DAVID MACAULAY's splendidly drawn, well-researched and written books about cathedrals, castles, pyramids and cities have been among the major phenomena of recent children's literature. Satisfying the questioner in us who by the age of 7 wonders about process and structure -- how things work -- they have found an international audience among both child and adult readers. In our curiosity about such matters we apparently remain children for life. Macaulay himself, undaunted in his fascination with monuments, has in his latest book, Unbuilding, also extended his range as a storyteller, changing forever, by this rare implausible triumph of fact over fiction and fiction over fact, our view of a landmark known from childhood by nearly everyone, the Empire State Building.
An eccentric, petro-rich Arab prince, in Macaulay's telling, has bought the Empire State Building in order to dismantle it and re-erect it in the Arabian Desert. American protests have proved fainthearted and shortlived; as a goodwill gesture (that New Yorkers gratefully accept!) the determined prince has also promised to pull down the World Trade Center some day. . . .
As Macaulay chronicles the complex "unbuilding" of the venerable New York tower, detailing as he goes its structural plan and something of its history, he publishes perhaps the finest series of visually expansive, black-and-white perspective drawings, incisive renderings of the skyscraper and its celebrated "views."
Olympic shifts of vantage point from one drawing to the next convince one immediately not only of the Empire State Building's commanding physical scale but of the brazen theatricality, the imaginative dimension, that is the very essence of its legend. Macaluay's tale of the famed tower's demise seems a strangely truthful homage, a mischievous wink at a distinguished (and a bit-shopworn) symbol of protean change. Unbuilding is also of course a luscious spoof on changing world fortunes and a manic rehearsal of the universal urge to demolish one's favorite toy. If, as the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard observed in The Poetics of Space, "common sense lives on the ground floor," our fantasies perch elsewhere, among such tall tales and adventurous precincts.
Macaulay's prince would doubtless have been proud to own the 16 monumental artifacts depicted by Guy Billout in Stone & Steel Pittsburgh's Cathedral of Learning, India's Towers of Silence, the Hoover Dam, and others are each twice-seen on large, facing pages: in diagrammatic outline with a scattering of factual text and in accurately rendered, full-color, poster-like paintings. Billout's colors are individual, evocative rather than true-to-nature, suavely "arty": reality seen through a special lens. As in fairy tales, the real and magical worlds seamlessly blend in the paintings, as when a sea serpent matter-of-factly pokes its head out of the waters off Boston Bay, taking the measure of the Minots Ledge Lighthouse, which Billout, keeping a straight face, reports "took 5 years to build . . . was completed in 1860 . . . is build of 1,079 stones." Readers anxious for "the facts" will find their curiosities whetted if perhaps not satisfied; daydreamers will be well in their element.
On Site: The Construction of a High-Rise, by Richard Younker, is, by contrast, a methodical, documentary account of stages involved in "flying" the average modern-day tall building. The author has interviewed construction tradesmen about their experiences, asking how, for instance, it feels to work precariously balanced on an open platform high above ground. Younker's affectionate regard for the workers is clear both in his photographs of them and in recorded snatches of their comments. Though his admiration for worker craftsmanship, camaraderie, physical stamina and professional pride is overearnest and romanticized, the author saves his tale from becoming a mere object lesson in constructive behavior by concentrating mainly on the intricate building process itself that most of us, living and working in the end products of such labor, take for granted.
Younker's photographs document stages of a building's coming-into-being that readers would not ordinarily have the opportunity to witness. But Peter Schaaf's photos in An Apartment House Close Up register utterly familiar household details -- hallways, doors, a stove, a tub -- as well as such more out-of-the-way functional gear as a rooftop watertower and an elevator motor. "A house," Gaston Bachel said, "is the human being's first world," and children closely scan the surface of that world in all its particulars. Schaaf in his photo "close-ups" has adopted a similar habit of seeing. He has also paired and captioned the photographs to suggest how an apartment building is equipped to meet inhabitants' needs: photos of a boiler and a radiator illustrate "Heat"; "Rooms" are represented by a living-room interior and a flat expanse of building facade behind each window of which, one imagines, some such room unfolds. Schaaf's intensely simple, understated format leaves it to readers to discover all the connecting links -- mechanical, conceptual, metaphoric -- implied in the interplay of pictures and words. Schaaf, like many a good host, has entrusted readers with their own set of keys.