Buildings that go extinct

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Image from atop McMansion Hell’s defense of modern architecture. (mcmansionhell.com)

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.

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Kmart Kboom? (twice.com)

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.

About David Brussat

For a living, I edit the writing of some of the nation's leading architects, urbanists and design theorists. This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. My freelance writing and editing on that topic and others addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, and a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to invest your prose with even more style and clarity, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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2 Responses to Buildings that go extinct

    • Congratulations on your very interesting blog, Rashid. I just visited, read a bit here and there, and was impressed. Thank you very much for reposting my post on your blog. Good luck to you!

      Like

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