The village pub lies on a quiet road, a long way from anywhere else.  You might expect it to be busy on a Sunday lunchtime, but today there’s only one patron.

Outside, the air is sharp and the trees are turning – but Mr Wolf sits in the lounge bar of the Admiral Rodney, his nostrils full of the smell of defeat and disappointment.  Things aren’t going well.  He’s preoccupied by the troubled project he’s working on, his girlfriend’s complicated life, and the fact that another year has passed swiftly by.

Having cleared a plate of scampi and chips, he returns to a book - Escape from Evil - written by Ernest Becker.  Becker was a cultural anthropologist who spent the latter part of his career examining man's fear of death, and his struggle to overcome it through heroism and symbolism.  He believed that our culture is fundamentally contrived: "Each society is a hero system which promises victory over evil and death."

And so we engage in Immortality Projects.

In Becker’s world, the creation of a building is a struggle of will, the individual’s triumph over all the other architects.  Its continuing existence is a reminder that you persist, and its demolition is the abnegation of self, and proof of mortality.  The book is doing nothing to cheer Mr Wolf up, but it has provoked him to think.

Becker’s thesis is one reason why the “Rubble Club” is so poignant, and why an architect who Mr Wolf used to work with bitterly regretted the disappearance of one of the first things he designed, a shopfront in a seaside town.  The shop sold shoes, and in the 1970’s its frontage was remodelled to resemble a giant glass shoe. 

Had Scotland been Northern Italy, the shoe-fronted shop would have been called architecture parlante.  If the shop had been in Nevada, Robert Venturi would have circled it making quacking noises … but when the premises were refurbished in the 2000’s, the shoe was replaced by a big sheet of Armourplate and the shop began selling sandwiches. 

“This shouldn’t happen; it makes you realise that you’re getting old,” the architect complained, although he really meant “mortal”.  Not even the combined efforts of DIY SOS, John Harvey-Jones and The A-Team could disprove the fact that buildings are just buildings, dispensable, and we’re only mortal.

Perhaps the driver of architecture isn’t the egotism of a designer who believes they have more insight, talent or genius than others do.  Nor is it the avarice of a speculator who wants to make money from it, nor even an expression of the client’s taste.  Perhaps the pursuit of architecture really is an Immortality Project.

Some leave behind statues, books or belief systems - but buildings are concrete proof of what we achieved.  Perhaps writing about them through the filter of anthropology tells us something about folk whose practices have failed, been taken over by corporates, or gave up their identities in mergers.  It helps to explain why they fought so hard for what they’ve lost. 

The work they created was more than a creative outlet or a business – it was their legacy.  Beyond that, Becker goes on to explain why some people drive a larger Saab, Audi or Alfa Romeo than their colleagues.

"The ideology of modern commercialism has unleashed a life of invidious comparison unprecedented in history ... modern man cannot endure economic equality because he has no faith in self-transcendent, otherworldly immortality symbols; visible physical worth is the only thing he has to give him eternal life.  No wonder that people segregate themselves with such consuming dedication, that specialness is so much a fight to the death ... He dies when his little symbols of specialness die."

Humans, Becker writes, will always have “a need for a ‘beyond’ on which to base the meaning of their lives.”  His conclusion is that people live to ensure they have a legacy, and this is why we work so hard to prove ourselves our whole lives.  In the process of doing that — especially if we're power hungry or in desperate situations — we do things which make other peoples’ lot immeasurably worse.

Becker suggests that we are not evil because we have an instinct to be, but because we're the only animal on this planet which knows it's going to die.  "But evil is not banal as Arendt claimed: evil rests on the passionate person motive to perpetuate oneself, and for each individual this is literally a life-and-death matter for which any sacrifice is not too great..."

Albert Speer’s work in the 1930’s and 40’s during the so-called Thousand Year Reich is an extreme example of an Immortality Project, and arguably the methods used in pursuit of the aim lie at the crux of Becker’s book.  Immortality Projects throw us right back to Thomas Hobbes - the battle of every man against every man.  Life can be nasty, brutal and short and sometimes architecture does nothing to mediate that. 

How can this be overcome, when society has progressed more slowly and modestly than advocated by Rousseau and Marx?   Becker didn’t have an easy answer, but sometimes we need to get our heads up, release ourselves from the grip of immortality and absorb ourselves in the now. 

With that weight lifted from his shoulders, Mr Wolf closed the book and wandered out into the wan autumnal sunshine.

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