:: Article

Buildings Must Die

By Richard Marshall.

Buildings Must Die. A Perverse View of Architecture, Stephen Cairns and Jane M. Jacobs, MIT 2014.

Elizabeth Grosz writes that ‘ Architecture is never fully living, and is always passing out of existence; as it makes , so what it makes is inevitably unmade.’ Zizek writes: ‘ The feeling for the inert has a special significance in our age, in which the obverse of the capitalist drive to produce ever more new objects is a growing mountain of useless waste, used cars, out-of-date computers, etc, like the famous resting place for an old aircraft in the Mojave desert. In these piles of stuff, one can perceive the capitalist drive at rest.’ Georges Bataille wrote: Death is that putrefaction, that stench … which is at once the source and the repulsive condition of life…’ Nietzsche wrote: ‘Whoever must be a creator always annihilates.’ Woody Allen says, ‘ I am not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.’ In the chapter ‘The Feeling for the Inert’ the writers ask what the relationship is between architecture and processes of wasting . This is the ‘perversity’ of the title.

Cains and Jacobs ask for greater receptiveness to wasting so that future architecture accounts for it. They see the destruction and death of buildings as archtecture’s ‘shadow story.’ They present a momento mori. The book wants us to live better with the inevitable decay of buildings. In the visual arts the momeno mori is a key familiar and the book is guided by ideas begun there. On Nicolas Pussin’s painting ‘Et in Arcadia Ego’ Panofsy writes; ‘.. it is as though the youthful people, all silent, were listening to or pondering over this imaginary message to a fellow being: ‘I too lived in Arcadia, where you now live; I too enjoyed the pleasures which you now enjoy; and yet I am dead and buried.’ In this Panovsky claims that Poussin creates a new idea, one where ‘… we instantly perceive a strange ambiguous feeling which suggests both a mournful anticipation of man’s inevitable destiny and an intense consciousness of the sweetness of life.’ In this death preserves as well as destroys, it extend the limits of individuality so that we get a ‘cosmic fact’: ‘From this emerges the magnificent conception of cyclical progression which subordinates the existence of individuals to the inexorable laws of cosmic principles, both natural and moral, endowing every stage of this existence, however transitory, with a substantial value of its own.’ Hans Holbein’s ‘Two Ambassadors’ does the same. Lacan compared it to Dali and Arcimboldo’s portraits. Holbein’s use of the anamorphic skull is not in another space but for Lacan is ‘imminent in the geometrical dimension’. It refuses to release what geometry would readily throw away. Derrida asked that architecture bring back ‘the experience of its own ruin’, saying that architecture ‘ … carries within itself the traces of its future destruction, the already past future, future perfect, of its ruin…it is haunted, indeed signed, by the spectral silhouette of this ruin, at work even in the pedestal of its stone, in its metal or its glass.’ The book is about such hauntings. It’s in the tradition of waste studies which includes Banister Fletcher’s 1872 ‘Dilapidations’, and Kevin Lynch’s more recent ‘Wasting Away’. Key words are ‘decay’, ‘obsolescence’, ‘disaster,’ ‘ruin’ and ‘demolition.’

The view that buildings are inorganic and inanimate is fused with the contrary idea that they function like organisms. Le Corbusier talked of buildings having ‘spirit.’ Also Rossi and Charles Moore of buildings holding ‘memory.’ Stewart Brand assigned them agency, the architecture’s ability to ‘learn’. James Sinopoli talks about smart buildings. Jean Nouvelle’s ‘Arab World Institute’ is called an ‘intelligent building.’ Vitruvius likened buildings to human figures. Anthropomorphism in architecture has a long tradition. It complements the same Vitruvius’s biomorphism, which compares human buildings with biomorphic structures such as birds’ nests. Wilhem Worringer called European Gothic ‘super-organic’ where organic form gave way to forms ‘unconcerned with organic life’. These metaphors encourage the discussions around the life of buildings. Yet buildings are rarely discussed in terms of their death. Where death is repressed in modern culture the silence is amplified in architectural discourse. This creates a fantasy of constant creativity and durability. This developed via an integration of the intellectual and the manual during the Renaissance followed by a rational formalisation during the Enlightenment of distinct branches of the arts whereby Kant invested architecture with utilitarian ‘adherent beauty’. Such beauty didn’t have the prestige of the fine arts. Architecture, aware that it lacked prestige, clung to the Renaissance ideal of creativity in art and ‘disegno’. In modernity it became hooked to instrumentalism.

