Q&A: Annabel Wharton on buildings

The latest book by Annabel Wharton, William B. Hamilton Professor of art history, is Architectural Agents: The Delusional, Abusive, Addictive Lives of Buildings

Do buildings have human qualities?

Buildings are like humans in that they have bodies, they are born, they reach a certain maturity, they decay, and they die. But they always leave a mark, just like humans.

You write that buildings can be murderers, and there you refer to the Cloisters Museum in New York, which is named after the medieval spaces that form its core.

The Cloisters is a good example of death by museum. The fabrics of whole buildings were removed from their original location. It’s fine to take pleasure from visiting the Cloisters. But you should recognize that your pleasure comes at a cost. The Cloisters story begins with a twelfth-century monastery in France that survived until the 1840s, when it was sold in lots. Now what the visitor experiences is a display of disembodied fragments.

You also write about Compostela in Spain, particularly a hospital established there in 1492. The hospital became a symbol of religious and secular power, but only a relatively healthy patient survived it. Later, in the 1950s, under the Franco dictatorship, the hospital was transformed in a luxury hotel.

Buildings can have varied lives. My sense is that there are very few large, handsome structures that don’t have some horrific aspects in their background. Wealth, after all, is rarely untainted. Look at the Parthenon: The Athenians basically robbed all of the other Greek city-states in order to build it. In the heart of Istanbul, you can hang out at the old prison that’s done up as a five-star hotel. Everybody loves it. This is a former prison; horrible things happened in that setting. But if I get morally offended, I’d have to get out of the business of architectural history.

One of your chapters centers on the casinos of Las Vegas. Why would an architectural historian find them compelling?

I write about the Las Vegas casino as the offspring of a maze and a labyrinth. By maze I mean an emotional state of astonished bewilderment; the labyrinth is a place of bodily entanglement, a place meant to frustrate the escape of anyone inside it. Nowhere is programming more predatory than in the Las Vegas casino. As I say in the book, in contrast to the terrifying labyrinth of Crete, the brilliant ornament and animation of the Las Vegas casino anesthetizes its victims. That begins with the spatial disorder of the gaming arena, where clusters of slot machines, along with a disorienting cacophony of recorded sounds, contribute to the casino’s complexity as well as to its bottom line. The outside is effectively excluded from the inside; there are no clocks, so time is basically erased.

You take a journey into the virtual world, and particularly into Second Life. Does it feel strange that you ended up being nostalgic for the virtual buildings you left behind?

To some degree nostalgia for a lost building comes from investment—the things that you invest time in, both in the process of construction and in the process of inhabiting. That’s true of digital space as well as built space. I miss my little house in Second Life. In the digital world, a texture is what you build from, and I had textures carefully made from Jerusalem stone. I had a great coffee machine and a very nice set of cushions to recline on. I had a view of the sea, and I had stocked the sea with dolphins. It was just really nice.

Your department recently moved to the repurposed Smith Warehouse from your longtime space in the neoclassical East Duke building. Do you sense yourself being conditioned differently?

I’m really happy in the factory aesthetic, because I like modernism; I come into the office more often. These bricks that face my office—every one of them was handmade. The bricks, the columnar piers— there’s a touch that you just don’t get in modern buildings. Even in neoclassical buildings, architects wanted a purity of line. Here you can still feel the hand of the laborer; it’s sort of a mess. That’s what’s great about it.

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