Palimpsest Manifesto


How We Think About Buildings

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 bestselling 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?

The State of The Industry

Though architecture has the tendency to aspire higher, it is at the end of the day a business providing a service. The business of the construction industry has itself changed dramatically. Buildings themselves are designed to different, more stringent criteria. In turn, the way architects design has changed as well. We romanticize the notion that architecture deals with form, space and materiality, but in the business of architecture, these concerns come second to those of program. The truth is that architects are not the ones designing projects; real estate is ever more of an investment business. Developers and public relations consultants are the ones defining the ultimate characteristics of the vast majority of buildings today. Decisions come, not from a holistic perspective, but according to investment opportunity, political advancement and market projections (Lyster, 2016). More than anything, we as architects give form to the visions of others.

The relentless focus upon buildings as an investment not only characterizes the way architects design, it has transformed the way that we experience buildings to this day. Obsolescence has come to be a fixture of present day architecture as ever more specific programs conspire with the intent to create something as materially inexpensive as possible (Cairns & Jacobs, 2014). In the United States, the average lifespan of US housing stock is 35 years (Miller, 2014). The median age of commercial structures nationwide, as of the latest US Energy Information Administration survey, is 32 years (US Energy Information Administration, 2015). You or I are likely to outlast any given building by a factor of two-and-a-half. 

In a shockingly perverted way, this is a fantastic realization of the flexibility that has eluded the much more literal applications thereof proposed in the last fifty years. Architect after architect has seen a need for adaptability and flexibility in the built environment, for decades. Piles of conceptually analogous realizations exist that allow for enhanced adaptability: space frames (Yona Friedman and Konrad Wachsmann), kits of parts (Sears to the Eamses), clip-ons (Reyner Banham), capsules (Warren Chalk and Kisho Kurokawa), plug-ins (Peter Cook), robotic units (Archigram), serviceable surfaces (Superstudio) and intelligent machines (Nicolas Negroponte) (Lyster, 2016). 

It’s quite clear that modularity was never the economic answer. Projects that describe themselves as formally rearranging modules as a means to achieve enhanced performance over time have never caught on. The architects that did will their impotent visions of adaptability into existence have the embarrassing legacy of curating a failed vision under their belt. Take, for instance the Nagakin Capsule tower. Conceived by Kisho Kurokawa, this structure is a classic example of how architects envision spatial flexibility. Two “timeless” internal circulation cores support an arrangement of 140 prefabricated concrete capsules. In theory, these capsules were to have been switched out as they became too worn, or too out of step with living relationships. They haven’t. Rather, the inhabitants live in increasing squalor and the tower’s demise seems more imminent every year (Cairns & Jacobs, 2014). It would seem that Kurokawa’s logic of replacement was not flexible enough.

Architects that do attempt address change over time and programmatic adaptability tend to abstain from even implementing systems anymore. Through his Chilean public housing projects, esteemed Pritzker Prize winner Alejando Aravena implicitly acknowledges the inability of architects to develop a cost-effective solution for customizability. In the official descriptions of the projects, he describes it as a way to reduce the cost-per unit to the government, while allowing residents to make the most of their space (Aravena, 2011). The customization does not involve a system conceived by the architect at all.

Rather than attempt to force contrived visions for adaptability, the market has created a version for itself. Rather than assume rely on widespread acceptance of relentlessly complex framework/module interactions, the market has found practical value in the continuous development and destruction of the built environment—the realization of a wholly flexible architecture across a longer scale of time.

The Issue At Hand

Though we cannot dispute that the current system of architecture quite practically serves the market needs of the built environment, the cost of the constant construction and destruction does have a cost. This new generation of buildings represent material graveyards by the end of their life. We do not consider how to take buildings apart, and we do not to put value to all of the resources that are lost when doing so (Guldager & Sommer, 2016). We are, however, able to calculate and categorize every component of a building thanks to advances in modelling software in architecture. In the scope of the immense amount of physical waste created. As architects we must design with an understanding and acceptance of market forces. We must design with the knowledge that 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)

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 (Maas, Hackauf, & Haikola, 2010). 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). 

As architects, we put so invest precision and effort into the construction of buildings, but can we not do the same for the material waste at the end of life?

What happens when we design for the valuation of the full lifecycle of materials? Can we design around the lifecycling of individual components? How do we design for decay over time?

In designing the new system for how one can approach the project, how can we perhaps mitigate the rampant and alienating corporatism implicit in the system?

How can we engage architects and the public on the subject of waste at end of life? Can we help everyone model the future of the built environment across time?


Aravena, A. (2011). Alejandro Aravena: The Forces in Architecture. Tokyo: TOTO Publishing.

A fantastic collection of projects and thoughts that describes the economic and social impetus behind a series of projects. Particularly relevant are the descriptions of his social housing projects and the impetus to allow inhabitants to create their own economic value.

Brand, S. (1995). How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built. London: Penguin.

