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To Awaken the Dead

The uncanny achievement of David Macaulay.

David Macaulay: The Art of Drawing Architecture

National Building Museum.


What makes a writer a "children's book writer"? This is a deep question, much deeper in fact than asking what makes a "children's book." Those of us who have worked our way through David Macaulay's best-selling "information books," which account for 3.5 million of his 4 million sales, have often puzzled over the Library of Congress Cataloguing in Publication Data that classifies these books as "juvenile literature." Building the cathedral of Amiens, the pyramid of Cheops, Pompeii, a Welsh castle, a Spanish Renaissance caravel, an Ottoman mosque, a nineteenth-century New England mill, or a twentieth century skyscraper is surely not child's play. This always seemed to me like a librarian's bad joke.

No longer. A visitor to the exhibition devoted to David Macaulay's creative process at the National Building Museum is confronted right from the start with Macaulay's own words wholeheartedly identifying his practice with that of curiosity: "The key behind all of the books I do, particularly with the information books, there's a sense of curiosity. I've always had it and I've always been willing to keep asking questions until I understood the larger picture." Who among us still possesses this faith in curiosity? Children. So maybe it is in this way that David Macaulay is a children's author: in abandoning himself to curiosity, he shows that he still has the child in him. And in abandoning ourselves to his love of curiosity, we show that we also remain children in this way—or at least can suspend adultness long enough to follow Macaulay wherever he leads.

Curiosity is a rather ambiguous virtue. Though we now take it for granted, the fact is that from antiquity until some time in the seventeenth century curiosity was associated with what we think of as "vanity"—self-indulgent, pointless, and more than a little disreputable. Telescopic and microscopic investigation in the seventeenth century began to change all that, so that "curiosity" came to refer to both the object studied ("a curiosity") and the human drive to do the studying ("a curious person"), and both could be celebrated as worthwhile and even admirable. But as the early modern polymath was displaced at the top of the intellectual food chain by the expert, curiosity, too, was soon displaced by "expertise." And so nowadays it is only with children and in the realm of children that pure, unbridled, unprogrammed curiosity—if it's programmed, is it really curious?—is still licit. Education tends to drum it out of most people by the time they reach university.

Macaulay, now sixty, was born in England but earned a B.A. in architecture from the Rhode Island School of Design. He worked as an interior designer and high school art teacher before becoming an instructor at RISD, where he remains on the faculty. Between then and now he has created twenty-three books, sixteen of which belong to a genre that he has, if not made, then re-made: books that tell a story about how buildings are made. Beginning with Cathedral, an accident that became a classic—and whose making became the subject of a book of its own, Building the Book Cathedral—he has proceeded from the ancient world through the Middle Ages to the Renaissance, the industrial revolution, and the twentieth century, though not in sequence. (How he chose his subjects is one of the fascinating questions not raised in the current exhibition.)

When Macaulay draws buildings, he tells the story of places. And so his second work, City (1974), walks us through the origins and life of a Roman provincial "new" city, from the occasion of its creation—a devastating flood—through the selection of a site, its surveying, the laying out of roads and aqueducts and walls, to the life of the city: its markets, mills, shops, government and sacred buildings, and private homes. With his attention to history—to change over time—and to material history in particular, he may remind us of no one more than Piranesi, a prior generation's architect-guide to the ancient world's materiality. Mill (1983), just as characteristically, is more than just a Baedeker to the New England mill towns of the nineteenth century. It is also an attempt to view architecture through a prism that helps us to see it as an affair not only of art, but also of technology, geology, hydrology, sociology, and economics. Where the mill was built, when it was built, by whom it was built, what it did to the physical environment, and how it shaped the human one: these questions are as central to Macaulay as the "how" question, as in "How did it work?"

Ship (1993), more than any of Macaulay's other books, works at both ends of time's arrow: its first part narrates a marine salvage operation in the Caribbean, while the second part unfolds the building of that same vessel five hundred years earlier in Seville. If the former is done with Macaulay's characteristically analytical style, in the latter he adopts an archaizing graphical and visual approach—with color—that sets it off as belonging to a different time and place. Macaulay always lavishes enormous attention on the details of the everyday material life of the past. For the salvage artist, no detail is too trivial: and so we learn about privies, bakeries, baths, tools, and techniques.