To raise its status architecture has moved to adhere to a different kind of creativity. It added to the idea of creativity as design the drawing concept of creativity as ‘poiesis’. This introduced to the idea of architectural creativity a sense of ‘bringing into being something that did not previously exist… a creative step that transforms the open field of creative possibilities into a representation articulated by gesture, word, image, or concept’, as Vesely puts it. Another strategy has been to link it with neurology. The ‘joining of the information received by one sense to a perception in another is the essence of the architectural thinking’ according to Marco Frascari. Design drawings for him are ‘synthesthetic images’ mixing ‘factual lines and non-factual demonstrations.’ Bruno Latour has noted that the scope and extension of architecture has extended enormously in the modern period. ‘Design’ now applies to ‘… details of daily objects to cities, landscapes, nations, cultures, bodies, genes and… nature itself.’ Architecture has become increasingly complex. Technological complexity however has also been faced with a different focus, that of vernacular architecture and its hymns to found and ugly architecture. This takes creativity in a different direction. Architectural creativity is linked thus to organic birth -natalism. In this architecture binds creation to creativity. But this natalism is what prevents rumination on death, the end, wasting and deterioration. The focus on continual birth fantasises away death.

The metaphors of natalism include the familiar Renaissance comparison of a building with a body. Bodies die. The metaphors held the potential for acknowledging death. This is clear when we consider Vitruvius. He saw Corinthian order as a result of procreation of the earlier Doric and Ionic forms. Death settles into the heart of the story. ‘A freeborn maiden of Corinth, just of marriageable age, was attacked by an illness and passed away. After her burial, her nurse, collecting a few little things which used to give the girl pleasure while she was alive, put them in a basket., carried it to the tomb, and laid it on top thereof, covering it with a roof-tile so that the things might last longer in the open air. The basket happened to be placed above the acanthus root …[and]… when springtime came round put forth leaves and stalks in the middle, and the stalks, growing up along with sides of the basket, and pressed out by the corners of the tile through the compulsion of its weight, were forced to bend into volutes at the outer edges.

Just then Callimachus…passed by this tomb …Delighted with the novel style and form, he built up some columns after the pattern for the Corinthians, determined their symmetrical proportions, and established from that time forth the rules to be followed in finished works of the Corinthian order.’ In another version the basket ‘… is turned into a basket-sarcophagus for the girl herself.’ In this version by Francesco di Giorgi the order was not of a live girl but of her corpse. In this adaptation lies a reference to the ‘Egyptian death rite where reed-and-earth columns were placed beside the mummified body. Instead of a memorial to a life, it becomes something making ‘… an architectural permanence of death’, picking up the proverb: ‘Man is afraid of time, but time is afraid of the Pyramids.’ Alphonso Lingis writes: ‘… life consigns itself to be interred and monumentalised, held in reserve in the constructions of inertia.’ Bataille writes: ‘ man would seem to represent merely an intermediary stage within the morphological development between monkey and building.’

This theme picks up architecture’s link with sacrifice. George Hersey saw sacrifice as the lost meaning of architecture where architectural ornament is redefined away from any urge to beauty. Hegel noted that, ‘ Architecture is something appearing in the place of death, to point out its presence and to cover it up; the victory of death and the victory over death.’ All this speaks against architects natalist fantasies of permanence. The repression of ‘devaluation, decomposition, and destruction’ has not been total. The materiality of buildings contain known and acknowledged fates to ruination.

