The Secret Lives Of Buildings

From The Parthenon To The Vegas Strip In Thirteen Stories

Edward Hollis

Published: 2 September 2010
Paperback, B Format
129x198mm, 448 pages
ISBN: 9781846271281


The plans are drawn up, a site is chosen, foundations are dug: a building comes into being with the expectation that it will stay put and stay for ever. But a building is a capricious thing: it is inhabited and changed, and its existence is a tale of constant and curious transformation. In this radical reimagining of architectural history, Edward Hollis tells the stories of thirteen buildings, beginning with the 'once upon a time' when they first appeared, through the years of appropriation, ruin and renovation, and ending with a temporary 'ever after'. In spell-binding prose, Hollis follows his buildings through time and space to reveal the hidden histories of the Parthenon and the Alhambra, Gloucester Cathedral and Haghia Sofia, Sans Souci and Notre Dame de Paris, Malatesta's Tempio and Loreto, and explores landmarks of our own time, from Hulme's legendary crescents to the Berlin Wall and the fibre-glass theme parks of Las Vegas.

About the author

Image of Edward Hollis

Born in London in 1971, Edward Hollis studied Architecture at the Universities of Cambridge and Edinburgh before joining a practice, working first on ruins and follies in the coastal lagoons of Sri Lanka and then on Victorian villas, old breweries and town halls in Scotland. He now teaches Interior Design at Edinburgh College of Art. The Secret Lives of Buildings was his first book. More about the author


‘[A] tremendous book ... Hollis recounts the stories of 13 structures with passion and panache ... His book [is] a rare thing: non-fiction you can reread’



‘A beautifully wrought book: a kind of illuminated manuscript with words taking the place of pictures ... Here are wondrous stories writ in stone, and Edward Hollis has written about them very well indeed.’

‘A fantasia from the real and the imagined... An unusual sort of speculative history, almost a work of experimental fiction. The buildings, which are its nominal subjects, are only MacGuffins on which Hollis hangs a series of short stories on the themes of love, loss, and time.’ Ian Volner

‘A fascinating tale, a fairy-tale journey that shifts seamlessly between edification and revelation ... Quite unlike any other recent book on architecture, and a worthy nominee for the Guardian's First Book Award’ Mark Cousins

‘A new and entertaining view of the context in which historic structures have existed ... Recommended to readers interested in architecture, the ideas of space and place, and intellectually stimulating historical tales’ Valerie Nye

‘Accessible and ambitious ... Hollis has the gift of making these buildings seem real and alive’

‘An accessible and ambitious exploration of the nature and meanings of architecture ... Hollis has the gift of making these buildings seem real and alive without recourse to illustrations, but his aim lies beyond the physical fabric, in the contested values that architecture can embody. Moral preoccupations are never far away’ Simon Bradley

‘An impressive debut ... Beautifully written and produced’ Alice Wyllie

‘An intriguing collection of essays ... Hollis takes his material seriously, and his bibliography and footnotes reflect his thorough research. His informal tone makes his essays more approachable for the novice ... This volume is ideal for general readers ... Recommended’ Laurel Bliss

‘Any architecture or history buff would be pleased to find The Secret Lives of Buildings under the tree ... Through the eyes of first-time author Edward Hollis, an architect who specializes in restoring historic buildings, readers will discover that iconic structures like the Parthenon, the Berlin Wall, and even the Vegas Strip have led more storied lives than we realize. Hollis shares them with a fairy-tale charm ... We at BookPage enjoyed this book so much that it made it onto our list of 2009's Top 10 Non-fiction Books’

‘Edward Hollis rewrites architectural history in this beautiful and unsettling study of how the masterpieces of Western architecture have changed over time. Temples become mosques; monuments become ruins; deserts become cities, and deserts again. After reading this book, no building will seem quite the same’ Christopher Woodward, author of IN RUINS: A JOURNEY THROUGH HISTORY, ART, AND LITERATURE

‘Hollis brings together an iconoclastic attitude and a lively writing style to create a kind of counter-history of architecture, one that starts where the original designers left off and narrates the subsequent biography of the wonderful and chimeric monsters that buildings are’ Kirk Savage

‘Hollis is magical on the layers of myth and history in the classical world - this is an engaging, erudite and readable book’ Edwin Heathcote

‘Hollis moves gracefully through both buildings and historical periods with an impressive command of detail and a sensitivity to the people involved ... A strong, satisfying exploration of the history, beauty, and wonder of Western architecture’

‘Not confined to world-famous monuments, Hollis's attractive approach attends to vernacular structures as well ... He writes history electrically, informatively, and entertainingly’

‘Scintillating ... Every so often, works on the building art capture the public imagination. Now Tracy Kidder and Witold Rybczynski are joined by Edward Hollis, whose new book ... [is] worthy of wide consideration’ Martin Fuller

‘There is something Sebaldian about The Secret Lives of Buildings: a digressive pleasure in the sheer strangeness of architecture and the mortal intrigues by which it was wrought ... Hollis is particularly good on the history of architectural reconstruction’ Brian Dillon

‘Tremendous ... It's unusual for a nonfiction book to match a neat conceit with elegant execution, but Hollis has achieved it. The stories are actually stories, not mere scrolls of fact. It helps that he has a beautifully wry tone ... Hollis experiments with structure, chronology, leitmotifs, and repetitions, and makes his book a rare thing: nonfiction you can reread’ Stuart Kelly

‘What a happy tingle of discovery to come across a book that differs sharply from all the others in its field ... Hollis thinks with such originality and writes with such flair that he is a pleasure to read’ Stanley Abercrombie

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