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James Crawford writes about lost buildings in Fallen Glory.

Comstock/Getty Images

Fallen Glory: The Lives and Deaths of History's Greatest Buildings
James Crawford

Twenty-five hundred years ago in Mesopotamia, the kings Nabopolassar and his son Nebuchadnezzar built the Temple of Etemenanki at the heart of Babylon. It was 91 metres on a side, 91 metres high, "a man-made 'mountain'" that ruled the skyline and landscape, as James Crawford explains. "At the skyscraping summit, kings could approach the gods." And the king's names were on every brick. This tower would send a message: "Their ziggurat, in their city, would be the greatest ever constructed."

Fallen Glory, Crawford's extraordinary new book, almost shares their ambition: At more than 500 pages, it spans millenniums and continents, and from mud-brick walls to an online virtual "city." But the 21 structures featured are all lost or ruined. The arc of their imagining, building and wrecking is, in Crawford's telling, a metaphor for human existence.

There are no happy endings. We all know how the tower of Babylon turned out – transformed through biblical accounts into the Tower of Babel, object of myth and symbol of human overreach, and wrecked. But each stage of that process, for Crawford, is telling. How do kings, queens, presidents and their builders try to put their marks on the world? And once they've put up physical structures, how do they alter the lives of those around them? "There's no question that we invest our greatest structures and constructions with personalities," Crawford writes. "We care about buildings – sometimes, perhaps, more than we care about our fellow human beings."

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That's a provocative point, but Crawford argues it well in this sprawling yet dense, too-long yet highly readable work. Fallen Glory is not architectural history in any conventional sense, but a sort of popular history of architecture's impact on society and vice versa. From the ancient Cretan city of Knossos (reconstructed with reinforced concrete by the obsessive English archeologist Arthur Evans) to the Temple of Jerusalem to the Library of Alexandria to the Berlin Wall, Crawford is an erudite guide through the halls of human ambition.

By focusing on ruins, Crawford – a former literary agent who works in the cultural sector in Scotland – manages to escape the challenge of defending a canon, and instead illustrates the impermanence of all things. "It does not … follow that a civilization's most spectacular ruins were once its most important buildings," he writes. "Sometimes it's a site's very obscurity that explains its preservation." Machu Picchu, for example, was an Inca emperor's country retreat.

In modern times, the death of a building can be a powerful political act. The symbolism of a tower reaching for the heavens can be matched in force by the symbolism of one crashing to earth. This is most obviously true, for us, at the World Trade Center. Mohammed Atta – one of the leaders of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks – was trained as an architect and wrote a thesis on modernist additions and incursions into the city of Aleppo. "Tall buildings were, Atta implied, nothing less than the architectural tools with which the West was colonizing the East." And so, using a jet plane as his pencil, he incinerated the lives of thousands and the architecture of the Japanese American Minoru Yamasaki.

But if a trained architect can alter world history through an act of mass murder, what about through building? Just how much power do an architect and architecture really have, anyway? To address this, Crawford touches on Pruitt-Igoe, an American public housing project in St. Louis, Mo., that quickly became a dirty, rundown nest of petty crime and social dysfunction. It represented the failures of mid-20th-century "urban renewal" and, in some quarters, symbolized the death of the idealistic, totalistic vision of modern architecture. It, like the World Trade Center, was designed by Yamasaki.

But as Crawford points out, the whole vision of the place – uniform high-rise slab towers, densely populated and cheaply constructed – was not remotely the pure vision of the architect; it was the result of many compromises and constraints. "If Yamasaki was a god," Crawford quips, "the resources he commanded were curiously limited." In fact, broad economic and social forces, not least the direct and indirect impacts of racism, drove the suffering of residents of the Pruitt-Igoe projects in St. Louis.

Design, clearly, has an important but limited role in shaping our world. This is Crawford's conclusion, and he's right. But his book also implies another important lesson: Architecture matters to us collectively and over time, and we need to think of it in those terms.

As the architect and theorist George Baird has written, "most people, most of the time, do not pay close ongoing attention to the architectural settings within which they pass their daily lives." He adds that "it would be impossible for them to do so, without soon suffering a kind of psychic exhaustion."

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Baird is drawing on the writing of Walter Benjamin and other modern theorists about life in the city, and the basic idea is that the frazzle of urban life is too much for the individual mind to absorb. But public buildings and the spaces they make are seen by all of us, and change our society. Architecture matters because it is public, touching the lives of us all through the centuries in a way that a painting or performance simply can't.

Architecture is a collective art, and it has to be absorbed collectively. As Winston Churchill said in 1943, "We shape our buildings, and afterwards they shape us." This is true even when the architects, and even the buildings, are gone.

Alex Bozikovic is architecture critic for The Globe and Mail and an author of Toronto Architecture: A City Guide

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