Cairns, S., & Jacobs, J. (2014). Buildings Must Die: A Perverse View of Architecture. Boston: MIT Press.

This book describes a model for which we can understand the current state of architecture. Modern buildings are facing a wide veriety of different forces conspiring to make them more temporary, more wasteful, and less experientially meaningful.

Groák, S. (1992). The Idea of a Building: Thought and Action in the Design and Production of Buildings. London: E. & F. N. Spon.

This source illustratively describes the commodification of different building components, as a function of the rampant commodification within architecture.

Guggenheim, M. (2011). Formless Discourse: The Impossible Knowledge of Change of Use. Candide: Journal for Architectural Knowledge, 9-36.

Guggenheim describes the issues facing architecture and predicting the future. Addressing the future of architecture involves, according to him, understanding that the way we speak about architecture can inform its perception in practice.

Guldager, K., & Sommer, J. (2016). Building a Circular Future. København: GXN Innovation.

This book provides fantastic insight from a Danish team dedicated to reducing waste from construction. This book creates a template for architects to design buildings from the beginning with as little waste as possible. The authors embrace the quantized nature of the world we live in and the planned obsolescence of building materials to create a rigorous vision for the future that embraces the ephemeral nature of current construction. What this book lacks is a philosophical vision for the ephemerality of space beyond the fact that it is sustainable; what does it mean when all space is acknowledged as temporary?

Harris, N. (1999). Building Lives; Constructing Rights and Passages. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Hill, D. (2014). The Commodification of Everything: On Restaurant Day and Airbnb. In SpaceCaviar, SQM: The Quantified Home (pp. 216-223). Zurich: Lars Müller Publishers.

A new mentality is driving a new perception of space. An spare room is no longer more space, but an opportunity to make money. Airbnb transforms this unoccupied space from happenstance into a commodity advertised on a global market.On a similar level, through similar online means, Helsinki stages Ravintolapäivä—Finnish for “restaurant festival”—where Finns colonize underutilized urban spaces and serve street food. This grassroots festival circumvents stringent food hygiene regulations and urban zoning. This bottom-up temporary rezoning has proved incredibly popular with Helsinki residents, and shows a major gap in thinking between city leadership and the needs of citizens. The requirements imposed upon capital-A Architecture seem lumbering and bureaucratic in the face of the shifting whims of urbanites.

Jacobs, J. (1961). The Death and Life of Great Amercian Cities. New York: Random House.

This book is the classic argument for describing the value of the richness and authenticity of urban space and architecture.

Kimmelman, M. (2014, January 13). The Museum With a Bulldozer’s Heart: MoMA’s Plan to Demolish Folk Art Museum Lacks Vision. Retrieved September 15, 2016, from The New York Times:

This New York Times article addresses the reactions of people when the cycle of demolition and destruction affects a building with more urban presence than average.

Koolhaas, R. (2002). Junkspace. Guide to Shopping, Harvard Design Project on the City, 408-421.

This article describes the roliferation of nonessetial, acultural spaces devleoped in an era of heightened corporatism and neoliberalism.

Lyster, C. (2016). Learning From Logistics: How Networks Change Our Cities. Basel : Birkhäuser.

This book describes a new method of thinking about architecture in the new economy. The building itself is subsidiary to greater industrial and logistical economic concerns. Logistical systems are changing the notion of place and space and scale, and architecture must rect differently to this global shift in understanding.

Maas, W., Hackauf, U., & Haikola, P. (2010). Green Dream. Rotterdam: NAi Publishers.

Green Dream describes the issues facing green and sustainable design in both broad strokes and minute detail. Rather than beat around the bush and repeat platitudes, the authors deconstruct tropes of green design. By cutting through the bullshit of greenwashing and criticizing the over-reliance on performance and symbolism, this book manages to capture the essence of what architects today need to focus on.

Marini, S. (2011). Placements: Architectures of a Neo-Neorealism. In A. Bertagna, & S. Marini, The Landscape of Waste (p. 24). Milano: Skira Editore S.p.A.

This article rather poetically describes the spatial waste created by constant destruction. I’m sure this understanding will be valuable for the future of my thesis.

Miller, J. (2014, February 2). The Age of Housing Stock by State. Retrieved from NAHB Eye on Housing:

This source describes the average age of single-family-owned residential architecture as being approximately 35 years old.

Sinopoli, J. (2010). Smart Building Systems for Architects, Owners and Builders. Burlington: Elsevier.

This source describes a technology-enabled vision for adaptable architecture. I used this as a means to discredit traditional adaptability and modularity.

US Energy Information Administration. (2015, March 4). A Look at the U.S. Commercial Building Stock: Results from EIA’s 2012 Commercial Buildings Energy Consumption Survey (CBECS). Retrieved from US Energy Information Administration:

This source describes the average age of commercial buildings as being 32 years. Though the article is dated 2015 and is the most up-to-date availible, the information is from 2012. They have disclaimer on the site describing the reason for the informational delay.