Some Buildings Are Built to Last

Geek Culture

architecture, macaulay, castle, cathedral, mosquearchitecture, macaulay, castle, cathedral, mosque

Image: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

They really don’t build things like they used to. Huge sums of money held by kings, the church and other entities used to fund large, quality buildings that really stood — and still stand — the test of time. While the kinds of taxes and cheap or slave labor required for this kind of construction are (mostly) a thing of the past, it is still fascinating to see how these amazing structures were built.

From the always credible David Macaulay comes a new book, Built to Last. He took his classic books Castle and Cathedral, revamped them considerably, and grouped them with the somewhat newer book Mosque to reintroduce them all in this new book. Ever since I was a child, I have been a fan of Macaulay’s books such as Castle and Pyramid. I’m glad to see him working more on his architectural series.

Built to Last is a gorgeous book. The dust jacket’s paper is smooth with extra shiny bits for the title. The inside is just as beautiful. It is nice to see that the pictures are obviously drawn by hand, not on a computer. Since Mosque is much newer than the other books, the older two needed to be updated to give the book a cohesive look. This meant a total redo for the pictures, since the cross-hatching used in the black and white versions wouldn’t be needed any longer in a color version. The author also took this opportunity to update some of the text. So, in short, this isn’t just a bunch of old books tossed together with a new cover. The enhancements are beautifully done and cause the book to have both a familiar and a new feel. The addition of color really does make for a more enjoyable read.

After a very interesting and enlightening introduction, the book starts in with Castle, then Cathedral and then Mosque, with some useful back matter such as a glossary. In all three books, David Macaulay has woven the building of these amazing structures into a fictional but very realistic story for the time. Through each story you get to know why and how the buildings are built, and what the culture was like at the time.


Castle shows you how a castle was built in the context of a story of King Edward I of England’s time, during the 1200s. The story surrounds an English noble named Lord Kevin who built a castle and town in Wales. He wanted to build these to protect his new lands. Lord Kevin’s castle was then designed and built by people who knew how to do such things. As gorgeous as castles are, we are constantly reminded here that they are really built for defense. Castle shows you not only how and why castles were built, but what kinds of other industry and tradespeople were necessary in a town to sustain them.

The drawings show many steps of the building process. Telling how the castle is built in the context of a story set during an actual time based on actual events keeps your interest throughout. The book also talks about defensiveness of the castle. The town walls can protect the town somewhat, but they are nothing like the castle walls.

The book shows the inside of the castle and what life was like there, and how the parts of the castle functioned. The story goes on to show how the town grew up around it, housing people that helped sustain the castle, and later drawing people in who wanted to live near the town. Since an adjacent town is integral to a functioning castle, this newly formed society is also fascinating to learn about. Lord Kevin’s castle and the town are imaginary, but it all reads like a very good story.


Cathedral takes us on another imaginary journey of the building of a cathedral, also in the 1200s. Again, it is based in fact, and represents what this kind of construction project was like at that time. The story covers preparing the spot and laying the significant foundation all the way up to casting the bell. Even the construction of the stained glass windows is shown in detail. Because of the unusual architectural elements such as arches and large open spaces, the cathedral construction is even more impressive than the one for the castle in some respects.


Mosque takes us ahead in time to the 1500s, weaving the construction of a mosque and accompanying buildings into a final fictional tale, based on real work done in Istanbul, Turkey, during this point in history. All aspects of construction are covered including how stones are cut and fit together, how bricks are made and how a certain wall of the mosque must point toward Mecca. There are many different parts of a mosque and even more parts of the adjacent buildings. I probably learned the most from this part of the book, since I was least familiar with what goes into building and using a mosque.

I highly recommend Built to Last for anyone interested in history, culture, engineering and architecture. The cohesive stories keep the reader engaged throughout the long building process. These buildings were built to last, and reading along as they are built by hand gives you a new appreciation for the time and effort that were put into them. It is also pretty obvious that civil engineers were valued members of society at that time, though they were probably called something different.

The author does a great job capturing the look and feel of a time, showing workers at work. Drawings are not cluttered with detail; detail is saved for the most important portions of the images. This book, like his others, are meant to be read carefully, slowly, learning about the subject in full. It isn’t filled with lists of facts, but nonetheless it is full of them. When you’re done reading you will have a real sense of the topic. If you ever wonder, “How did they do that?” this book will show you.

The art in the book is gorgeous, the diagrams draw you in for close study and the stories are quite engaging. Thank you, David Macaulay, for continuing to create useful and beautiful works for so many years.

Built to Last comes out in late October and will retail for $24.99. In the meantime, check out Macaulay’s other books such as his other architectural books (including Pyramid, Mill, Ship, Underground, City, Unbuilding, etc.), The Way We Work, The New Way Things Work, Rome Antics, Building Big and many others.

Note: I received a copy of this book for review purposes.

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