Does a space is feel permanent, defined by the solidity architecture enclosing it? Do inhabitants experience spaces as fixed and unalterable? How far past human perception does the timescale of architectural change lie? Can anyone see their childhood home as a constantly shifting space? Their office? Their favorite cafe? Fixtures and furniture may change, but even that pushes against our understanding of change. If this notion of space being experientially unaltered seems nostalgic or blatantly false, that’s because it is. Right now we are living in an unprecedented era of architectural change that is a byproduct of a sweeping generational change. The proliferation of technology and a relentless focus on optimization and commodification has created a world too dynamic for tradition architecture to cope with.
For inanimate objects, buildings have a peculiar sense of life. Walls are membranes, or shells—perhaps they breathe. Structure becomes the bones and sinews. Rooms are liked to cells and hallways become arterials. Architects even talk about people circulating through spaces, like blood circulates through veins (Cairns and Jacobs 2014). Some architects even treat their buildings as if they have actual physical agency, with the likes of Steward Brand discussing their ability to “learn” and smart building proponent James Sinopoli describing buildings that “almost think for themselves” (Brand 1995) (Sinopoli, 8). Without a doubt, imbuing the metaphor of life into buildings is something critical to selling the experience of the architecture. Whether this is to involve a response to the general environment or the experience of the people within is irrelevant; the biological metaphor serves to explain the preferred perception of a building more than any type of performative dynamism.
Even in sicknesses and death, architects ascribe the processes of life—in many cases this applied anthropomorphism moves past the what we as humans experience and into the metaphysical. On the occasion that architects do describe the impending obsolescence of buildings it comes in the context of “sick building syndrome” or as a side effect of vandalism, or terrorism, where an architect might describe them as being “in pain” or “wounded” (Cairns and Jacobs 2014). Rather assume that a building’s demise is inevitable, however, architects tend to ameliorate the aforementioned language of death. Michael Guggenheim notes that Architects have a tendency to use language of surgery or healing in stances such as these. A Building in mortal distress can be “reanimated” or “reborn”; a renovation or addition—as described by Arthur Cotton Moore—is analogous to an organ transplant (Guggenheim 2011). Implicit in this language of architects is that no building is too far gone to preserve and renew. Even in the regrettable case of death, buildings of historical significance often receive the same treatment as an individual in their passing, receiving obituaries and quasi-biographies in the event of their passing (Harris 1999). Clearly architects are invested in the notion that architecture represents some form of life. Though famous buildings, like the American Folk Art Museum, receive their due lamentations (Kimmelman 2014), what of the rest of the not-nearly-remarkable-enough buildings subject to the wrecking ball? If architecture is a form of life, is the destruction of a building tantamount to murder (Cairns and Jacobs 2014)? For every remarkable building, there undoubtedly exist thousands, millions more, that see the wrecking ball with no lament whatsoever. What of them?
Though it may be witty and provocative to call such treatment of buildings architectural genocide, there are real consequences of designing buildings to be as temporary as possible. Developers are increasingly calling for ever more programmatically specific buildings. It is through this predetermination of function as a cost-cutting measure that architecture is becoming increasingly more specific. Though this specificity and stinginess, the average building is becoming more and more temporary; it is simply no longer economically possible for buildings to be built on a timeframe that lasts indefinitely—or at least an indeterminate amount of time. Rather, the vast majority of buildings built today are only economically justifiable on the order of decades (Maas, Hackauf and Haikola 2010). This notion of architecture embodying some form of unending life belies both how urban inhabitants experience virtually all buildings today, and the lifecycle implicit in how architects design and developers profit. Make no mistake, regardless of what we tell ourselves, architecture is driven—like all industries—by what people are willing to pay for. Naturally, everyone wants the best deal they can get.
