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The Secret Lives of Buildings: From the Ruins of the Parthenon to the Vegas Strip in Thirteen Stories

3.54  ·  Rating Details ·  297 Ratings  ·  51 Reviews
A strikingly original, beautifully narrated history of Western architecture and the cultural transformations that it representsConcrete, marble, steel, brick: little else made by human hands seems as stable, as immutable, as a building. Yet the life of any structure is neither fixed nor timeless. Outliving their original contexts and purposes, buildings are forced to adapt ...more
Hardcover, 352 pages
Published November 10th 2009 by Metropolitan Books (first published 2009)
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(showing 1-30)
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Jim Good
Mar 01, 2010 Jim Good rated it it was ok
Shelves: non-fiction, history
Centered around 13 different buildings and the history contained therein. The concert of the book is much better than the execution. The author uses a whimsical writing style that I suppose is attempting to pass for prose to indirectly tie together the buildings, cultural and historical stories into a somewhat common thread. I found myself much more interested in the actual story of the buildings (never told) than the meandering thoughts of Hollis about the historical significance and nature of ...more
Jun 12, 2011 Michael rated it it was amazing
Fun. Hollis guides the reader on a number of journeys through the physical, historical, social, political, mythical and often, neurotic aspects of particular structures. All in all he does a great job of infusing life into these sundry built things. Taking such standbys as the Parthenon and Hagia Sofia (or Ayasofya) and less obvious choices such as a strip of the Berlin Wall, a Vegas Casino, and Mary’s floating granite childhood abode (or abodes as there are fifty iterations apparently), the ...more
Jun 02, 2010 Tuck rated it really liked it
very creative way to discuss architecture, author tells stories about them, starting with the parthenon and ending with the new wall in israel. fairly insightful, but to get the fullest out of this you need a good dictionary or knowledge of terms. some especially good chapters on the alhambra, the hulme crescents in manchester, the venetian in las vegas. well shoot, they are all good.
Apr 20, 2010 Liane rated it really liked it
This is an extremely cool book, especially for ancient history nerds and people looking to be inspired to travel. Edward Hollis covers thirteen famous buildings, starting with the Parthenon and ending in Vegas, offering a history of how they were used. The theme is the evolution of a building's purpose (and, secondarily, its physical architecture) across cultures, religions, empires, and centuries. The method is telling snippets of history, but just the really interesting parts. The story of the ...more
Grace Cohen
Jan 20, 2016 Grace Cohen rated it liked it
The goal of the text, and overall execution, was fascinating, a study of the history of restoration and recreation of a buildings. However, the chapters dedicated to non-Western architecture and the Western Wall in Israel seemed to be written from such a Western perspective that is what as if no other model could be considered. This dedication to Western models and theories made some of Hollis' arguments frustrating and superficial.
Nov 29, 2009 Turi rated it liked it
Shelves: microhistory
From the Parthenon to the Las Vegas strip, The Secret Lives of Buildings traces the histories of twelve buildings mostly through the lives of some of their inhabitants. Lyrical, and with a rolling sense of history, you're left with the sense that these are only a fraction of the stories that are out there to be told.
Donna Jo Atwood
The buildings mentioned in this book range in time, as did the commentaries. The main idea I came away with is that buildings are constantly changing as the needs of their users change. Even the act of restoration changes the building from what it evolved into. This is not necessarily good or bad, it just is.
The chapter on the Cathedral of Notre Dame was probably the most interesting.
Deborah Pickstone
Quite interesting about the buildings, not so interesting about what the author's personal opinions are. The stories are meant to be written in a way that links them together but it didn't seem to work, to me. Architecture is interesting but there wasn't enough about it in here but more about the people who occupied the buildings. I refer the reader to Truth in Advertising legislature......
Jan 24, 2012 Scott rated it it was amazing
I was astonished by how good this book was. It was recommended to me by my husband who read it a couple of years ago after I gave it to him for a Christmas gift thinking that it looked like something he would like. He then said I really would and should read it, so it has been my upstairs bathroom reading material for awhile now.

