Virginia Woolf’s classic essay “A Room of One’s Own” isn’t really about architecture. Woolf was concerned with the social and economic constraints that enabled men but not women to be celebrated writers; she imagined what might have become of “Shakespeare’s sister” and other talented, voiceless women. But, as Tom Wilkinson observes in “Bricks and Mortals,’’ his rich, centuries-spanning tour of great buildings, Woolf’s essay captures deeply ingrained ideas about architecture, including, namely, that it will set us free. To create, Woolf wrote, “a woman must have money and a room of her own . . .” She must have space.
It’s a comforting thought, Wilkinson tells us, but one we should perhaps reconsider. “A room of one’s own is after all a possession, a commodity, a set of walls that separates us from others,” he writes. Wilkinson argues that while it’s nice to believe that the right room will inspire and liberate, more often than not this idea is part of architecture’s “trap.” Architecture is something “which we think we own,” he writes, “but in fact possesses us.”
Wilkinson, an editor at the Architectural Review, organizes his book around 10 great buildings, from the Tower of Babel in 650 BC Mesopotamia to the Garden of Perfect Brightness in 18th-century Beijing to Henry Ford’s Highland Park car factory in turn-of-the-20th-century Detroit.
The men who created these buildings are, not surprisingly, consumed with power and control, and Wilkinson spends much of his book vividly recounting the dark politics that surrounded their masterpieces. We meet Nero, emperor of Rome, who was so crazy he is reported to have SLEPT WITH and killed his mother, among other horrors. He also oversaw the building of Domus Aurea, “the Golden House,” an extravagant palace that redefined understandings of classical art.
Curiously, Wilkinson doesn’t share how or why he selected the buildings he profiles, except to say that all speak in some way to “how architecture shapes people’s lives and vice versa.” (He justifies the italics by adding, in parentheses, that “we can still shape it today, if we try.”) I wondered WHETHER part of the reason for Wilkinson’s lack of explanation is that he sometimes seems more taken by the theme represented by the building than by its biography per se. In each chapter, the iconic building serves as a jumping off point to explore architecture’s relationship to a grand idea. We read about Nero in the chapter on “Architecture and Morality”; Woolf appears in “Architecture and Sex.”
One consequence to this approach is that some chapters feel a bit more like a survey of an architectural topic than a cohesive, character-driven narrative. But the upside is that we learn about far more than THE buildings. In “Architecture and Power,” the history of the Tower of Babel leads to the French Revolution and the Bastille, back to the Middle East as the British search for oil, and finally, briefly, to the World Trade Center, in 2001. It’s an epic story, but also a lot to cover in a single chapter.
Wilkinson is at his best when his chosen building illuminates the geopolitics of a narrower stretch of time, allowing him to delve deeply into how an architectural trend influenced lives and culture. Henry Ford’s Highland Park factory, for example, constructed in 1910, housed the beginning of Fordism, which revolutionized the production line and dominated global capitalism for a good part of the century. Ford’s architect Albert Kahn employed new technologies to build long “daylight factories,” in which walls of windows flooded light deeper into the work area, enabling larger numbers of workers to perform their repetitive tasks. Kahn and Ford’s techniques were so successful even Stalin was intrigued — “Like Trotsky and Mao, Henry Ford believed in permanent revolution,” Wilkinson writes — and he hired Kahn to design scores of tractor factories as part of his first five-year plan.
Ford’s obsession with efficiency had its costs, however. Because he required his workers to always deliver more, faster, they were chronically miserable, and, in 1937, to Ford’s great humiliation, they unionized. Ford’s innovations, then, didn’t only power capitalism’s rise. They also prompted his workers to revolt and secure more rights. It’s a neat little contradiction, one that speaks directly to Wilkinson’s recurring reflections on ownership and space. It shows how architecture does indeed possess us — and also, at least occasionally, how we resist this possession and push back.
Elizabeth Greenspan is the author of “Battle for Ground Zero: Inside the Political Struggle to Rebuild the World Trade Center,’’ out in paperback this September.