New Worlds: The History We Live In

(This post is part of my Patreon-supported New Worlds series.)

This week’s post is brought to you by a patron request! The topic suggestion had to do with conveying historical complexity, which is itself complex enough that it can’t be answered in a single post. When I cast about for a specific angle to hit first, I landed on . . . architectural history, of all things. (I blame my research reading.)

How can buildings convey a sense of history, politics, and change over time?

Let’s start with ancient ruins. As any reader of the Memoirs of Lady Trent knows, I have a soft spot for these, and certainly they lend themselves well to fantasy or certain kinds of space-faring science fiction. Whether it’s Stonehenge in England or Karnak in Egypt or Chichén Itzá in Mexico, the remnants of ancient civilizations are a clear sign of time’s passage. Is the ethnic group that created them still around, or have they “vanished” through migration, conquest by an outside power, or simply changing so much they’re no longer meaningfully the same people? (Roman and Islamic influence radically altered Egypt, but contrary to the way it’s usually described, the Maya didn’t disappear; they’re just not living in those cities anymore.) Do the local people know what purpose the site originally served, or is it a mystery now, the subject of folkloric invention or scientific investigation?

And what state is the site in, anyway? Some kinds of architecture (stone) survive reasonably well even without maintenance; others (wood) will vanish pretty quickly, leaving behind only traces. The environment will affect this, of course, through erosion and moisture-based decay. But people affect it, too, by stealing away building materials for re-use at other sites. Why go cut new stone from a distant quarry when you could take already-dressed blocks from a nearby abandoned building? Ditto for fired bricks and even large timber beams. If you’ve ever seen an old ruin in Europe and wondered why it was built out of mortared rubble, you may be seeing the infill of the wall, left behind after the nice facing stones were removed. Which means you can wind up with fragments in the oddest places: I read an article some time ago about a Norse runestone found serving as the threshold of a farmhouse, and the Rosetta Stone was used as fill when a Mamluk sultan built the site known as Fort Julien or the Fort of Qaitbey. Decorations or inscriptions can signal that components of a structure have been moved from their original location.

This kind of repurposing can happen to whole buildings, too. These days the Hagia Sophia (Ayasofya) in Istanbul is a museum; before that it was a mosque; before that it was a Greek Orthodox basilica. The Pantheon in Rome once honored all the gods, as the name suggests, but in the seventh century it became a Western Christian church instead. Over in Japan, many Buddhist temple properties were once manor houses, donated by some pious aristocrat hoping to better their karma for their next life. And during the English Civil War, Parliamentary forces stabled their horses in the nave of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. Sometimes repurposing happens because the original use has been forgotten, but more often it occurs because that original use is no longer necessary or desired. It can even be a form of ideological warfare, the victor deliberately overwriting the loser’s history and habits with their own.

Speaking of victors, buildings can also be a way of commemorating history. Triumphal arches, columns, stelae, and so forth are a really blatant example of this: structures that often serve no practical purpose apart from putting a giant sign on the landscape saying THE DUDE WHO COMMISSIONED THIS WAS AWESOME. Memorials do the same thing, but in a less self-aggrandizing direction. Nothing says you can’t combine advertising with use, though, which is how you get temples, palaces, hospitals, and even smaller things like fountains that bear the name or statue of the wealthy person who arranged for their construction. (And if you don’t think a fountain is an important public service, you’ve never thought about the effort required to obtain water when it isn’t piped into your house.) A building may not be just a building; it can also be a reminder of historical figures or grand events, keeping the memory of those things alive in daily life.

Even on a more modest scale, architecture can communicate history, just through changes in fashion. When I was researching the Onyx Court series, architecture was an inescapable part of how London changed over time. I started with Tudor half-timbered buildings; then, after most of those burned down in the Great Fire of 1666, civil codes mandated the use of much less flammable brick; then the classical inspirations of Palladianism overran the place.

a triptych depicting a half-timbered house, a brick house, and a Palladian house

Can you tell the difference between these?


More recently I’ve been reading about the history of Japanese architecture, with shifts from the early shinden style to the later shoin style and then the influx of Western materials and methods after the Meiji Restoration. None of which is the kind of thing I’m likely to lecture the reader about in the story — but that doesn’t mean it won’t show up at the edges. A book on minkan (folk) architecture comments on how those buildings came to be seen as dark and lacking in privacy; similar complaints were directed at Tudor buildings. A passing line in a description can convey the sense that such things are old-fashioned by the time of the story. Meanwhile, newfangled styles might be admired as au courant or decried as silly fads.

And the driving forces behind those changes? Those convey history. Conquest from the outside, which brings the invader’s styles in, or conquest of the outside, which inspires a hunger for “exotic” innovations. Increased trade can bring new materials like marble or fine wood, while the loss of external trade during the Tokugawa period influenced Japanese architecture to be frugal in its use of resources. Country A admiring Country B often means that A begins aping the fashions of B, like the popular kid at school creating a trend for certain articles of clothing. You don’t need a historical lecture to imply these things happened; you just need a throwaway line about Lord Sycophant tearing down his unfashionable Old Dynasty manor to build something in the popular new Usurper style, or a nouveau riche merchant flaunting her wealth with cypress imported from the colonies. Your streetside flower-seller might ply her trade at the base of a column from imperial days, and have one-sided conversations with the conquered people carved into its exterior.

Take a look at the world around you. How many buildings commemorate the past in some way? How many retain traces of their previous purpose, through an overlayer of more recent adaptation? Unless you live in a brand-new development (which, to be fair, you may), there’s more of it than you might think.

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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


New Worlds: The History We Live In — 3 Comments

  1. And sometimes the designs of buildings change to look more like structures from bygone times (Washington D.C. borrowing elements from Classical Rome and Athens).

    Then again, sometimes when a design is borrowed, the borrowers build it differently (compare Ancient Egyptian pyramids, with Ancient Nubian pyramids).

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