Building Lives

Constructing Rites and Passages

Neil Harris

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Conception and birth, growth and maturity, aging and death—these are important moments in the human life story. They are also stages in the existence of a building, says the author of this unconventional history of the rituals and practices that surround built structures in America. Drawing on sources as varied as Masonic manuals, promotional brochures, janitorial contracts, tourist guidebooks, and religious texts, cultural historian Neil Harris explores the rites of building passage over the past one hundred and fifty years. In this generously illustrated volume, he offers fascinating new insights into the social and cultural roles of buildings.

This book suggests that architecture is a performing art as well as a fine art. Harris provides entertaining accounts of building introductions and presentations; celebrations, including groundbreakings, cornerstone layings, dedication ceremonies, and milestone anniversaries; efforts by builders, designers, real estate agents, photographers, and users to endow buildings with personality; debates over the naming of buildings; and attempts to document the erection and aging of buildings. Harris details recent strenuous efforts to prolong building life and vitality, and the increasing concern over "sick" and endangered buildings. Observing the difficulty that people experience in saying goodbye to old buildings that feel like friends, he calls for ceremony to mark the end as well as the beginning of a building`s life.

Neil Harris is Preston and Sterling Morton Professor of History and the University of Chicago.

A selection of the Architects’ and Designers’ Book Service

"Harris’ ingenious book provides a cosmopolitan perspective and astute insights concerning the rituals of construction, architectural achievement, and the natural life of our built environment. The work is truly a tour de force: from designing for space to modernizing for profit."—Michael Kammen, Professor of American history and culture, Cornell University

"This book has the quality that marks the best histories—good storytelling—and the analogy of architecture to the stages of life has an immediacy that should attract any educated lay reader."—Tom Fisher, College of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, University of Minnesota

“Harris . . . offers a useful insight. He suggests that the symbolic linkages that we construct between our built environs and ourselves derive largely from our tendency to assign to structures the status of human surrogate. First they seem like our children, then like our colleagues, and finally they become old familiar friends. Because we regularly confer on buildings the qualities of persons, we come to care deeply about them and thus their fates can become, by turns, inspirational or sadly depressing. . . . In Building Lives Harris explains why the buildings that populate our experience have the power to matter so much.”—John Michael Vlach, American Studies

“In calling for more thorough attention to the representations and rituals of building lives, Harris proposes an exciting inquiry into previously neglected sources for understanding the social and cultural meaning architecture. Building Lives offers both architectural historians and other interested readers a fresh a perspective on the built environment.”—Lisa Pfueller Davidson, American Studies International

"In a very readable and richly illustrated narrative, Harris discusses buildings in terms of a life cycle that includes birth, maturity and death. . . . Harris has produced an elegant narrative that argues persuasively for the further study of the life pattern of buildings and that they tell us about our shifting values and social practices and a first step toward a rediscovery of why architecture and buildings are important."—Edward Robbins, Architectural Review

"Building Lives is not your typical architectural history. Neil Harris . . . avoids the standard discussions of major architects, monuments, styles or critical theories. Instead, [Harris] seeks to align histories of art and humanity in a commonplace but profound way. For Harris, buildings are not static objects disconnected from human agency, but structures whose appearances and roles develop over time, and whose meanings are constituted by ordinary peoples’ activities and events. . . . [This] book’s ingeniousness lies in Harris’ imaginative exploitation of a wide range of source materials to awaken us to the aspects of building culture so universal, or seemingly trendy and trivial, as to be ignored."—Michele H. Bogart, Chicago Tribune

"Harris illuminates the sacral proportions of fabricating architecture. He demonstrates the importance of involving the mythic and sentimental rituals associated with making--and unmaking--buildings in comprehending their cultural signification. Through an imaginative use of predominately North American documentary and anecdotal sources, reinforced by an excellent selection of illustrations, Harris reinstates the social and experimental dimensions of the built environment. . . . Harris’s book will inform the scholar and intrigue the general public."—Choice

“A book that has so engagingly—and often entertainingly—dealt with the subject of building life cycles from a perspective that deftly brings together architectural and cultural history. The book will appeal to both the specialist and the general reader who wishes to gain more of an appreciation of the role buildings play in social and cultural life.”—Howard Davis, Design Book Review

“Conception and birth, growth and maturity, aging and death are recognizable stages of human life. But cultural historian Neil Harris shows that they are also stages in the life of public buildings. His new book, Building Lives: Constructing Rites and Passages, gives a unique and engaging history of the rituals that have surrounded built structures in the United States over the past 150 years.”—Environment & Art Letter

“Harris draws on a variety of historical and comparative sources, including ancient notions of urbanity, myths and mystery cults, relics, and various religious ceremonies. . . . Both illustrative and suggestive of how artifices can be understood in relation to human culture.”—Brannon Wheeler, Religious Studies Review

“In Building Lives, Neil Harris has crafted an elegantly written, insightful, and thought-provoking trio of original essays on the life span of buildings. . . . Harris offers astute insight into the lives of the buildings around us, and offers new and useful means for assessing the social and cultural import of those structures.”—Bryan Clark Green, Vernacular Architecture Newsletter

A selection of the Architects and Designers Book Club
ISBN: 9780300070453
Publication Date: January 11, 1999
208 pages, 7 x 10
180 b/w illus.
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