Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
January 13, 2000
Neil Harris Building Lives: Constructing Rites and Passages Yale University Press, 1998. 208 pp.; 180 b/w ills. Cloth $40.00 (0300070454)

Neil Harris’s Building Lives is an informative and informed introduction to the rites and rituals surrounding the design, construction, and life cycle of buildings. Harris’s book amplifies earlier research for a series of lectures commissioned by the Buell Center for the History of American Architecture at Columbia University. In published form, those lectures have been recast as three chapters focused sequentially on the birth, life, and death of buildings. The purpose of those chapters, stated in the closing pages, is to apply “a life cycle metaphor to buildings,” to identify associated rituals, to “understand objects by attributes that do not inherently belong to them,” and to derive, through critical analogy, a “social understanding of buildings and architecture” (163-65). Although references to housing and other minor building types provide something of a subtext to Harris’s larger narrative, the majority of those buildings are major works of public or commercial architecture.

The first of Harris’s chapters begins with the understated nature of American building rituals in the colonial and early national periods followed by their rise to prominence in the public sphere of the nineteenth century. Harris does not argue that eighteenth-century buildings lacked dedication rituals, but rather that the practice of such rituals gathered celebratory and visible force through the nineteenth century. What gets lost in this story, though, is the material evidence of “secret” offerings. Architectural fieldworkers routinely find shoes (often those of children) and other objects tucked inside tiny alcoves or affixed to nearly inaccessible parts of the building fabric. Variously assumed to be protective tokens or superstitious dedications, these items remain largely unexamined by architectural historians.

Harris, however, admirably addresses more public building rituals as they related to the process of design and construction. Rites related to groundbreaking, laying the cornerstone, topping out, and opening the doors grew in intricacy and visibility through sustained practice and public participation. Harris’s discussion on masonic ritual relative to building dedications is particularly well wrought. Similarly, the familiar act of the ribbon cutting is treated with insight as Harris implicitly connects the practice to a process of taking possession, a process that ritualistically fuses concepts of property and propriety. The act of literal possession echoes deeper themes about the social identity of buildings, especially in light of other acts such as a husband carrying his bride across the threshold. Although Harris does not press the argument about the masculine nature of these rituals and the ways in which they domesticate architecture, he leaves readers with ample information to develop their own thoughts.

Harris’s central chapter, “Signs of Life,” is equally well informed in matters of fact related to topics ranging from marketing to maintenance. This is also the point where Harris’s analogies about building life cycles are most at risk, since he does not engage the theoretical framework that sustains his underlying metaphor. Other authors examining other genres have explored the life of objects, drawing on the idea that the artifact passes through stages marked by ceremony or other transformative acts. John Forrest and Deborah Blincoe, for example, offer a parallel approach to textiles in their Natural History of the Traditional Quilt (1995). The theoretical framework that enables this line of thought springs from Arnold van Gennep’s The Rites of Passage (1909). Van Gennep identifies key moments of transition in life and describes them as transformative in nature. Transition is marked by three states: preliminal, liminal, postliminal. Liminal, in particular, alludes to the idea of a threshold and the passage across that threshold as a process that leads to changes in status or being. For van Gennep the liminal state is transitory and more or less fleeting. Liminality, central to van Gennep’s model, describes the multiple processes of “becoming.” Numerous authors representing multiple disciplines, most notably anthropologist Victor Turner, subsequently have explored and refined liminality as an explanatory model. Among Turner’s insights is the observation that liminality may be maintained as a sustained condition enabling the preservation of group identity. The point for Harris’s work, though, is that the notions of rite and passage carry explanatory potential that remains generally unexplored in the text.

Harris elegantly describes numerous instances in which we assign “life” to a building by enacting rituals around key moments in its history. He does not argue for a literal representation of the life of the building, but he does find the analogy useful in ways that interpretively quicken the artifact. Thus, the rites we enact on a building at key points in its existence suggest that liminality is a condition people export into a variety of situations. From elaborate cornerstone ceremonies to televised countdowns to implosion, we find it necessary to enliven the object, to perceptively render it alive as a means to celebrate our own sense of accomplishment. Although Harris never explicitly states this argument, it infuses his overall narrative. It is most compelling, however, at the points of architectural creation and demise.

The third chapter in Harris’s meditation examines the destruction, the “death,” of buildings. As in the first chapter, Harris is wonderfully effective in these pages. Exploration of topics including relics, architectural photography, and historic preservation are clearly articulated. Harris concludes the final chapter with a brief, but important discussion of architectural biography. “Building lives, unlike the lives of human beings,” Harris states, “have not stimulated the attention of many biographers” (161). He continues, “Building biography promises to become an effective forum for examining the eventfulness of both American buildings and the larger landscape” (163). Harris, however, arrives at this point not through building biography, but the enumeration and examination of ritual categories. Although other authors have given us the critical biographies of buildings—most notably Juan Pablo Bonta’s remarkable Architecture and Its Interpretation, (1979) which looks at the critical life of Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona Pavillion. Others, most recently Dell Upton in Architecture in the United States, (1998) have mapped the social understanding of architecture to great effect. Harris’s call for biography adds to this array of fresh thinking in two key ways: first, by arguing the centrality of biography to the interpretation of the life of buildings; second, by locating the touchstones of those biographies in the liminal events of a building’s history. In the end, his call to action is a well timed and compelling invitation.

Bernard Herman
University of Delaware.