Skip to content Skip to footer

Book review: “Building Lives: Constructing Rites and Passages” by Neil Harris

Humans name their babies and their pets and their battleships. And their buildings.

I’ve lived in Chicago buildings by the names of 135 N. Leamington Ave. and 7943 S. California Ave. and 1129 W. Wellington Ave. Addresses, after all, are simply another kind of name. We need to be able to tell one from another.

Large buildings, though, are often given fancier names in addition to their street addresses, notes cultural historian Neil Harris in his delightfully eye-opening 1999 book Building Lives: Constructing Rites and Passages.

In the case of office buildings, the name can testify to the size, wealth, and prestige of a major corporation. Speculative structures frequently entice major tenants by the promise of naming the new building after them. As a major space-user, the renting corporation reaps the additional publicity.

The same principle is at work when the naming rights for a publicly financed sports stadium are sold. U.S. Cellular Field where the Chicago White Sox play baseball is an advertisement for a wireless telecommunications network — a corporation that was willing to pay $68 million to turn the baseball park into a kind of billboard for 20 years.

The name given to a baby usually doesn’t have this monetary aspect to it although parents do consider how the name will influence the way wider world views the child.. (“Nathaniel Hawthorne” has a nice ring to it, but Marion Morrison — later changed to John Wayne — isn’t quite as euphonious.)

More commonly, the name given to a baby is a way to remember and honor a relative (e.g., I’m named for one of my grandfathers, and my son is named for one of his) or a public figure (e.g., former football player Roosevelt Grier). And the same, Harris writes, holds true for a goodly number of buildings.

In many cities office buildings bear the titles that previous structures on the same site once bore, or memorialize the owners of houses and homesteads that once stood there. New York’s Everett Building, or 200 Park South, memorializes the Everett House, one of the city’s major hotels, erected fifty years earlier. In Cleveland, a series of Williamson Buildings were opened on the Public Square, on the site of the Williamson family homestead.

In Chicago, the first McCormick Place was named for Robert R. McCormick, the Chicago Tribune publisher who spearheaded efforts for its erection. When it burned down, the structure that replaced it was given the same name.

The original McCormick Place (left) and its replacement
The original McCormick Place (left) and its replacement

And, as with humans, there are names, and there are nicknames. “In Chicago,” Harris writes, “what is now the Amoco Building, once the Standard Oil Building [and now the Aon Building], is familiarly called Big Stan, in distinction from Big John, the John Hancock, a few blocks to its north.”


Perhaps the best example of this is the iconic Flatiron Building in New York. Its builders wanted to call it the Fuller Building but were overruled by the public. Indeed — Harris doesn’t mention this — the “Fuller” name never had a chance. People began calling it the Flatiron Building while it was under construction because of its similarity to that household appliance.

The flatiron Building in New York was christened by the public while it was being built even though its owners wanted it to be called the Fuller Building.
The flatiron Building in New York was christened by the public while it was being built even though its owners wanted it to be called the Fuller Building.


“Sets of events”

Names are only one way that buildings are like people. Like me or you, a building is created, exists and then disappears. That’s the metaphor at the heart of Building Lives.

This isn’t the usual way we look at buildings, “the largest, most expensive, and most permanent products of human labor.” The tendency has been to view them through an architectural lens, as works of craft or art, or a commercial lens, as profit-making or –losing machines.

Yet, Harris argues that there is great benefit in studying them as “entities with life stories that can be as revealing as individual biographies.”

Further, he writes that “examining buildings through their life stages and modes of representation encourages us to conceive of them not simply as places but as sets of events, affixing a temporal dimension to their existence that is not simply an add-on but fundamental to their nature.”

That idea — that a building is a set of events — is attractive. Every once in a while, I drive past my family’s “old house” on Leamington on Chicago’s Far West Side. My siblings do, too.

135 N. Leamington Ave. --- in 1950 in the background of the photo of me, my Aunt Mary and my Dad, and, on the right, today
135 N. Leamington Ave. — in 1950 in the background of the photo of me, my Aunt Mary and my Dad, and, on the right, today

We do this because the two-flat, built in 1895, was the site of many of the events of our common childhood. Now, it is the physical embodiment of our memories of those events. Similarly, it also has been the embodiment of events in the lives of the people who lived there before us, and of the people who have lived there since we moved away.

As the repositories of experiences and memories, buildings are an important part of human life, even if we don’t usually focus on them in these ways. Nonetheless, Harris writes:

[M]any civilizations, including our own, betray by rites and ceremonies a nagging sense that buildings constitute some kind of organic being, that they demand respect, attention, and care, for more than utilitarian reasons.


The life of a building

Harris rightly avoids pushing the metaphor too far. A building is, after all, not an organic being. Yet, as he says, we treat them as such in many ways.

neil harris.....detail


For instance, a building’s ground-breaking is, Harris writes, akin to a baby shower, and its opening day ceremony is a kind of christening.

The owners, operators and tenants of skyscrapers and other large buildings have developed expectations about the arrangement of the inside of a structure as well as minimum levels of cleanliness and maintenance. Sort of like dress codes, Harris notes.

A janitor or a worker, such as a plumber, is like a doctor, coming in to fix (or “heal”) a problem in the building’s health. For supplies, such workers go to a hardware store, the way that a health provider or a patient goes to a pharmacy. Often, a building will need to be retrofitted to handle some new technology. The people who design and carry out these improvements are like surgeons.

A building may seem a permanent element on the cityscape. However, as anyone who has turned a corner or come down a street to see a great emptiness where once a familiar structure stood can attest, that’s far from true.

The life of a building, like a human life, comes to an end. Yet, in recent decades, a preservationist movement has developed to save certain favored buildings from the wrecking ball.

This is one place where the metaphor breaks down. On the surface, a preservationist may seem like a relative trying to keep a loved one alive. But, unlike a loved one, the building undergoes no physical suffering if its existence is stretched by extraordinary means. Also, there’s no question of the building’s quality of life being eroded by treatment.

Still, Harris notes that the preservationist, like the loved one, can be blinded by sentiment.

The refusal to accept building death, particularly the demise of important, influential, or historically valued buildings, has sometimes been an act of heroic resistance to short-sighted greed and insensitivity.

At other times it has been an act of denial. It is one thing to oppose an apparently needless act of destruction that is costly on many levels. It is another to cling to the remains of the corpse from a misplaced sense of reverence or of guilt.

harris.building lives....Harris’ book and his metaphor provide important context for debate on the what and why of building preservation. That, however, is only a small element of the richness of this captivating book.

Building Lives is filled with wonderfully piquant insights and examples and, amazingly for an academic treatise, is a real page-turner.

Harris helps the reader recognize and ruminate on the ways in which a building is born, exists and goes out of existence. In doing so, he gives new ways for a reader to recognize and ruminate on his or her own life arc.

Patrick T. Reardon

Leave a comment