The show in Washington includes sections devoted to the role of "Perspective, " "Structure," and "Imagination" in the drawings that it so generously exhibits. But it begins by walking us through a single project from beginning to end: Mosque, published in 2003. We can leaf through a blown-up facsimile of Macaulay's sketchbook, full of reading notes, quick sketches, and comments. Then there are the on-location photographs, home videos, and maps. And finally the layers of progressively more finished drawings that culminate in the beautiful published work. In all this Macaulay resembles rather strikingly the itinerant European artist of past centuries who packed his kit and headed to Italy (usually) and Greece (sometimes). Then, too, the encounter with the past served as a stimulus for current projects.

Trained, like his predecessors, as an architect, Macaulay has always expressed his seemingly limitless curiosity in drawing. As he explained in 1991, everyone should draw, because "the better we see, the more inevitable curiosity becomes. Lack of curiosity is the first step towards visual illiteracy—and by that I mean not really seeing what is going on around us." With this idea that drawing is seeing and seeing is understanding (not believing), Macaulay locates himself in an old and vital strand of Europe's historical enlightenment. For architectural drawing has been, since the European Renaissance, a key tool of discovery. We might think immediately of Brunelleschi and Donatello in Rome drawing ruins, but we need to remember that Brunelleschi, at least, was drawing architectural ruins, and that the fruit of his drawing was a radically new design for the dome of the cathedral in Florence in 1436. That his solution for the Duomo was non-classical only strengthens the point: drawing taught Brunelleschi not to imitate old solutions but to see new ones.

Nowhere is drawing a more obvious mode of exploring how things work than in Leonardo's notebooks. And of course no one could deny Leonardo at least honorable mention as the world's most curious man. In the sixteenth century, the Neapolitan architect Pirro Ligorio—arguably the most influential interpreter of antiquity of the High Renaissance—used his skills as a draftsman, and his understanding of how buildings were built, to "restore" many damaged ancient structures on paper, in his drawings. And in the eighteenth century, none was more famous than Piranesi for his ability to join practical knowledge and expressive technique to recreate ancient Roman buildings and the processes that built them. We do not usually link antiquarianism and engineering, though they were joined at the hip for most of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, just as we do not tend to connect antiquarianism with astronomy, though they were inseparable for much of the seventeenth century. But the fact is that these same antiquarianizing architects and designers also built buildings, so they had to master the realities of engineering and physical principles. Piranesi even devotes one of his most fascinating plates to a rendering of building tools designed by Brunelleschi.

The way things worked fascinated sixteenth-century scholars. The new inventions and new discoveries, such as printing, gunpowder, and silk-weaving, provoked the extraordinary series of engravings by Stradanus, the "Nova Reperta. " But they lie also behind the unequalled machine book of Agostino Romelli, one of the most lavishly illustrated of all early modern printed books, but actually only one of many produced at the end of the sixteenth century that was devoted to this subject. This connection between how things once worked and how they now worked helps us understand that the antiquary and the engineer could be the same person: the laws of nature did not change just because the ancient world collapsed. In this line of work, past practice was a guide to future performance. The exhibition in Washington pays no attention to Macaulay's astonishing revision of the classic—and classically off-putting—The Way Things Work, originally a German product of the early 1960s. But there is this obvious connection between his forays into historical reconstruction and into the reconstruction of modern machines. Once we are aware of it, the whole arc of Macaulay's career begins to come into focus.


THE EUROPEAN ANTIQUARIAN tradition was marked by its attentiveness to visual evidence and its developing skills for exploiting it. Comparison with the other great antiquarian tradition, that of China, makes this clear. In China, antiquarianism remained the domain of the textual scholar until the arrival of Western "archaeology" at the beginning of the twentieth century. But reconstructing the past required more than an ability to read words on a page, it required also an ability to take the words on a page and transform them into three dimensions—or at least two that represented three. Architects, artisans, and artists were the ones who possessed, and honed, this skill. It was not by chance that Pope Julius II appointed Raphael his prefect of antiquities. We think of Raphael for his paintings, but it was as chief papal archaeologist that he issued a report on the state of the city that is still read four centuries later.