This is not a book simply for architecture buffs, though if you are, you will enjoy it. It is also engaging for anyone who enjoys history, art, culture, or just a good s
Jun 08, 2015 Dree rated it liked it
This book is definitely interesting, but it is also uneven.

A major theme throughout several--but not all--chapters is the idea of "restoration." I think if Hollis had made this an overarching theme, and left out chapters that do not reflect it, he would have had a much stronger book.

Hollis' reflections on restoration focus on the question of how to restore something that has had many forms. Which one can be deemed "the right one"? Would it be the first one? Or the largest/most magnificent? Or s
Sep 16, 2012 Mark rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Overall, I really enjoyed this book, although I had a couple qualms. Hollis looks at 13 different pieces of architecture and shows how they are not the static, idealized buildings we think of them as, but are dynamically changing throughout history. He makes some very interesting points, and the book is fairly entertaining throughtout. However, as I am not very familiar with architecture, I do think the book would have benefitted greatly from additional illustrations and pictures. Also, Hollis ...more
Feb 25, 2011 Amy rated it it was amazing
Any student knows that the best part of a history class is side tracking your professor by getting them to tell some random obscure little story about the place/time you're studying. This is a book of 13 of those random stories, each which tell the story of a particular place. I've taught Venice, the Parthenon, the Berlin Wall, and yet, this book told me stuff I never knew. As it is 13 separate stories, stopping and coming back to it is possible without losing a narrative thread (as is jumping ...more
Nov 19, 2012 Elizabeth rated it really liked it
I think I didn't *really* understand what the author was trying to get at until the last few chapters, and that kind of makes me want to go back and read some of the other chapters again - except I'm not quite compelled enough to spend the precious extra reading time. Suffice it to say that some of the stories were vivid and exciting in and of themselves, others less so. The author seems to be weaving tales from the "facts" of history and architecture and is only sometimes successful in making ...more
Jan 17, 2013 Dagezi rated it it was amazing
110 pages in, this is on the short list of best things I've ever read. It's the closest thing to a non-fiction version of Invisible Cities that I've yet encountered.

Updated 1/17 -- finished it on the Croatia trip. This is completely fucking brilliant. The title sounds misleadingly like educational television, but the book itself is a series of wonders. (Invisible Cities itself is even skillfully rerun with Sheldon Adelson in the role of Marco Polo). There are no weak chapters here (the Alhambra
May 06, 2013 Bryn rated it liked it
Well this is a perfectly fine piece of non fiction. My biggest complaint was the vaulted language. The author's love of architecture and history comes through, but in the end I felt like this book was a little light on details. I wouldn't call it dense. Rather than feeling informed about a fascinating topic, I felt like I got enough of a taste to want to seek out a better book with more information now that I have a broad understanding of the changing role of the buildings in the book. The ...more
n* Dalal
I loved the stories of the (relatively) newer buildings, but the stories about the ancient ones felt too much like fairytales. The tale of Notre Dame is particularly well-written. In fact, I had to read it a few times before I saw how carefully structured and meaningful it was. The Berlin Wall, the Hulme Crescents are also brilliant stories.

It's surprising to read a book about architecture that is so like a book of short stories. Ambitious project, fairly successful, all things considered.

I on
Dec 23, 2012 Sara rated it did not like it
This book was awful and I honestly did not finish it.

If it is well done, I like historical fiction - like Louis L'Amour. This is something else entirely. It is a creative work that tries too hard in that aspect and that mixes it's "history" right in with it's "art" so you have no way of discerning truth from fiction. It attempts to pass off things as history that are incorrect and and while there are some end notes, they aren't actually noted in text. Marrying history and creativity can be done
Jul 02, 2011 Amy rated it liked it
I enjoyed this book, but it wasn't what I was expecting. I have to say this up front, I am so glad somebody FINALLY decided to write about a place instead of their life at the place. Hollis' approach using Thomas Cole's The Architect's Dream throughout his book is brilliant. Also, he has introductory pieces before each building, which was nice. The actual history of the buildings is so-so. I realize that you could write volumes on the history of each building, but sometimes the narrative jumped ...more
Oct 11, 2012 Ellen rated it it was amazing
Shelves: thinking
"The scene was what architecture was, and is, and should be. but just before he awoke, the architect realized that he was dreaming, and he recalled the words of Prospero renouncing his conjured dominion at the end of The Tempest.