The technology of book-making killed a cathedrals’ ability to be the primary storyteller of mankind. Frollo’s phrase in ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’: ‘This will kill that’ is about the death of sacred architecture’s ability to be the dominant narrator of human fates. Although Notre-Dame remains on its site its collective sacred messages in stone have been destroyed by a new technology. Hugo’s ‘this will kill that’ means ‘sculptures are replaced by stonecutters, decorators… by mere glaziers, and artists… by workmen.’ Elizabeth Eisenstein argues ‘ … that the printing press was an agent of change , but could not be the agent of agent.’ Lewis Mumford disagrees and takes Hugo literally. He laments the turn to formulaic classicism. Hugo thought bookish style expertise replaced organic and socially connected traditional architecture that related the craftsman to the vernacular style: ‘… the master mason who knew his stone and his workmen and his tools and the tradition of his art gave way to the architect who knew his Palladio and his Vignola and his Vitruvius.’ Marshall McLuhan saw the printing press as the beginning of an ongoing revolution in communication technology and media. For him the globe becomes a village. He predicted it would also become like a ‘Manhattan disco’ and this in turn would kill the book. That prophecy is still being tested and is familiar in contemporary debates about the fate of bookss in the face of new digital technology. The architect/book dyad is a mortal battle that is less familiar. Umberto Eco is more pluralistic and more realistic. He enthusiases about the non-linearity of the hyper text but also relishes the co-presence of architecture, books and the web. Literacy becomes more fluid in this reading, moves across different media. Literacy extends its reach. Rumours of its death are exaggerated. But within architecture questions are raised about how to move from the fantasy of the natalist creativity of creation to something that recognises that buildings die.

For Alan Berger’s ‘Drosscape’ Berger flew over cities of north America and photographed ‘disturbing landscape conditions.’ He produced an audit of urban sprawl and saw it as part of life’s ‘waste-making tendencies.’ He writes: ‘ It may be vacant strips alongside roadways, seas of parking lots, unused land, warehouse districts, a seemingly endless stretch of setback and perimeters… Seen at the local scale, e.g. driving or walking through… the landscape of the horizontal city may appear diminished and wasteful.’ But from another perspective a waste landscape can become an indicator of healthy growth. Such space is liminal, awaiting classification feeding ‘a social desire to inscribe it with value and status.’ Liminality is a type of death for Victor Turner. Berger’s Drosscape then becomes an opportunity for the reinvigoration of urban space. Out of this impetus there’s endorsements for the idea that ‘… designers work in the margins rather than the centre.’ This runs with Lars Lerup’s working on Massimo Cacciari’s ‘metropolitan negative.’ Lerup writes of: ‘… the ignored, undervalued, unfortunate economic residues of the metropolitan machine.’ Cities become understood as being full of ‘… holes: fissures, vacated spaces, and untouched land. In these abandoned or yet-to-be –used lands, nature wins out against economy.’ Motion and temporality are being ‘… constantly carved out of in front of one and abandoned behind.’ From this new perspective architecture is asked to work across the boundary between used and unused land.

Antoine Picon creates via the twin figures of rust and ruin. He contrasts Le Corbusier’s crystal magic of Manhattan skyscrapers with a darker, stranger landscape: ‘…cranes, immense bridges spanning platforms lined with containers, refineries and factories between which are creeping swamps, everything in poor condition and rusted out, as though irreparably polluted… where abandoned warehouses and rusty carcasses replace Poussinesque ruin.’ This becomes the fodder of dreams. It reminds us of Ballard who contemplated polluted lakes, sea and landscapes as things of perverse beauty. And within this comes a limitless anxiety, and ‘… the impression of imprisonment and the feeling of death.’ In this comes a face-off between the shopping centre and the garbage dump. ‘We have gone from ruin to rust, from trace to waste.’ Landscapes arrive without a destination in mind. We fear rust because it confines man to the middle of his productions like a prison unlike art which enables the Parthenon to sing eternally. Waste becomes texture and is reclaimed for architectural creativity.

Keller Easterling offers subtraction as the key to reading terminal architecture. Buildings come down. In this destruction and fall are created abstract forms and room for speculative meditation. This is where poets find silence. Demolition, wilful damage, natural disaster and decay function for them as an ‘an operative practice.’ Architectural subtraction asks for patient and nuanced cohabitation with the conditions of wasting. These subtractive forces press a new intensity. Cedric Price liked building deaths. Price is the architect of ‘planned obsolescence’. For him good architecture included a ‘time factor.’ He worked against ‘slow architecture.’ He built ‘anti-buildings’, which he conceived as flexible systems of ‘auto-destruction.’ He was furious when his aviary at London Zoo was listed by English Heritage and couldn’t be destroyed. His membership of the ‘Federation of Demolition Contractors’ is not ironic.

