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Reviews in American History 28.2 (2000) 263-269

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The Life Cycle of Buildings:
Structures in Social and Cultural History

Kirsten N. Swinth

Neil Harris. Building Lives: Constructing Rites and Passages. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999. 224 pp. Illustrations, notes, and index. $40.00.

For historians, the perfect source has long been the written text. Yet, it's become apparent that the twentieth century was a visual century, dominated by printing revolutions and moving pictures, by massive skyscraper skylines and the organized spectacle of a Disneyland. Historians have increasingly been forced to abandon their comfortable familiarity with the word in order to integrate visual objects, material culture, and the built environment into their narratives more systematically. While conventions of interpretation and legitimate use ingrained in graduate students gave historians confidence using written texts, those conventions have been much less definable for visual and material culture. The traditional questions asked by art and architectural historians about style, aesthetics, and design, while important, typically don't address the primary concerns of historians. Historical questions about visual culture or the built environment have to do with how people use objects, with who uses them, and with how people make sense of the visual and material world around them.

Neil Harris has been trying to understand the twentieth-century visual revolution, and American visual culture more generally, for over thirty years. 1 He has steadily innovated historical approaches to unconventional sources. In his new book, Building Lives: Constructing Rites and Passages, Harris addresses architectural historians but offers suggestive ways for historians generally to integrate the built environment into their histories. The book recaps a set of lectures given by Harris for the Buell Center for the History of American Architecture at Columbia University. His principal conceit: that buildings are a species of beings. A building's history, he proposes, parallels a human life cycle, with appropriate rituals, growing pains, and life passages like birthdays and funerals. Still very much indebted to its lecture origins, the book is meant "to be suggestive rather than definitive" (p. 1). In three extended chapters on the birth, life, and death of buildings, Harris makes a series of provocative connections for urban and cultural historians. These connections [End Page 263] between structure and history provide an object lesson in how historians can use visual and material sources.

For urban historians, Harris shows that buildings enter the urban fabric at levels well beyond design and spatial presence. Community engagement with buildings, and the meanings and histories people construct for their built surroundings place these edifices in history. Moreover, modern buildings-especially skyscrapers and office buildings-are deeply intertwined with modern business development and organization. The internal guts of a large building, such as its elevators, heating systems, and invisible janitors, require modern business forms. Harris also speaks usefully to cultural historians. His discussion of groundbreaking ceremonies, cornerstone layings, and demolition events attends to rites and rituals not deeply investigated by cultural historians. He shows how these occasions speak powerfully to politics, economics, and community building. Building rites connect buildings to people, creating moments when a community articulates the meaning of an edifice to itself. And like a World's Columbian Exposition or Fourth of July commemoration, building events require cultural intermediaries in the form of designers, managers, and orators, all with vested interests as cultural arbiters.

Harris claims that his approach provides a "critical history" of buildings. He focuses "on those occasions when builders, designers, clients, critics, publicists, and officials must talk explicitly about a building's larger meaning, and when they are invited (or forced) to connect a structure's design, function, and location with broader social concerns" (p. 4). Those occasions he names "building rites" and includes among them birthing ceremonies such as the oddball genre of the building birth announcement, anniversaries such as the bicentennial of the White House, and deaths. To understand these rites he turns to a number of innovative sources, particularly the brochures and publications produced at these celebratory junctures. Tourist guides to skyscrapers like the Woolworth's Building...


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