‘Old buildings’ are things you go out of your way to see. You might see them environed by sunset on a tourist’s Instagram account, or on a leaflet encouraging you to pay money to be shown round them. They are characters in the advertising campaigns of travel companies, crudely approximated on tea towels and mugs, thrust in your face at airports.
Sometimes they are not well known. Sometimes old buildings sit squat amongst grandeur and pomp, maligned and unobserved. Perhaps they do not conform to a particular historical aesthetic. Perhaps they are too plain. Perhaps they have been tinkered with over time so that they do not even appear old anymore, their sequestered histories still stubbornly persisting in the form of a strangely low ceiling in a back room, or the shock of a clumsy wooden beam amongst modern stucco. But they are old buildings too.
Every time – genuinely every time – I have made an effort to explore or contemplate an old building, I have been left with a slight sense of failure. It is something like yearning, or the feeling of having left something unobserved. Staring intently at the rounded arch of a Norman church, I have told myself that here is history – ancient minds devised this, ancient hands fashioned it, ancient eyes saw it. I have strained in my imagination to strip the scene of all the trappings of modernity, to imagine the building I am looking at ‘as it was’, peopling it with characters in period costume, speaking in unfamiliar ways. I have tried to imagine the consciousness which created this particular feature. Why was it beautiful or practical to them? Why did they use the materials which they did? Why so crude, or so ornate, or so ordered? The experience is like looking at an old grave. It might hold you rapt for countless reasons, but what can never be replicated is the truthful experience of its original historical moment. You can stand at an ancient grave, you can know who is buried there, you can perhaps even feel a sense of loss; what you cannot feel is the grief of those who looked at the headstone and saw the name of their friend, or their parent, or their sibling inscribed there. You can look at the design of the tombstone – unadorned, MEMENTO MORI carved at the bottom – and appreciate its purpose, the aesthetic considerations behind it, the fashion which necessitated it in the mind of the bereaved, but the peculiar contemporary subjectivity which charged its design with meaning is lost. Like a modern historian speaking an ancient, long-dead language, the content may be explicitly historical, but the moment of reception is always absolutely new.
It might appear as though I think this is a cause for lamentation – I do not. It is precisely this melancholy – this uncomfortable but exhilarating lurch back and forth between temporalities – which makes historical buildings so fascinating. They hint at the absolute, concrete, tangible reality of history: they are there, they can be touched, inhabited, utilised. Yet at the same time they bring crashing down on you the undeniable reality of the ‘truth’ of history, which is always unreachable, discernable only through signs and hints, never to be recovered in its totality. Historical buildings, explicitly situated as they always are within the immediate, physical environment of the present moment (as opposed to, say, a historical text, which has its existence partly within the less straightforwardly concrete sphere of the imagination), achieve this vertiginous effect like no other object. An absolutely ‘authentic’, totally tangible history is held out before you in all its material solidity and in the same instant is cast away forever. Such is the particular power of built history.
What, then, is the contemporary observer left with? Just as with any historical object, what remains is a series of signs, endlessly mutable by context. What might have appeared to Victorian eyes as civic might and commercial prowess appears to modern eyes as buffoonish pomp and megalomaniacal self-confidence. This is not to disavow the importance of such a building – although its significance for us is not the same significance which it had for its creators, it may still be an interesting, beguiling, informative, unique or unnerving structure. What is important is how these buildings are treated: to freeze them in time, to insist on historical places being left entirely alone, is to indulge the fantasy that the material reality of history exists as something which we might just claw back to our present moment, if only we can arrest the passage of time. Instead, it is necessary to be open to the necessity of change and the never-ending persistence of history: to retool, to tinker – perhaps even to demolish where necessary. At the same time, it is vital to remain attentive to the particular potency of historical buildings, beyond the simply utilitarian or the profitable. Each demolition must be seen as the loss of a particular arrangement of signs. Perhaps a certain building constitutes a frequently replicated set of signs, or perhaps it might sign in newer, exciting ways with the intervention of a modern builder (though this is not a particularly frequent occurrence at our present moment) – very well, hammer away. But perhaps a certain building does not appear frequently, perhaps its elaborate gable or its imposing façade speaks to us in a way not often seen. It is with buildings such as this with which it is of the utmost importance to be attentive and careful, even if their utility is not apparent. We must refuse to surrender to the fantasy of fallacious nostalgia, all the while remaining humbly attentive to the unique potentiality of historical objects.