Maintenance and repair give buildings multitudinous, ongoing and incremental endings. Groak thinks it a mistake to conceive buildings as unchanging. Rather they ‘change, in terms of moving images and ideas of flux.’ The expenditure of energy is central, says Aldo Rossi. Death is the continuation of energy. Bernard Tschumi said: ‘architecture cannot be dissociated from the events that happen to it.’ ‘Event … is “an incident, an occurance… events can encompass particular uses, singular functions or isolated activities. They include moments of passion, acts of love and the instant of death…’ ‘To really appreciate architecture you may even need to commit murder.’ Kevin Lynch suggests architectural plans should include disposal planning.

The ‘Junkspace’ of Rem Koolhaas commercialises the residue, is ‘… what coagulates while modernisation is in progress.’ Airports are junkspace – components dictated by air-conditioning and circulation technologies that are ‘ugly’, ‘unstable’, ‘inscrutable’, and have ‘fundamental incoherence.’ ‘These are the spaces that are forever being expanded, refurbished, and upgraded. They give rise to exit routes that are too narrow, passages that go nowhere, circulation systems that do not flow, spatial orderings that either discard or, worse still, mimic hierarchy and composition, aesthetic schemes that are irrational brands (‘High Tec, Taiwanese Gothic, Nigerian Sixties, Norwegian Chalet’)’. Junkspace goes against order, against composition, against distinction, against hierarchy and against pattern. Junkspace is both aberration and essence. It offers entropy. Architecture becomes ‘a time-lapse sequence,’ ‘spawning stillbirths.’ It is no longer a subtle whisper, a momento mori but a brash reminder. It perverts natalism and its midwifery.
Hegel writes: ‘ The life of Spirit is not the life that shrinks from death and keeps itself untouched by devastation , but rather the life that endures it and maintains itself in it. It wins its truth only when, in utter dismemberment, it finds itself. This tarrying with the negative is the magical power that converts it into being.’ This book asks how ‘… an ethic that recognises its inevitable horizon of deterioration and earth’ can be forged beyond just the coining of new metaphors? They ask us to first look at a building’s utility value and what happens when waste deterioration and death are factored in. Barbara Herrnstein Smith’s ‘double discourse of value’ attempts this by placing a sanctified and aestheticized value up against utility and price. Garbage philosopher John Scanlon historicises this and argues that the Enlightenment as a whole was ‘against waste.’ This links to Walter Benjamin ‘s Angel of History where progress leaves trails of terrible destruction in its wake. For Scanlon the Enlightenment project was about removing the rubbish that prevented knowledge. Descartes embodies this with his process of hygienic scepticism leading to certainty. This and other projects of the Enlightenment become characterised as being about ‘the cosmetics of order.’ Foucault writes: ‘a fear haunted the latter half of the eighteenth centry: the fear of darkened spaces, of the pall of gloom which prevents the full visibility of things, men and truths.’

Architecture became part of this. It expresses the appropriation of wastelands and turned ‘waste into land, economically speaking’, as Veblen put it. Bauman writes of the medicalisation of death in the 19th century. In Capitalism death is separated from life, according to Baudrillard. Time is absorbed into value and by so doing death is denied. Capitalism is a process of ‘perpetual perishing’, the ‘creative destruction’ of Schumpeter’s technologies that ‘ revolutionises the economic structure from within, incessantly destroying the old one, incessantly creating the new one.’ Steven Groak claims buildings never die because of a process of constant renewal. But Thomson shows it’s not quite that simple. They do die. Yet because of Groak’s processes life-spans are determined by things other than intrinsic qualities of the architecture. Devaluation and revaluation of north London housing a case of point and is the point of gentrification generally. What arbitrates architectural death is not the architecture but fashion and taste.

