Prosecution of lifeless things: 100BC to Demolition on BBC
My favorite works of architectural criticism (by authors Cesar Daly, Montgomery Schuyler, Lewis Mumford, and Ada Louise Huxtable) are put to shame by pre-modern forms of architectural criticism. If today we consider the criticisms of buildings in newspapers and magazines to partially determine their value and fate, in the pre-modern era one might look to strange tribunals and courts concerned with the fate of “lifeless” things.
In a 1916 essay on the history of prosecuting the lifeless in pre-modern western law, the scholar Walter Woodburn Hyde described how inanimate objects could be put on trial if they were suspected for crimes. The list of the inanimate and lifeless included building elements and urban adornments. If a beam in a house fell and killed someone, or a wall collapsed, the inanimate object could be prosecuted; And if you thought a statue looked at you in a strange way; you might be able to prosecute it for conveying dangerous curses.
If found guilty, the beam, statue, or stone could be sent into exile — cast out of the city in which it “committed” its crime. If a lifeless thing was found guilty of falling and hitting someone; it could be exiled or the surviving family members of the deceased could claim ownership of it — incorporating it into another structure. Most guilty things were exiled to join other criminal lifeless things. It’s so unreal, but imagine a landscape of exiled objects just outside the borders of the Athenian city state: here statues, beams and stones, are lying about, damned for their unfortunate intersection with urbanity.
If you think the above prosecutions sound strange and alien, they reappear in our era. The imagined landscape, described above, is eerily reminiscent of the swampy New Jersey Meadowlands (just outside New York City) which contain the remains of the original Penn Station among many other buildings. The television program Demolition, aired on BBC, has more explicitly revived the pre-modern tribunals of lifeless things. The show has been widely damned by architects for infantilizing the discussion of buildings. In this program viewers evaluate some of their country’s “worst” buildings, determining which in the end should be demolished. The show has been criticized for many things (its peculiar focus on modernity), but we might evaluate the program as a form of experimental criticism that simply revives the earliest practices of architectural critique outlined above.
Should we put buildings on trial again? Perhaps; but unlike Demolition, we might consider a setting that does not so easily appear as entertainment, in which prosecutor and defender can present their cases for a particular building. I have been obsessed with the fate of one of my favorite modern buildings — Robin Hood Gardens; It appears that for Robin Hood Gardens to survive, its residents, architectural critics and a good (and literal) legal defender must mount a defense against its prosecution. Perhaps bringing the “crimes” and fates of buildings into courtrooms is one of the most civilized activities we can encourage.