Falling Towers, Disappearing Cities: How the Lives and Deaths of Great Buildings Have Shaped the World

“Following the lifespan of a building, you step outside the lines we draw and the histories we’ve written.”

James Sanders is an award-winning architect, filmmaker, and author of Celluloid Skyline: New York and the Movies. He recently joined James Crawford, author of Fallen Glory: The Lives and Deaths of History’s Greatest Buildings, for a Heleo Conversation on what the biographies of our greatest structures can teach us about the human drive for immortality, the psychological effects of our physical surroundings, and the counterintuitive importance of architecture in a digitally-focused world.

This conversation has been edited and condensed. To view the full conversation, click the video below.


James Sanders: The subtitle [of your book] is The Lives and Deaths of History’s Greatest Buildings. In a way, it’s biographies of buildings that are no longer with us.

James Crawford: The idea of biographies is a good entry point. What I wanted to do was [describe] the life cycle of buildings: how they were born, what happened to them while they were alive, what resulted in their death, and then how their memories or legacies were used by the people who didn’t construct them.

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In the research for writing the book, there was a blog from a U.S. Marine based at Tallil Air Base in Iraq in the second Gulf War, and right next to the air base was a massive ziggurat structure which dates to 2,000 B.C., one of the world’s earliest skyscrapers. Only the bottom level remains. It seemed so prophetic, a metaphor for the cyclical nature of the construction of buildings. The reason the Marines were there and were being taken on tours to this structure was because of the destruction of two colossal towers. The lives and deaths of buildings still have an enormous impact on global politics.

James Sanders: We’re still living with the powerful and, for Americans, unusual experience of seeing a giant chunk of the city disappear in front of our eyes. Since World War II, when lots of cities saw that, that has not been a common experience in many parts of the world.

Of course, we have a new World Trade Center. But the new World Trade Center is an office complex, and it can’t possibly occupy the giant psychic space that the empty space of the old World Trade Center occupies.

James Crawford: That psychic space is still living. You see that skyline as you approach Manhattan, and it’s still an absence. The terrorist who flew the first plane into the North Tower was an architecture student. It’s chilling that someone that educated, with that kind of background, could turn to fundamentalism. But [he] understood the power of buildings, the power of architecture, and the power of the symbolism of what he was doing.

James Sanders: There was nothing accidental about it. Indeed, from the day they were conceived, [the Twin Towers] were to be the emblem of the new world order; more so, arguably, than the United Nations. It’s hard to think of another great monument. The NATO Headquarters, the Bretton Woods Agreement, the IMF or the World Bank—places like that don’t have any meaning. Those were the other girders of the World order, but the Rockefeller-sponsored World Trade Center was emblematic of the Pax Americana postwar era. It was tragic in part because it was almost predetermined.

James Crawford: Yes, their architect conceived them as symbols of World Peace, and the fact that they actually are symbols, in their absence, of war—the war on terror and on fundamentalism—that’s the unfortunate legacy for those buildings.

James Sanders: Being a working architect, I’m struck that one difference between the way architects think and the way ordinary people think is that ordinary people regard buildings as fixed things. They think of them as objects that have always been there and always will be there, and have a permanence in their imagination. Since it’s our job to make them, we realize that they come out of nothing to be something. The attitude you’re exploring is that, although they may last a long time, they can go back to being nothing. How did you get interested in that?

“A lot of architectural writing becomes fixated on detail and doesn’t explore the human emotion that goes into the process of creation.”

James Crawford: I was interested in putting the human back into architecture, because a lot of architectural writing becomes fixated on detail and doesn’t explore the human emotion that goes into the process of creation. That may be one individual, or it may be a team, a movement, an ideology, but it’s all about human thought, human ideas. When you go back to something like The Epic of Gilgamesh, one of our first ever written stories, the whole point of it is the idea that mortal man cannot find immortality, but through construction, can aspire towards it.

Of course, as we know, no they can’t, because buildings are always in a state of degradation. From the moment they are raised up, they’re in the process of very slowly, and sometimes very quickly, coming back down. Exploring what that means to the people who created the buildings, worked in them, lived in them, looked at them, and then who destroyed them, fascinated me. Following the lifespan of a building, you step outside the lines we draw and the histories we’ve written. Tell a story of the Roman Empire, it ends with the fall of the Roman Empire. Tell a story of the buildings the Romans created, it doesn’t; it keeps on going to the present day. It can bring in Napoleon, Mussolini, Hitler, who appropriate these structures.

