Book Review – Barnabas Calder, Architecture From Prehistory to Climate Emergency

Regular readers will know that I have much regard for the work of Andreas Malm. His book Fossil Capital was influential in my thinking about how to reframe my teaching of business strategy at my university. It tells the story of our addiction to fossil fuels. It posits the idea that it did not need to be so; the addiction arose primarily from the owners of capital using technology to outflank organised labour on the one hand, and competitors on the other. Organised labour was quite powerful in the British mill towns of the 18/19 Centuries because of the static nature or source of motive power – flowing rivers. Steam, generated by burning coal and heating water was so much more flexible and, what’s more, the owners could be confident the government would intervene to crush organised labour when called on. But equally, water was a shared resource and the owners proved themselves to be unable to agree how to share it.

Calder has made me think again in his extraordinary book (right). Calder is a historian of architecture, but very particular kind. In every building he sees energy. In the prehistory it is in the food that provides the energy to build shelter. In later periods of human advancement – particularly in respect of agricultural efficiency and yields – excesses meant that labour could be siphoned off by kings and emperors to build the great vanity projects of history such as the pyramids, the Parthenon, etc. With the advent of fossil fuels, not only was more labour displaceable from the land, but the building materials themselves were innovated as well as construction techniques. That bundle of stored energy found in coal and oil liberated architects, builders and clients. Later they were aided and abetted by information technologies that were able to do the calculations that legions of humans could not realistically handle (Calder offers the example of the challenge to realise Jørn Oberg Utzon’s vision for the Sydney Opera House and the pioneering work of Ove Arup crunching the necessary numbers).

The first part of the book examines culture, energy and architecture interesting pairings. Greeks and Persians; Rome and the Song Dynasty – different places, different times. Though he also uses this technique for the 20th Century in comparing New York and Chicago (chapter 9 – good value even if one does not read the rest of the book – difficult to keep Donald Trump out of the mind, however). In all cases through history, powerful men are deliberately trying to outdo one another. Rightly, we are constantly reminded about infrastructure, bridges, water supply and sewerage.

Photo: Ferdinand Reus from Arnhem, Holland – Teli, Pays de Dogon

What are some of the curiosities? I learned (always a good indicator of a worthwhile read) from prehistory, Dogon village houses (Mali, left) have low height forcing occupants to sit. This specifically prevents men from fighting one another. Uruk (in modern-day Iraq) is perhaps humanity’s first city. Not everyone worked the land and hence specialisms developed – bronze casting, currency and writing. The transformative agricultural technology was animal-drawn ploughs and, of course, irrigation. We are talking 5000 years ago. 2000 years ago, 172 men pulled crafted stones of 58 tonnes with a lone individual throwing water to keep down the friction. Though 200 tonnes was not unheard of as manageable by human strength – though the men needed to be fit and, crucially, well fed.

For the Parthenon, Calder tells us why the columns are not evenly spaced (of course, Doric order!), reveals that it bends upwards to the middle, there are other distortions too (entasis) and that these are a deliberate manifestation of intellectual debate and democracy prevalent in Athenian society.

Photo: by MM in it.wiki

I learned about opus incertum (random), Opus recitulatum (standard square bricks), opus latericium (like a brick wall – rectangular fired bricks that overlap, right). I did not know about Roman concrete and that the Pantheon’s dome is made of it and that it gets lighter as the dome extends so that the whole structure does not collapse. It is impressive, notes Calder, that it has survived 1900 years!

Not surprisingly, religious buildings feature highly in the prose. There is a chapter on mosques and some insights on the architecture of what is now Istanbul (the text is not limited to Istanbul, there is an extensive section on the Great Mosque of Damascus – the initiative of Caliph al-Walid I c705-15 and the mosque in Timbuktu c1320, the product of Mansa Musa’s great wealth as emperor of Mali). I have visited the Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, as well as the near-adjacent Sultanahmet Mosque (also known as the Blue Mosque), a private enterprise that, on cost grounds, sourced materials much closer to home than the builders of its neighbour. For Christian buildings (notwithstanding the Hagia Sophia’s regular changes of denomination), Calder discusses the 13th Century cathedral in Bourges, so big that it breached the city walls and so tall it reached to what we would now identify as 10 storeys high. To the locals living in tiny dwellings shared with animals the internal cleanliness, order and light, Calder says, would have seemed astonishing. But Cathedral building was not immune to ego – the next one needed to be bigger: Notre Dame, Reims, Amiens and Beauvais (left) all bigger than the rest. Though there were limits, Beauvais repeatedly collapsed under its own weight.

Next on Calder’s list is the impact of plague on European civilisations. Bubonic plague devastated populations in the 5th and 6th centuries leading to reduced cultivation and construction. With no surplus, building returned to basics and bricks were no longer fired. The Black Death did wonders for pay rates and educational opportunities. There is room, too, for the Renaissance, the Vatican and the Reformation. These are gems for readers of this blog to explore without my help.

Source: Wikipedia; original source not specified

Into modern times, and into territory that is really Calder’s heartland, modernism and concrete. There is rightly an extensive review of the work and life of Le Corbusier (asa Edouard Jeanneret). His influences included Giacomo Matté-Trucco’s Lingotto factory (Fiat’s manufacturing plant in Turin with its roof racing track, right). Le Corbusier was quite a self-publicist, it seems like he sold more books about his architecture and the attendant vision for concrete, steel, glass and electricity), as he did design buildings. I certainly did not know how awful the buildings were to occupy. Concrete and glass enabled a very particular spacious and well-lit living and work spaces, but with no insulation and relatively poor heating, the houses had serious condensation problems. It is not surprising that one famous building – Villa Savoye – ended up as a barn after its occupant-family fled the Nazis. Nor was I aware that the beautiful Bauhaus building in Dessau was similarly afflicted by intense heat loss rendering it totally unsuitable for its use as a workshop. Le Corbusier is, however, celebrated for his Unitè d’Habitation in Marseille – a huge block of 337 flats with a row of shops half way up. It’s founding principles as a community with its roof garden for children is visionary and only possible because of new building materials and the fossil fuels that generate the energy to make cement from limestone and steel from iron ore (Calder gives us the figures to demonstrate their consumption). The Barbican in London was a later manifestation of this principle.

My own alma mater – the University of East Anglia – gets a mention for its Ziggurat-shaped student accommodation (which was my home for some of my university career) for its modular design and manufacture. Concrete remained in the 60s the building material of choice for the new inclusiveness captured in school and university buildings. It is true, the building I studied in was one continuous block of concrete. Magnificent it was, too.

And so to conclusions. Calder is clear, we need more renovation of failing properties. Demolition might be a viable business proposition using current measures, but the energy needed cannot be justified in a carbon-reducing world. Calder does not find too many exemplars. Even buildings like the Blomberg HQ in London falls far short of being sustainable. Calder introduces us to the Cork House in London. Built from cork as the name suggests. But its limitations are such that it cannot accommodate current and future needs for buildings.

On his own sustainability, Calder tells us early on that some of the buildings he writes about he has not actually visited, to do so would have been to make the carbon problem worse. This is a brave statement and one that sets a standard. Modern technology gives us unprecedented virtual access to so many cultural artefacts, sufficient to be a scholar and produce work of this quality. If your summer is short of reading, this is 20 GBPs well spent.

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