If we had to identify the talent that made this possible, we would come quickly to imagination. Brunelleschi, Leonardo, Raphael, Ligorio, Piranesi—and David Macaulay—all look at extant structures and see through them, or explode them so that their workings are laid bare. In the exhibition, Macaulay's use of "Imagination" is flagged—but it is also misunderstood. For it is identified with fantasy or caprice, when it should be seen as the Siamese twin of learned reconstruction. And so a 1982 lithograph of Macaulay's that depicts a Piranesian-looking prison is provocatively labeled "Veduta della stazione grand central." We are supposed to admire Macaulay's ability to transpose imaginatively the eighteenth and the twentieth centuries, the dark-shadowed monumental hall and the stairways to nowhere.

But the most interesting imagination is the kind that is harnessed to memory, the faculty that is always taken as antithetical to creativity. When Renaissance philologists pored over texts, when Renaissance architects clambered over the torsos of ancient buildings, they were constantly forced to leap across lacunae, bridge gaps, and repair open wounds. What enabled them to do this was not imagination-as-free-creation, but imagination-as-learned- envisioning. It was imagination nursed by historical familiarity that enabled architect-scholars such as Ligorio or architect-artists such as Piranesi to restore broken monuments. When Piranesi shows us how the Romans built big, he sometimes cuts through the buildings, letting his trained mind's eye go where those of others had never gone before. Even more, when he depicts building practices he cannot have seen, he relies on what he knew as a scholar the Romans actually did, and what he knew as an architect had to have happened. The product of this "imagination" is the depiction of historical machines in use and materials in motion unequalled until our own time—until the work of David Macaulay.

Of course, imagination is also perilous. It works by spanning two solid and discrete realities with an intuited or inferred causation. And one man's intuition is another's fabrication. Not for nothing have Ligorio's achievements as a scholar been marked by an asterisk for forgery, or Piranesi been remembered as the artist of the "Carceri d'invenzione" ("invented prisons," or, archly, "prisons of invention") rather than as a student of architectural history. Scholars seem to have had a hard time accepting the legitimacy of learned imagination, especially when it is expressed in a visual form.

The almost dialectical relationship between reconstruction and imagination lies at the heart of Macaulay's most clever book, The Motel of the Mysteries (1979), a wickedly intelligent satire of archaeology and the cult of the blockbuster museum show. Imagining a "Usa" buried beneath a cloud of third- class mail and pollutants in 1985, the story takes place in 4022, when Howard Carson (read: Howard Carter) stumbles upon a buried motel complex (the Toot 'n c'mon). The rest of the book is a hilarious case of mistaken identity and a brilliant meditation on how so much of what we take to be archaeological "truth" actually follows from our leading assumptions. Wrongheaded imagination winds up treating a television console as a great altar, a bathtub as a sarcophagus, a toilet bowl as a sacred urn, a toilet seat as a sacred collar, and a toilet bowl brush as a holy water censer. (The second half of the book, sending up Thomas Hoving's Met and the then-nascent museum reproduction industry, is required reading for students of museum studies.)


BUT IF IMAGINATION and reconstruction go together, however gingerly, it is the prevalence of the reconstructive tendency that demands explanation. Antiquarian urges mark the period from Petrarch, who collected ancient Greek manuscripts in the fourteenth century even though he could not read them, through the Renaissance of classical antiquity, up through our own various neo-classical and neo-gothic revivals. Indeed, one could argue that the urge to reconstruct the past almost defines the period from the Renaissance to the present. Why is reconstruction so important? Why do we find it at almost all times and all places? These are complex questions, but perhaps a close look at Macaulay can help. Can we understand why at least this one person has devoted the better part of his career to reconstruction? His answer: curiosity. Or, as Aristotle put it twenty-four centuries ago: "All human beings want to know."

Yes, but. How much detail is enough, and how much is too much? There is more here than curiosity can account for, even if we resist qualifying it as "mere." From Aristotle we may turn to Nietzsche. In his lectures on the study of the ancient world, delivered at Basel in the summer of 1871 with his friend Jacob Burckhardt in the audience, he observed that in the antiquarian literature of the seventeenth century he discerned a "longing," a Sehnsucht, to reconstruct the past. Whence this longing? Nietzsche does not tell us. But he hints at something chthonic, perhaps akin to those Dionysian and Apollonian needs that he had just then identified.

