. Putting up even a humble building is an enterprise that absorbs a large amount of time, expense and effort. From the moment the first sod is cut, this building starts to have an impact on the lives of the people around it, including a growing and ultimately vast number unrelated to the building's commissioners and builders. The structure becomes a locus of emotion. The same cannot be said of plans. Unrealised plans are often fascinating, offering as they do a voyeuristic peek into an alternative world. They also have their own properties of poignancy, or capacity to chill, making us either sad that such a vision will never be realised (in the case of Le Corbusier's hospital for Venice) or grateful that the plan died with its creator (in the case of Hitler's Berlin). But they have none of the impact of the building. A plan is a statement of purpose; the resulting building is the purpose itself, manifest. Robert Harbison explored some fascinating themes of buildings "freed from function", inhabiting only the imagination, linking ruins, fantasies and the unrealised in his 1993 study The Built, the Unbuilt and the Unbuildable. But there is none of that kind of critical work here, in a book that cannot seem to choose between continuous narrative and pick-n-mix entries on specific buildings.

It's difficult to know even where to begin with the chapter "Lost in Dreams", which includes Coleridge's Xanadu, the cityscapes from Blade Runner and Toad Hall from The Wind in the Willows. These may or may not be buildings, but they are in no way lost. They exist in fiction and art; they are erected afresh with each near reader or viewer, with whom they endure more vividly and permanently than many actual edifices. Their inclusion speaks of a lack of editorial discipline. It seems so strongly redolent of a desk-drawer exercise that one expects to find paperclips and post-it notes between the pages.

These chapters – which could have happily made the core of another book – pile flab onto what is otherwise an enjoyable read. Glancey's writing, often first-rate, is not always up to par, at times straying into the facile waftiness of the voiceover for Channel Five's When Buildings Get Lost. But at those moments it's relatively easy to ignore the tour guide and admire the ruins. This might be a trip into the desk drawer, but what an amazing collection Glancey has amassed in there.

Lost Buildings, by Jonathan Glancey, Carlton Books, £30






William Wiles

quotes story

They are the stage-sets of memory, the moulds of life, and their loss can be as devastating as the death of a person

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