'The cloud-capp'd towers, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind: We are such stuff
As dreams are made on, and our little life
Is rou
Bruce Black
Aug 13, 2012 Bruce Black rated it it was amazing
Secret Lives reminds me of Cod, by Kurlansky, or Omnivoure's Dilemma, by Pollan. It has changed my world view by picking out a detail with care and diligent research and much thought of something that I had taken for granted, meaning not given any thought of my own on. I had to go to the internet several times to find out more because it just piqued my curiosity so much. I have to say I have a new appreciation of history, religion, sociology, politics because of this book. And often that ...more
Feb 14, 2016 J rated it did not like it
I loved the idea of this book, but I struggled greatly with the thick writing. It was like wading through molasses. I ultimately gave up on the book before getting very far into it.

The author also seemed to have anti-Christian tendencies expressed through belittling or disrespectful comments about religious leaders and buildings. :-(
Feb 04, 2011 Scott rated it liked it
Shelves: non-fiction
This is an interesting book on the history of selected structures, from the Parthenon of Ancient Greece to a modern casino. Edward Hollis details the original purpose of the buildings and then describes how the buildings were altered over time, both in structure and in useage. I felt the most interesting buildings he wrote about were the Parthenon, the Berlin Wall, and the Western Wall.
Margaret Sankey
Jul 03, 2012 Margaret Sankey rated it liked it
Following the varied lives and uses of iconic buildings in vivid anecdotes, from the Parthenon (temple, church, armory, palace, tourist trap), the Alhambra, Sans Souci (Potsdam), the Venetian (Las Vegas) to the Berlin Wall (the Anti-Fascist Protection Rampart, officially, from construction to souvenir rubble).
Apr 20, 2010 Jeanne rated it liked it
Finally giving up on finishing this one. Got through Notre Dame. Stories of buildings, or rather of people's ideas of what buildings should be, or are, or aren't. Wish there were more pictures, though obviously not always possible. Still the brief sketches at the beginning of the chapters is not enough, even though the author paints the buildings for us with words.
Jun 24, 2014 Bruno rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Very interesting analysis of famous buildings. most stories really live up to the promise of the book, giving you amazing insight into the stories and evolutions of the buildings. I like how each chapter/building is separate so you can pick it up after a while and still enjoy it as if it were new, while at the same time it's interesting so you want to read more chapters at once
May 10, 2014 Allison rated it really liked it
Splendid! A collection of biographies of place: the histories of the Parthenon, the Western Wall, the Holy House, the Berlin Wall, and more are all told in lyrical prose just brimming with energy and excitement. And they all cohere into a larger, more complex narrative of place and person: that our places, the things we build, can tell us about who we are as a species. Highly recommended.
Apr 22, 2015 Tom rated it liked it
Shelves: history
3.5. Satisfying stories of the way some notable Western architecture has been built and transformed over the ages. Mr. Hollis should go farther afield with this approach, to China, Japan, India and Russia.
Nov 02, 2016 Yaaresse marked it as abandoned-dnf  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
I think I was expecting a factual history of buildings, which I would have liked. The author seems to be trying to appeal to the historical fiction crowd or something, and it just never clicked with me.
Jan 21, 2014 Qwerty88 rated it did not like it
The author decided to make everything into a story, with complete understanding of all the historical characters. Plus the bits I know slightly about are wrong. I was hoping it would be about how the use of buildings changes, which lead to changing architecture, and instead it's about monuments.
Mar 29, 2013 Miriam rated it did not like it
Shelves: history
I don't know exactly what it was, but I just couldn't get into the book. I rarely stop reading a book in the middle, but I did this time. I almost shut the book in the foreword, it was that bad. I think I just didn't care for Hollin's writing style.
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