The longing to reconstruct is a longing to resurrect. Those who spend their time piecing together the humpty-dumpty of the past, whether they are archaeologists painstakingly piling up their foundation walls, or art historians gently gluing their ceramic pots back together, or papyrologists carefully unrolling their desert-preserved treasures, are engaged in a duel with the dead. In the fifteenth century, the astonishing and enigmatic epigrapher Cyriac of Ancona actually proclaimed himself master of the "great and wholly divine power ... to awaken the dead."

As the idea of resurrection became secularized, professional historians grew increasingly uncomfortable with this practice, leaving it for amateurs—or other genres. Amid the proliferation in eighteenth-century Britain of what Mark Phillips has described, in Society and Sentiment, as the para-historical genres of memoir, autobiography, and historical fiction, we may add the "antiquarian novel." Though it sounds like an oxymoron, the fact is that probably the best- selling antiquarian study of all time was a work of fiction, Jean-Jacques Barthelemy's Voyage of the Young Anacharsis, which appeared in 1788, and recounts an imagined trip to Greece undertaken by a Scythian prince in the fourth century C.E. Barthelemy was one of the greatest antiquaries of the great age of antiquarianism, and he threw it all into his book, a masterpiece of erudition and storytelling that spun off edition after edition in France, Britain, and the new United States. Charles Bovary was reading it in boarding school decades later as a guide to ancient Greece.

Barthelemy's friend and rival Piranesi also created an audience for antiquarianism by appealing to the imagination, something a visual rather than textual medium might have made easier. But we can find, in the centuries that followed, many other examples of thoroughly conventional presentations of antiquarian data, such as the cetology and history of technology that Melville stuffed into Moby Dick, or of antiquarian information presented in utterly avant-garde forms—as in Walter Benjamin's encyclopedia of Second Empire Paris, or W.G. Sebald's voyages into lost memory spaces. In between we may count as many other forms of detailed reconstruction as there are subjects to bring back to life.

DAVID MACAULAY BELONGS to this tradition. His accounts of cities and towns, ships and castles, mosques and mills, are not simply engineering books. They are not stripped-down versions of "the way things work." They are stories, and they gain energy from the narrative of human lives that shape space and are in turn shaped by it.

Consider Rome Antics (1997), potentially the most conventional of Macaulay's works. As the title hints, Roma Antica was a topos for artists and writers from the time Petrarch took a walk through the city and wrote about it to a friend (in 1337 or 1341—scholars disagree). No self-respecting northern European making the Grand Tour at any point in the sixteenth, seventeenth, or eighteenth centuries would have left Rome without picking up some souvenir engraving of the city. These vedute di Roma exist in quantity. But if one looks at the prints of Etienne Duperac from the 1570s, or of Giacomo Laura from the 1630s, or of Giovanni Battista Falda from the 1660s, it is the architecture that dominates the eye, and the past that governs the present. Even in Piranesi, where life intrudes, it is hard to identify with the gesticulating stick figures he scatters about his monuments. They provide scale, and they mimic our emotional response to the grandeur that was Rome, but they are resolutely two-dimensional: props, not people.

Not so in David Macaulay's Rome. Though in many ways a typical book of views of Rome—following a carrier pigeon's flight, we hit all the major monuments from the Colosseum and the Palatine through Piazza Navona and the Pantheon—in other ways Rome Antics could not differ more. This Rome is everyday Rome. The scene in Piazza Navona is devoted to people sitting at cafe tables, just as the scene in the Pantheon's portico is dominated by an unscrupulouslooking hawker. The girl swinging in the garden of the Palazzo Farnese, or the shoppers in the Campo dei Fiori, or a typical Roman wall with its kaleidoscope of lopsided traffic signs, jury-rigged wiring, and wonky security cams, or a street with its Belgian blocks pulled up for road works, or a soccer ball flying through a piazza, or a temple shrouded for restoration, or a woman beating her dusty carpet out the window of 1 via dei Portico d'Ottavia in the Jewish ghetto: all this is not Roma Aeterna, it is Roma Hodierna, the lived Rome of now. The pigeon, of course, ends its flight in Macaulay's own garret, faithfully delivering its love letter.