What is strange and seemingly paradoxical about most buildings in which we live, is that these buildings fail to satisfy. We live in a strange era, where entities from corporations to individuals demand more freedom in the way we live. No longer does anything or anyone want to be tied down to something as petty and permanent as real estate. Ever more people rent, and ever more companies lease. Space is but a commodity, and permanence—at least any kind of permanence disassociated from history—is quickly becoming a liability (Marini 2011). A history, as part of the physical existence of a building, is not the liability, so much as the inability to adapt to changing needs is. (More on history, in a bit.) Our structures of legislation and the prevalent understanding of architecture is unable to keep up with the fleeting desires made possible through technology. The space enclosed within buildings has always been a commodity, but now social media is allowing inhabitants sell their guest bedrooms on a global market and to market their apartments as impromptu restaurants (Hill 2014). This dramatic shift in the flexibility and commodification of existing urban spaces dramatically changes the valuation of such space, to the detriment of current architectural practice patterns. Such a pattern implies a failure of construction regulation, a failure of development supply, and ultimately a failure of architects to assert a more valuable type of urban construction. The fate of a building is inextricably tied with its valuation, and its longevity is determined by economic—and to a lesser extent—social and cultural valuation. Today, the valuation of urban spaces is subject to a market outside of regulatory reaction, while the physical forms enclosing the spaces are. In spite of the economic and experiential realities, architecture’s self-description—of unending life—is repressing a reality that also includes the necessary conditions that lead to its demise (Cairns and Jacobs 2014).
To contrast with the ephemerality of contemporary construction, the history of a building is rapidly becoming more valuable as a means to enhance the value of an experience, yet the world is rapidly becoming populated with the opposite. Rem Koolhaas denotes the structure popping up in the wake of the aforementioned economic concerns as “junkspace.” It is a paradigmatic example of a non-architecture that proliferates in the cost vacuum created by economic impetus (Koolhaas 2002). This non-architecture constitutes everything from suburban homes to airport terminals; because each and every one of the buildingsis designed for a shortened lifespan, they cannot have meaningful impact on the greater urban fabric as a result of their ephemerality (Maas, Hackauf and Haikola 2010). Possessed by ever tighter values of value and redundancy, this paradigm of ephemeral architecture pushes the built environment towards decontextualization, entropy, and meaninglessness (Koolhaas 2002). This economic push against contextualization is a push against meaning: Even in the 1950s have we known that the rich legacy and history of an idiosyncratic architecture is something to cherish and not destroy in the name of market efficiencies (Jacobs 1961). There is an embodied, idiosyncratic nature to architecture that has stood the test of time, that the current ephemeral architecture fails to capture in its design to not last.
The final consideration of the current ephemerality of average architecture is the immense amount of physical waste created. Though architects tend to discuss their buildings in terms of longevity, the average building has an effective lifespan of mere decades, limited by its weakest link. Foundations may survive for a thousand years, while the roof structure may be replaced after a thousand months. The sanitary fittings in the bathroom could last a thousand weeks, the external paintwork a thousand days, and the lightbulbs a thousand hours. (Groák 1992) The commodification of space is not something limited to the experience—as described before—but something that defines the components of a building as well. Each component has a lifespan, and each component has value. When every component of a building is designed to last a minimum lifespan to compensate for rapidly shifting demand, the overall product has an inevitably mediocre material quality and is impossible to reuse. (Guldager and Sommer 2016). Part of the issue that compounds the issue of ephemeral architecture is the lack of value applied to the physical waste in the process of demolition. Naturally, market forces impose the raw value of extraction and processing upon any building material, but the resultant waste after the building is left valueless. If the goal is to produce a linear building whose materials’ assembly into a structure is but a transitory goal, then they have succeeded. A Building designed with a circular resource use pattern need not however be designed to use the absolute cheapest materials possible (Guldager and Sommer 2016). Should materials be seen as having a life of reuse beyond a singular structural artifact, then the architect can ascribe value to them that can extend beyond the physical life of the building artifact (Groák 1992).
Designing to eliminate waste is something that must be integrated from the beginning of the design process. If every material is to be recycled for a new structure, then the architect can ascribe value beyond the minimum required for a single structure. Rather than understand buildings as semi-permanent agglomerations of materials, infinitely recyclable fittings can cycle through their respective lifespans (Guldager and Sommer 2016). Can the materiality of a building then separate itself from the spaces it creates?
Buildings do not last long enough; this perpetual demolition wastes both material and the greater urban experience. A new architecture must respond to the need for space that transcends time, in spite of a form and material that cannot. What architecture must achieve is a building typology that retains greater meaning in its longevity, while still being adaptable. This new typology must die to be reborn, yet leave no wasted corpse. Is there room for a palimpsest within the brave new architecture in which we live?
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