‘Like stories, buildings are gifts, and like gifts, if we wish to enjoy them, then we must pass them on’

Ed Hollis introduces his love of buildings and makes a convincing case for understanding their often untold historical lives. We also include a short extract from The Secret Lives of Buildings that highlights the continual significance of the Berlin wall to Volker Pawlowski who, ‘once upon a time’, was a construction worker in East Berlin.

The Secret Lives of Buildings: From the Parthenon to the Vegas Strip in Thirteen Stories
By Ed Hollis
Published by Portobello Books

Concrete, marble, steel, brick: little else made by human hands seems as stable, as immutable, as a building. ‘Architecture is frozen music’ we say, as if the act of building could stop the passage of time in its tracks.

But there’s nothing fixed nor timeless about a building. Even as we build them to last forever, so they outlive the people that made them and the purposes for which they were made. Give a building seventy five years or so, and all the original reasons it was created will have fallen away.

And once they do, something wonderful and strange happens to buildings. Liberated from the circumstances of their origin, they start to live extraordinary lives all of their own. It often happens over periods of time so extended we don’t see it happening – it’s a secret – but it’s one that is taking place in plain sight.

The Parthenon, now fragments of shattered marble, scattered across museums from London to Petersburg, was a temple once, dedicated by the ancient Greeks to the Goddess Athene. That much most of may know, but fewer of us remember that for many centuries in between it was a working church and a mosque.

Ancient buildings are always turned to new uses – temples into churches, churches into mosques, and mosques into museums. So, often, are the stones that made them. The marble that covers San Marco in Venice was ripped from the churches and palaces of Constantinople, and shipped across the sea in the thirteenth century.

Sometimes whole buildings make the trip. If you want to see the little house in which the baby Jesus was brought up by Mary and Joseph, there’s no point in going to Nazareth. It’s in the Italian hill town of Loreto, whence it was carried by angels in 1292. Our Lady of Loreto is, after all, the holy patroness of air travel.

Such miracles are, perhaps, easier to believe about buildings in the middle ages, than those of our own era; but the past has no monopoly on magic and idolatry. The trade in relics – real and faked – of the Berlin Wall for example, is still brisk, more than twenty years after it was torn down.

Buildings are still subjected to barbarities. The Hulme Crescents in Manchester, for example, were torn apart their its own inhabitants, flat by flat, floor by floor, in a series of drug-fuelled parties in the early 1990’s. The council who owned the estate handed them matches to set it alight in the end, and they burnt it down.

If these seem like fairy tales, then that is because buildings are like stories – handed down from one generation to the next, altered with every retelling, becoming more fantastical as each year passes. Like stories, buildings are gifts, and like gifts, if we wish to enjoy them, then we must pass them on.

The Secret Lives of Buildings is Ed Hollis’ first book. He is Reader in Design at Edinburgh College of Art at the University of Edinburgh, where he lecture and writes on interior design, uncovering, creating, and retelling the stories that buildings have to tell.


Volker Pawlowski lives happily ever after in Bernau, the town outside Berlin for which Bernauerstrasse is named. He is the proud owner of a building yard, a huge silver Chrysler cruiser, and US patent number 6076675, issued to him for a presentation and holding device [i] for small-format objects that has at least two transparent joinable halves that form a hollow body when fitted together into a corresponding opening in a presentation surface, such as a picture postcard. The hollow body is effectively used to contain an object which has some connection with the motif presented on the picture postcard.

Once upon a time Pawlowski was a construction worker in East Berlin, but he slipped a disc around the time when the gates of the Wall were opened. Stuck at home, he came up with the modest device that has made his fortune. Pawlowski’s invention is only half the secret of his wealth, for it is the specific motif presented on the picture postcards he sells, and the ‘small-format objects’ that have a connection with it, that lend patent 6076675 its awesome power.

Every so often, Volker Pawlowski drives his truck into Berlin and picks up sections of the Wall. Then he brings them back to his building yard, where they are unloaded and showered in bright spray-paint to make it appear as if they have been covered in graffiti. When the paint has dried, workers chip away at the slabs until there is a pile of little concrete shards on the ground. These are sorted into different sizes; and then, in accordance with patent number 6076675, they are attached to postcards of famous sections of the Berlin Wall in its heyday.

In pieces pinned to postcards, the Wall is taken back into town. Alongside  old Russian army uniforms and GDR badges, it is piled up on souvenir stalls around Checkpoint Charlie, the Brandenburg Gate, and Potsdamer Platz. At the height of his business, Pawlowski was shifting between 30,000 and 40,000 postcards a year. That’s a lot of wall. ‘It’s worthless,’ he says, ‘but people seem to want it, and who am I to complain?’

[i] a presentation and holding device

The Secret Lives of Buildings: From the Parthenon to the Vegas Strip in Thirteen Stories is out now published by Portobello Books (£9.99, paperback)

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