James Sanders: On the one hand, the building is a monument, and I mean what the original word means, like a tombstone. The first great work of architecture is the great pyramids in Giza. A giant tombstone, basically. No one lived in it except a dead person or two.

But there’s another kind of story, the urban story where the buildings take on a life of their own. They’re not monuments to what they were built for, but rather adapt and change, and the city changes around them and finds new uses for them.

You talk about the Berlin Wall being one of the great urban scale examples of that.

James Crawford: Yes, it divided two ideologies, it divided the world, it divided a city. On a very basic level, it divided families. What is the impact of a structure like that? What is the impact of its removal? Within a year of its removal, they were surveying the East and West Berliners, and 1 in 3 Westerners and 1 in 4 Easterners were saying, “We want it back.” That’s surreal, and it’s because for 30-odd years it was an absolute fixture in their life. Some people didn’t know life without the wall. It shaped the urban environment.

When it no longer has the purpose it exists for, does it need to be removed? There was a feeling at the time that absolutely, it’s a monstrosity, a symbol of a terrible thing, so it must be taken away. But, actually, it had already lost its power, because people could cross it.

James Sanders: One of the haunting things that you describe is that even once it was gone, you could see the erasure line of it from space, because it was never quite filled in.

James Crawford: The Canadian astronaut, Chris Hadfield, who famously Tweets photographs from the International Space Station, took this photograph of Berlin, and in it, following the line of the Wall, one side of Berlin was much brighter than the other. There could have been a benign reason, because they were changing the old sodium gas lamps in the city, but it was interesting that the West was brighter than the East. There’s a feeling in Germany that that remains the case, that there hasn’t really been integration between East and West, because it’s a psychological, ideological thing which has not gone away. The wall in the [mind] still remains.

“That, from an urban architecture perspective, is fascinating: what we do to the fabric of the city, and what it does to the people who live in that city. There’s ample evidence of how strong that impact is.”

The urban development of the Wall was a key feature in the development of that psychology among people on both sides. That, from an urban architecture perspective, is fascinating: what we do to the fabric of the city, and what it does to the people who live in that city. There’s ample evidence of how strong that impact is.

James Sanders: As a teenager, I crossed the Berlin Wall, went through Checkpoint Charlie, and I remember vividly what you describe as seeing layers on layers, but built backwards, to ward off a frontal tank assault. As if [the way] you would take over Germany would be to fly tanks into Berlin, and then go from there.

It was an ideological fiction, which they were then duty-bound to carry out in architectural terms, even though a moment’s reflection would make you realize it had no basis in reality. You couldn’t possibly launch an attack from Berlin.

James Crawford: It physically came down after it psychologically come down. There’s a great story about Springsteen having a concert in East Germany attended by 100,000 people. The Stasi approved this because they had listened to his songs and thought that he was a working class hero. But they’d done this because in the months leading up to that, David Bowie and Michael Jackson played concerts in West Berlin and there had been riots on the Eastern side of the wall, people just trying to get close enough to hear. They said, “We need to do something for the youth.” Springsteen, during the concert, sang “Chimes of Freedom,” and made a call for barriers coming down. Maybe Springsteen played this key role in that psychological erasure of the wall.

James Sanders: It’s hard to think of another concert that might have had that effect.

“There’s a great tradition true everywhere on the continent and in Britain, of buildings having extremely long lives, and having gone through 5 or 6 uses along the way.”

There’s also a European idea, in Medieval days, of the whole town springing up in the lee of Roman aqueducts, or other structures adapted for their own purposes. There’s a familiar image we have of Ozymandias-like ruins of great Roman engineering, and tucked into it is this little beehive of Medieval culture. It was fairly common. Another case would be taking the stone of the building itself and reusing it for other purposes. There’s a great tradition true everywhere on the continent and in Britain, of buildings having extremely long lives, and having gone through 5 or 6 uses along the way.

In America, that’s much less common. Our buildings traditionally did not last that long. They were torn down because typically they were the first building on the property, and they were small. If the city had grown, they would be torn down for something bigger. That’s changed in the United States, particularly in the older cities, in which we now have areas like Soho, where what had been an industrial district for a century became an arts district. Now, it’s effectively a high-end residential community. Could you talk about situations where buildings weren’t entirely leveled, but rather, evolved over time?

