Michael Bywater

Sic transit: the buildings we treasure most are often the ones we’ve never seen

Two books on loss and ruins by James Crawford and Robert Harbison make for evocative and poignant reading

Here are two books which have almost nothing in common: form, function, source material, methodology, all utterly different.

The surprise is that I should be surprised. Loss and rediscovery is at the core of what writers mostly deal with. We all experience loss (lovers, spectacles, innocence, our very existences) and that universality allows each of us to shape it as we will.

James Crawford’s approach is structurally simple, but his narrative is beguiling. He considers the life-span of 20 buildings — including the Tower of Babel (5000 BC to 323 BC), the Library of Alexandria (300 BC to AD 650), the Berlin Wall (1961 to 1989) and, provocatively, the web ‘settlement’ of Geocities, born in 1994 and deliberately and utterly obliterated by its owners in 2009.

Crawford tells the intricate biography of each of his buildings with the unspoken assumption that in some way a building (like the city in which it exists) is alive. He rehearses the conception of each building, the world into which it was born, the purpose it served and the people who shaped it.

The result is a cabinet of curiosities, a book of wonders with unexpected excursions and jubilant and haunting marginalia, such as — picked at random — the musician, poet and polymath Ziryab (‘blackbird’) who came to Cordoba to the court of Abd al-Rahman II and brought 10,000 songs, short haircuts, and the perfumes of ambergris, musk and camphor.

Ideas spin off ideas and facts off facts like a marvellous clattering snooker-table, so that a discursive critique of Fallen Glory would be three times as long as the book itself, and quite mad. But Crawford has managed to keep the thing under calm control. He moves happily from Foreign Office telegrams to Allenby to Gibbon’s lie about sitting in the ruined Capitol of Rome and hearing monks chanting in the Temple of Jupiter, where they hadn’t been for ages.

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