Fallen Glory: History's 5 Greatest Lost Buildings

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James Crawford
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5. The Hippodrome of Constantinople

Ruins of the Hippodrome [Engraving from De ludis circensibus (Venice, 1600) by Onofrio Panvinio]

Ruins of the Hippodrome [Engraving from De ludis circensibus (Venice, 1600) by Onofrio Panvinio]

The Roman Empire was responsible for some of history’s greatest displays of architectural grandeur, power, arrogance – and even vulgarity. It exported buildings across its vast empire, and one of the most common was the hippodrome. ‘Bread and circuses’ was a keystone of Imperial policy – a belief in the simplicity of food and entertainment to keep the people happy. What the Empire also created and exported in the process was co-ordinated fan violence, the first examples of today’s football casuals or ‘ultras’. The worst excesses were found in Constantinople around the mid-point of the sixth century AD. Fans of the two best chariot-racing teams – the Greens and the Blues – began to take over the city. Easy to spot with their mullet haircuts and outlandish clothing, they roamed the streets fighting, robbing and murdering. The Emperor Justinian and his WAG Theodora – a prostitute and proto-porn star made good – were also avid supporters, and had first met over a shared love of the Blues. Chariot racing wasn’t life or death. It was more important than that. The influence of the fans became so great, that one disturbance among the stands of the Hippodrome turned into a mass riot that joined Blues and Greens together to destroy half of Constantinople, almost overthrowing the entire Empire in the process. The uprising was finally quelled by a military massacre – on the floor of the Hippodrome itself – and the bones of some 30,000 fans became part of the foundations of the rebuilt stadium.

4. The Madinat al-Zahra, Cordoba

The gardens of the Madinat al-Zahra (c) Ana Rey Botello

The gardens of the Madinat al-Zahra (c) Ana Rey Botello

Empires always end with a ‘Fall’. That is what we remember most about them. As a result we tend to forget that they – and in particular their buildings – began as dreams. In the foothills of the Sierra Morena near modern-day Cordoba, are the ruins of what was once thought to be the greatest city on earth – the Madinat al-Zahra, ‘the carpet of the world’, ‘the brilliant city’. This was a palace built by the Caliph of the Spanish Islamic kingdom of Al-Andalus, and its construction was inspired by the fantastical tales found in the most famous book of Arab folklore - the Thousand and One Nights. From golden ceilings, giant pearls and great pools of mercury, to beautiful gardens containing zoos and aviaries, the aim was excessive opulence and ostentatious bling. Until its destruction by civil war in the 11th century, it was also a seat of art, learning and scholarship. Indeed, through the innovations developed by its many musical patrons, it has been hailed as the birthplace of the guitar and rock and roll. It lived for less than a century, and by dying young was always remembered in its glory days, becoming a myth and a dream itself. This dream still lives on today in the most extravagant Arab city in the world: Dubai. From the world’s tallest building to a series of artificial islands modelled on the fronds of palm leaves: all can be traced back to this lost palace of Moorish Spain.

3. Pruitt-Igoe, St Louis

(c) Arthur Witman, 1954, St-Louis Post Dispatch. In the collection of State Historical Society of Missouri

(c) Arthur Witman, 1954, St-Louis Post Dispatch. In the collection of State Historical Society of Missouri

According to the architectural critic Charles Jencks, there is a specific place, date and time – to the second – that ‘Modern architecture died’. It was 3pm, March 16, 1972 in St Louis, Missouri. Two decades after its construction, the Pruitt-Igoe urban housing project, the most notorious slum in the United States, was brought crashing to the ground. It was the first great American ruin. It had all been so different when the project began in the early 1950s. Carried forward on a wave of post-war prosperity and optimism, it was seen as a state-funded panacea for the problems of inner-city poverty and overcrowding: 33 concrete buildings each 11 storeys high, containing a total of 2,870 apartments. Its architect was the Japanese-American Minoru Yamasaki - the man who would go on to design the Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre. In the late 1960s, just over a decade after its completion, it was virtually abandoned. The modernist dream was a grim reality of crime, tension, gangs, graffiti and vandalism. Critics had a field day – they saw in Pruitt-Igoe a failure not of society, but of architecture. Others, however, saw the exact opposite. Architecture was a convenient sideshow that helped to obscure deeper problems in American society. It was much easier to blame the shape, size and design of a building than the poverty gap, class, race and government policy.

2. Geocities

‘Geocities has closed’ Courtesy of Yahoo!

‘Geocities has closed’ Courtesy of Yahoo!

The largest city in human history was destroyed in an instant. One moment it had 38 million inhabitants. The next, it was all gone. On 27 October 2009, at 12,30pm Pacific Standard Time, the city simply ceased to exist. Geocities started in 1994 – a digital space ordered like a real city, with addresses by street, neighbourhood, suburb and district, offering people their first ‘home’ on the web. It was also one of the classic examples of the dot.com bubble – making its creators millions when they sold it on to Yahoo in 1999. Another 8 years on, however, and after failing ever to make any actual money, it was erased entirely by its new owners. A frantic bid was launched by a group of ‘internet archivists’ to save what they could before Yahoo pressed the delete button. Terabyte after terabyte of data was collected on hard drives all around the world. What remains now is a ‘digital Pompeii’. While the archiving team saved a significant proportion of the city before it was destroyed, what they preserved is merely a record, not a living environment – a virtual city, frozen forever in its last moments.

1. The Temple of Jerusalem

‘The Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem’ (1867) by Francesco Hayez. Hayez based his painting on the account by Josephus of the architecture of the Temple, and the Roman siege and sack of Jerusalem. Courtesy of Galleria d’Arte Moderna, Venice.

‘The Destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem’ (1867) by Francesco Hayez. Hayez based his painting on the account by Josephus of the architecture of the Temple, and the Roman siege and sack of Jerusalem. Courtesy of Galleria d’Arte Moderna, Venice.

Architecture, religion, pilgrimage, war, peace and apocalypse… All the ingredients you need for a good story, and all mashed together in a 37-acre stone platform set in the heart of the Middle East. This is the one place on earth that men and gods have not left, and will seemingly never leave, alone. On the site where Abraham offered to sacrifice his son Isaac to God as a test of loyalty, a temple was built, demolished, rebuilt and then burnt to the ground. Its final destruction 70 years after the birth of Christ splintered religious doctrine and at the same time created in one place a permanent physical focal point for the competing faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The story of the Temple takes in everything from the Ten Commandments, the Jewish exile to Babylon, and the life of Jesus, to the rise of Islam, the Crusades, Lawrence of Arabia, paranoid schizophrenia and peace summits at Camp David. The Temple Mount has become the setting for history’s longest running property dispute. A dispute so intractable, some say, that it will only be resolved by the end of the world.

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James Crawford is the author of Fallen Glory (Old Street, £25).