David Harvey writes about an economy of dilapidation. He sees value in ‘perpetual perishing.’ Bataille sought a ‘science of filth’ as a protest against Capitalism. He sought to bring death back into time. He challenged the natalist, anthropomorphic and utilitarian fantasies of architects and Enlightenment. In ‘Accursed Share’ he writes: ‘I am one of those who destine men to things other than the incessant growth of production.’ He is the artist/philosopher of anti-utility. He required a perverse re-evaluation so that value was in the ‘… sacred horror’ of loss, sacrifice, expenditure, waste, death.’ He wrote: ‘We cannot ignore or forget that the ground we live on is little other than a field of multiple destructions.’ Death becomes in this perverse moment a symbolic ultimate luxury. Gothic style has synergies with Bataille’s notion of expenditure. Ruskin wrote famously of this in terms of; ‘… a magnificent enthusiasm, which feels as if it could never do enough to reach the fullness of its idea: an unselfishness of sacrifice, which would rather cast fruitless labour before the alter than stand idle in the market.’ Bataille writes: ‘The worker who labours at the construction of a pyramid destroys [the surplus resources it has at its disposal] uselessly: from the standpoint of profit the pyramid is a monumental mistake; one might just as well dig an enormous hole, then refill and pack the ground… the pyramids… have the advantage of consuming without return – without profit – the resources they use.’ Here we hear the fierce, perverse silence of Marcel Mauss’s Potlach – the squandering and giving away of property – that Bataille found so compelling. For Deleuze and Guattari stable form is an ‘impure event’ – a false abstraction from the eventful flux. Bruno Latour sees large technological systems as ‘ … a never-ending building site in some great metropolis… no overall architect… no design.’ They comment: ‘Seen this way, a building is flow, not form; it is creative, not merely a creation.’

Biological decay is life-giving after death. Micro-organisms thrive. Compost forms. Alternatively, physics’ decay as entropy is pre-death: Schrodinger writes: ‘ When a system that is not alive is isolated or paced in a uniform environment all motion usually comes to a standstill very soon as a result of various kinds of friction… After the whole system fades away into a dead, inert lump of matter a permanent state is reached , in which no observable events occur. The physicist calls this the state of thermodynamical equilibrium, or “maximum entropy.” There is a decay theory for loss of memory associated with Edward Thorndike. Norbert Weiner sees decay in the entropy that disorganises information. Architecture’s natalist impulse can feed into decay.

Any distinction between patina and dirt is merely a distinction in the eye of the beholder. Le Corbusier and the modernists saw patina as dirt. Alois Riegl saw dirt as patina. The line between them bifurcates destinies via subtraction or addition, depreciation and appreciation. There is a taste for rust and bioreceptivity. The Villa Savoye leaked. Frank Lloyd Wright said: …if the roof doesn’t leak, the architect hasn’t been creative enough.’ Kevin Lynch saw the potential of weather-induced decay, the strange patterns of ‘counter-shading, rain streaking, shuttermarking.’ The Building Research Station’s catalogue of weather induced changes produced data for architectural innovation. In these stains and the usually hidden, denied marks Lynch sees a range of creative possibilities. Others follow. Cor-ten steel weathers. It rusts its surface to create protection against further corrosion and deeper rusting. Carlo Scarpa deliberately built a building in Verona on which rainwater stains would appear. Relatively benign and uncomplicated biotropes became visible traces of the architects dreams of death. But some dreams are less benign. R&Sie(n)’s Bangkok museum works the deadly pollution of Bangkok into the architectural vocabulary of the building: it is ‘… luminous, vaporous, pheromonal, hideous, shaded, transpiring, cottony, rugged, dirty, hazy, suffoctating, hairy.’ This is architecture that presents the detonating tropes out of some eerie, surrealist perversion or the cranked-up mind of Shinya Tsukamoto. Responding to the 1998 economic collapse the new projects collapsed and Bangkok was left as an instant Stonehenge, ‘… a new landscape, like a forest with trees falling down producing the new nitrogen for the rebirth of the next generation.’ The museum is ‘building-as-machine that is able to aggregate, fix, and recycle the filth, while simultaneously extracting from this process the aesthetic protocol of its appearance.’ It speaks back to Le Corbusier’s white cathedrals of Manhatten. It is black fuzz. Not interested in dreaming of eternity and dazzling white, it is a negative spectacle that‘ carries a degree of palpitation of life and death , a palpitation between existence and non-existence.’

Pages: 1 2

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, May 3rd, 2014.