by Annabel Jane Wharton. University of Minnesota Press, February 2015. 320 p. ill. ISBN 9780816693399 (pbk.), $34.95; ISBN 9780816693382 (cl.), $122.50.
Reviewed July 2015
Rebecca Price, Architecture, Urban Planning & Visual Resources Librarian, University of Michigan, email@example.com
In Architectural Agents: the Delusional, Abusive, Addictive Lives of Buildings, Annabel J. Wharton presents a challenging, even disquieting, appraisal of the lives of buildings. The title suggests buildings are agents, the actors in their stories, yet in as many cases as not, they are the subjects, the acted upon. Wharton's accounts reveal that buildings experience pain, just as they may exact it. By understanding the agency of architecture, the potential for violence as well as the prospect of benevolence, Wharton argues that historians will more capably realize their responsibility in presenting that agency.
The book is arranged in three sections: "Death," "Disease," and "Addiction." Each section comprises two case studies. "Death," for instance, is represented by the Cloisters Museum in New York City, illustrating death by murder, and by the Palestine Archeological Museum (now the Rockefeller Museum) demonstrating death by neglect. Wharton posits that the Cloisters Museum is the consequence of a violent dismemberment and forced migration of fragments of medieval Spanish and French cloisters to America. Conversely, the Rockefeller Museum in Jerusalem has suffered from deliberate desertion and languishes in "suspended animation." In the third section, "Addiction," spaces of gambling and the virtual construct of digital play exemplify architecture as agent. The Las Vegas strip, an engorged space of entrapment and mazelike interiors intent to confuse and control, compels the participant to addiction. Similarly, virtual architectonic spaces of gaming become playgrounds inviting participants to play in spaces and landscapes of fantasy and romanticism. But play is not play: play is assassination, warfare, and destruction.
Examining the painful history of architecture, Wharton upends new stones of inquiry and exploration. Yet one can situate her narrative within the discourse exposing stories expressed by buildings, such as Secret Lives of Buildings: from the Parthenon to the Vegas Strip in Thirteen Stories by Edward Hollis (Portobello, 2009). Hollis suggests the function of a building transforms over time, providing opportunities for a retelling of the building's story. Wharton's discussion provides an intriguing counter argument to Hollis' contention that buildings are "free to do as they please" once they have outlived their original purpose.
Scholars of architectural and urban history form the primary audience for Architectural Agents, though one might also include philosophers exploring the study of things (e.g. object-oriented philosophy). The case studies are compelling and deserve critical reading and reflection. The book is illustrated primarily with black and white photographs. Supplemental materials include notes to each chapter, an extensive bibliography, and an index of subjects, names, and places.