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Bricks & Mortals:
Ten Great Buildings and the People they Made
In 1979, a woman called Eija-Riitta Eklof 'married' the Berlin Wall, becoming Mrs Berliner-Mauer. She belonged to a society called the 'Objectum Sexuals', established by one Erika Eiffel: a sisterhood of women into architectural erotica who wished to unite their lives with large buildings or structures. Eija was seven when she first saw the Berlin Wall on television and fell instantly in love. Her love strengthened over the years and she later tied the knot in front of a handful of guests. She explained: 'The Great Wall of China's attractive, but he's too thick - my husband is sexier.'
The marriage is just one of the many nuggets in Tom Wilkinson's lively, engaging and quirky book, Bricks & Mortals.
It's hard to imagine a history of building design being such good fun, so innovative and clever. You don't have to be a lover of architecture to enjoy this stimulating book with its mix of social and cultural history. The central thesis is that architecture shapes us just as much as we shape it. Each chapter begins with a building, from the Tower of Babel, the Bayreuth Festival Theatre and the Palazzo Rucellai in Florence to Finsbury Health Centre in London and the Highland Park Car Factory in Detroit, and then riffs upon a theme, whether Architecture and Power, Architecture and Sex, or Architecture and Memory. The result is a mesmerising, well-argued, insightful book which oozes good sense.
Wilkinson, a writer at The Architectural Review, begins with Gustav Mahler's wooden hut, which the composer escaped to write, sadly finding it not to be quite the rural idyll he expected since he was constantly interrupted by peasants and farmyard noises. This leads into more general discussion of the important phenomenon of the Man Shed. The author delivers triumphantly on his pledge to spend a lot of time 'lurking behind the bike sheds of history'. His witty style may be illustrated by the first sentence of the last chapter: 'A gigantic arse-shaped bridge concludes my investigation into the lives of bricks and mortals.' The structure in question is a footbridge leading into the largest of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, constructed in advance of the World Cup by centenarian architect Oscar Niemeyer.
He moves skillfully from a structure such as Emperor Nero's first century palace the Golden House, with its spinning dining room, gold and glass mosaics and integral perfume delivery systems, to west London's Trellick Tower. This is a gargantuan high-rise residential block designed by Erno Goldfinger (Ian Fleming so took against his buildings that he named his infamous villain after him), a product of the age of brutalism - a concrete monolith, which quickly became a 'vertical hell'. Wilkinson argues that buildings modify and change behaviour.
Trellick Tower quickly became the 'Tower of Terror' when the respectable working class moved out and the druggies moved in. One resident recalled that the council moved in the troublemakers in the hope that they would be improved by the respectable families, but the opposite happened: 'They brought us down! It was like a kind of cancer. At first you tried to keep your standards up, but you soon learnt it was a waste of time.' And yet now the Tower of Terror is one of the most desirable residential addresses in the area, with a long waiting list. How had this resurgence occurred? A residents' association was formed in the early 1980s, which installed an intercom system and a 24-hour concierge. People were not forced to live there, but chose to live there.
Wilkinson is scathing of the particular English mindset prone to idealise the English cottage on the greensward. He applauds many aspects of the age of brutalism: 'One of the very few times that Britain has been at the forefront of the avant-garde.' Like me, he seems to be a fan of exposed concrete: 'Brutalism does not necessarily brutalise.'
Just occasionally, the author's zest for bizarre anecdotes leads him to jump inexplicably across time and space. The chapter on Henry Ford's car factory in Detroit begins with much fascinating material but before we know it we are reading about Charles Fourier, who in the early 19th century envisaged a utopian workers' community in buildings known as 'phalansteries' which would somehow lead to a world where the sea would turn into lemonade and people would live for 144 years.
One of the strongest chapters is on the Palazzo Rucellai in Florence. Its owner, a banker called Giovanni Rucellai , proudly wrote 'there are two important things in life, procreation and building'. For the Florentine banker, home and business were inextricably linked, and an essential part of your image and brand. He was also patron of Santa Maria Novella, the church which stands opposite the railway station, and commissioned the black and white marble facade designed by Alberti, whom Wilkinson describes as the first Renaissance man. Giovanni, a clever businessman, cunningly aware of the importance of self-promotion, married the right woman and dodged his taxes, but as Wilkinson shrewdly observes, he was one of many: '15th-century Florence was a forest of logos and inscriptions, its markers of banking families and merchants as densely packed as neon on the Vegas strip.' Wilkinson is good on the importance of the humble bench upon which your petitioners would wait; all part of the image, 'the number and quality of bums on your bench advertised your status to the world'.
Another stunning chapter explores architecture and sex. Eileen Gray's masterpiece, Villa E-1027, a 'beached ocean liner', looks out over the Mediterranean at Cap Martin on the Riviera. As Wilkinson suggests, the house was a love-poem to her partner Jean Badovici. There were transparent screens, sliding doors, beds that fold into walls performing 'a kind of mechanical ballet . . . architecture brought to twisting, sliding life.' Gray herself described the journey into the house in deeply sensual terms: 'Entering a house is like the sensation of entering a mouth which will close behind you.' She stenciled phrases onto walls, entrez lentement (enter slowly), sans interdit (without prohibitions) and defense de rire (no laughing). As Wilkinson observes, Freudians would have a field day.
The villa aroused the intense passion and envy of Le Corbusier, who was a frequent guest at E-1027. When Gray left her lover and her home, Le Corbusier painted garish murals which ruined the house. He attacked its architecture in print and in public. But the house got its revenge. Le Corbusier ended up living in a shepherd's hut, which overlooked the sexy building for which he had such a complicated passion and longing. But at least he hadn't married it.
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