James Crawford: There’s a number of examples. Saint Paul’s Cathedral was originally a Roman temple, probably to Diana the Huntress. They found animal bones and evidence of sacrifice [there]. That same site, 800-900 years later, becomes the site of the major cathedral for London. In almost classically English form, from the moment it was completed there was already a campaign to save it, because it was in such perilous state: the roof was falling in and the spire had been struck by lightning. It then played a key role in the Reformation, the movement of England from a Catholic to a Protestant country.

All of the iconography of the building was torn down. It was stripped bare. But also–Shakespeare writes about this–people would go there to gossip, not to worship. They would go there to trade, to buy, to sell. Instead of it being a spiritual structure, it was almost like a Roman forum.

There was a city edict not to push beer barrels through there. They were storing wine in the basement and would announce Britain’s first national lottery from the steps. Then, during the English Civil War, it was appropriated as a barracks and a saw mill.

That was going on until Christopher Wren was looking to redevelop it. [He] started a slow, gradual push from a Gothic to Neo-classical building, and then it was wiped out by the Great Fire which, handily for Chris Wren, gave him a blank slate to create this great Renaissance dome. Maybe he started that fire, who knows? There’s no evidence for it, but you never know.

James Sanders: It is true that those natural disasters in Europe, the strategic bombing campaigns, were looked upon by some progressive, modernist architects as a godsend. Certainly, people got killed, but [here was an] opportunity to wipe the slate clean. The American cities did not get bombed—the Germans weren’t able to develop a long-range bomber—so we did it ourselves, in the urban renewal program. We leveled communities, the kind of dense, working-class communities that, in the East of London, the Germans were trying to bomb, that we were trying to bomb in Hamburg, where there were factories. They decided there was no point in trying to drop bombs on wealthier parts of the city because they were too spread out, and low-density enough that you would just be wasting your men, the planes, and the bombs themselves. So they went after these working class parts of the city, leveled them, and got to build what they wanted.

Pruitt-Igoe was part of that process. Pruitt-Igoe was a housing development built in St. Louis [that] leveled a very poor, substantially African-American community to build gigantic slab housing.

[It was] typical of the kinds of housing projects built in New York and elsewhere, but taller, and in a city which had no tradition of high-rise housing.

James Crawford: It was one of the first great experiments in social housing in America. Sadly, it failed utterly. One of the rationales for why it failed was there weren’t enough people to fill it. There wasn’t enough money to maintain it; the budget was constrained. All these things were set against it. It reached 90% occupancy and then started declining very quickly. But it became a way of saying modern architecture has failed. It became this symbol.

James Sanders: We’re missing one important beat. [In the] early 70s, the city of St. Louis decided, along with federal authorities, that instead of taking it down piece by piece, they would blow it up. So they blew it up, and the footage was regarded as a turning point. Oscar Newman wrote a book about it, about “defensible space,” and it became a flashpoint of the entire modern movement.

Your last chapter’s about virtual cities, Geocities. I’m struck by how, with the rise of the Internet, 15 or 20 years ago you heard: “Anybody will be able to live anywhere.” Quite the opposite has happened. There seems to be more interest, particularly on the part of young people, the digital natives, to live in interesting places with interesting architecture.

“There’s a whole different development of what we might term “architecture” going on in this digital field, and those structures can also fall and be destroyed, and we may not be prepared for the outcome of that.”

James Crawford: The whole concept of Geocities was effectively a virtual city. It was devised as a virtual city because it was trying to get people to understand [how] to navigate the Web. In the early 1990s, the starting point was the development of homes on the Web, effectively Web pages, a precursor to your profile page on Facebook. But they conceived of it as homes, with addresses, in cities. The city you lived in, in the suburb you lived in, was related to your interests. It might be sports, pets, fashion. It grew very quickly to have a population of 38 million.

James Sanders: Bigger than Tokyo.

James Crawford: The fastest growing city in human history. It’s been described as the cave paintings of the Web. Early Web culture was developed on this. It was sold during the dotcom boom to Yahoo, and Yahoo couldn’t find a way to monetize it, so they switched it off. That’s the greatest destructive act of any human-created structure in history, wiped out in one day. There were pioneers of Internet archiving who tried to download as much as possible before the switch-off date, and what they preserved was effectively a digital Pompeii. You can walk through the city, but you can’t interact with it anymore. It’s gone.

Anyone who’s experienced the sheer existential terror of a hard drive failing knows how ephemeral information is in the digital age. Everyone knows you should back up, and even that can fail. There’s a whole different development of what we might term “architecture” going on in this digital field, and those structures can also fall and be destroyed, and we may not be prepared for the outcome of that.