Here is an interesting article in The Baffler, “The Archivists of Extinction,” by McMansion Hell blogger Kate Wagner. She focuses her microscope on folks who collect and post photos of old Kmarts, Toys ‘R’ Us’s, and the like, which are not just being put out to pasture now that they are going out of business, they are being demolished.
Good riddance, you might say. Perhaps. My own motto, in fact, is if you want to preserve a modernist building with a demo permit taped to its front door, buy a camera. Still, thousands of people are finding a harmless way to grieve soon-to-be-lost architecture that played an emotional role in their lives, and their archival instincts are worthy of considerable respect. But let’s not get carried away.
There’s much to disagree with in Wagner’s long essay – hint, hint: she likes modern architecture – but all of it is interesting, and even provocative. She begins by pointing out how short the lifespan has become of houses and buildings in our era.
It might shock you to learn that a 2001 U.S. Census report found that the average age of a residential building was a mere thirty-two years. In neighboring Canada, the average age of all non-residential buildings falls just short of eighteen years. Nor is this perpetual youth – a symptom in part of wear and tear, constant development, and demolition – restricted to everyday buildings; it’s true of capital-A architecture as well. Many Modernist buildings, even those designed by important architects, are considered obsolete after only two or three decades.
Wagner’s point is somewhat diffuse. She explores why some buildings are lost and others saved, and she points her finger at capitalism as the chief villain. Again, perhaps. But if you read her piece analytically, it seems to me that, with or without market forces, lovely old classical buildings are safer than modernist, mid-century modern and postmodern buildings. Buildings of the pre-modern age tend to last far more than just a generation or two.
I like the motto at the bottom of the emails sent to a classicists’ discussion board, the TradArch list. It says “Things are not good because they are old but are old because they are good.” Kate Wagner should think about that.
Perhaps the principle of Occam’s Razor – that the simplest explanation is the most likely explanation – applies here. Buildings that are beautiful are more likely to be loved and thus more likely to last. Their owners and users are more likely to pay for their repair and maintenance. Buildings that are ugly are more likely to be neglected, reach a state of decrepidity beyond repair, and bite the dust sooner. Most of the buildings whose demise is rued by Wagner are modernist. She notes that even a Frank Lloyd Wright building just received its comeuppance in Montana.
All of this should be kept in mind by those in Providence who attended Monday night’s public hearing on the proposed Fane Tower. I did, briefly, before being driven out by an inability to hear from the only seat I could find – in the balcony of the acoustically challenged Council Chambers. It is highly unlikely that the Fane tower, if built, will pour revenue into the city’s coffers beyond four decades. Very highly unlikely.