Ruin and resurrection are at the heart also of another of Macaulay's narratives. Intertwined with the technical exposition of The Way Things Work is a series of comical representations of prehistoric attempts to capture and to domesticate the woolly mammoth. These introduce chapters by illustrating the physical principles to be discussed within. In the first edition, as if by way of explanation, Macaulay included mock title pages for each of the four chapters from a mythical eighteenth-century-sounding manuscript. The title for Chapter One, for example, reads: "To accompany & Punctuate the first part of The Great Work is humbly offered from my own sketchbook a highly personal account of several Investigations into the principles & workings of various Mechanical Machines brought to light during the capture, domestication & subsequent employment of the Great Wooly Mammoth, being wholly free from the confusion of Common Sense. As observed and recorded during my travels for the illumination of future generations and the general advantage of all Mankind." In the second edition the publishers saved eight pages by suppressing this extended homage to enlightenment natural philosophy, but at the cost of making the presence of those mammoths quite puzzling.

But what was added in the second edition of the book, published ten years later, was a whole new chapter on the Digital Domain. This, subtitled "the Last Mammoth," puts the issue of extinction and reconstruction at the center of the narrative. The lonely mammoth warily approaches "Bill's gates" and listens to his blousy talk of the future, though he "could only dwell on the past." Lured in by the promise of companionship, the mammoth is measured, stuck, prodded, and ultimately made the beneficiary (or victim) of a virtual-reality encounter with the long longed-for female mammoth. This is the ultimate form of reconstruction, with resurrection now projected for an entire species. But while a virtual-reality past might actually be more comprehensive and seductive than anything Cyriac of Ancona could have imagined, this particular gap between imagination and reconstruction seems the most unbridgeable. Discovering that he couldn't very well get his trunk around a virtual-reality playmate, the mammoth has a tantrum and stalks away, leaving all these questions up in the air.

Resurrection may seem more meaningful as we age, like the mammoth, and lose contact with what we were as children. But children understand renewal in their own way, and with it also the reality of loss. Walter Benjamin beautifully described childhood as "the divining rod of melancholy." The real children's book writer, then, is the one who can bring the ever-renewing curiosity of children together with the native melancholy of children. Antiquarians, too, picking their way amid the flotsam and jetsam of the shipwreck of antiquity, might have been inspired and imaginative, as well as diligent, but they also could never escape from their knowledge that time was the destroyer of all. "We but feel our way to err" is how Childe Harold described his own stint in Rome.

Macaulay lives in these four dimensions of antiquarianism: curiosity, imagination, reconstruction, melancholy. But what makes his work so powerful is that he never forgets the fifth dimension of the "philosophical" antiquary: time. On the last page of Castle, he shows us not the perfect, finished building whose story he has told over the previous seventy-seven pages, but the roofless hulk on its moonlit promontory—as he himself would have seen it before beginning the book. In this way he acknowledges the phantom quality of what he attempts—that his reconstruction is confined, in the end, to pen and ink and what it can evoke in the minds of men.

Macaulay has even made the unreality of his reconstructions the subject of an entire book, called Unbuilding (1980). Its ostensible theme—the somewhat preposterous tale of an oil sheik buying the Empire State Building and shipping it piece by piece to Saudi Arabia—allows him to walk us through mid twentieth-century skyscraper construction. But the idea of making the (once) tallest building on the planet disappear surely resonated with someone whose other projects involved calling the monumental back into existence.

Perhaps nowhere is this no-man's-land between reconstruction and imagination, curiosity and melancholy better drawn than in the loosely traced form of the Twin Towers that appears in the deep background of seven different depictions of the Empire State Building in Unbuilding. In Macaulay's vision, that hazy hatching of the distant and nearly disembodied World Trade Center seems already to foreshadow its violent dematerialization, as if already much less solid that the other buildings around it. (In the story, the "Saudi" oil baron in fact wins over skeptical New Yorkers by offering to pull down the Twin Towers, gratis.) Looking at Macaulay's drawings, one remembers that the World Trade Center was once young and bold, needing neither to be reconstructed nor imagined, the vexed subject neither of curiosity nor melancholy. But Ovid was right: tempus edax rerum—time destroys all. Macaulay may once have brazenly chosen "To the Past—Farewell" as the epigram for one of his books, but neither his work, nor that of the antiquaries who preceded him, nor the material remains of the past that they all study, can escape the gravitational pull of time, which is the one iron law of all things human.

Peter N. Miller is professor and chair of academic programs at the Bard Graduate Center and editor of Momigliano and Antiquarianism: Foundations of the Modern Cultural Sciences (University of Toronto Press). This article appeared in the January 30, 2008 issue of the magazine. 

By Peter N. Miller