Obsolescence: An Architectural History, by Daniel M. Abramson, University of Chicago Press, February 2016, 208 pages, $35.
While all buildings are subject to the decay and ruin brought by time, historian Daniel Abramson is concerned in this book with a different culprit: obsolescence, or the process of becoming “obsolete.” In his analysis, this term refers to structures demolished for having outmoded mechanical systems, or insufficient rentable space, or a suddenly unappealing stylistic expression, among many other factors. Such buildings might have survived were it not for shifting economic standards, desires, or tastes. Abramson’s overriding concern—as in much of his previous work—is how architecture functions within capitalism, a system which operates by “creative destruction,” as economic historian Joseph Schumpeter first phrased it in 1942. This relentless transformation, Abramson argues, is at odds with a core principle of Western architecture: solidity.
The opening chapter concerns the term obsolescence itself, which emerged during the era of whirlwind office-building speculation in early 20th-century Chicago and New York. Perhaps the most spectacular example was Manhattan’s 20-story Gillender building, demolished in 1910 after a mere 13-year existence. It was replaced by a larger and more profitable structure—a process then becoming widespread in major city centers. Interest groups, like the National Association of Building Owners and Managers (NABOM), began producing reports to track the rapid destruction of buildings in such overheated real-estate climates and lobbying the government to recognize the new pressures that beset investors. By 1931, amendments to the Federal tax code allowed building owners to write off the age of their properties as a function of an obsolescence that had come to seem inevitable. Because the new rules favored building owners, their underlying logic was never again challenged.
Meanwhile, the application of “obsolescence” began expanding. A 1951 planning commission judged Boston’s entire East End neighborhood “obsolete” due to perceived deficiencies in its housing stock. This decision, however, relied less on strictly economic standards than on politically motivated concerns. Though the effect was the same—clearing space for new development—its causes were different. If obsolescence happened to office buildings in New York and Chicago because of a volatile real-estate market, it was applied to Boston’s East End by opportunistic politicians.
In the second half of the book, Abramson moves away from precise case studies toward a vast reinterpretation of 20th-century architectural history. After World War II, he argues, the fear of obsolescence created an anxiety that haunted practically all of architectural thinking in the developed world. Flexible space is a central theme, identified in many different forms: the well-known exhibition hall projects of Mies van der Rohe, as well as designs for expandable hospital complexes, or even visionary projects like Archigram’s Plug-in City. In Abramson’s reading, each of these attempts to plan for future change were, in fact, defensive measures set against constantly changing needs leading to premature destruction. Such schemes revealed a profession newly apprehensive about the longevity of its built work.
The final chapter turns to contemporary trends in reuse, preservation, and sustainable design. If we follow recent emphasis on these themes, obsolescence has now itself become obsolete, in favor of a new ethos of durability. But by Abramson’s own analysis, such a position is at distinct cross-purposes with the engine of economic growth that remains at the center of capitalist society. To grow is still to displace existing material with new material, to encourage obsolescence.
Perhaps we have to look beyond economics. Obsolescence throughout the 20th century was not only an economic problem but a material one—predicated on the assumption of abundance—that destruction might always be followed by redevelopment. Even if the loudest voices today refer to “sustainability,” the very way we fill space in contemporary society, from air-conditioning systems to urban sprawl, relies upon the continuation of almost limitless energy use for what are often the most banal daily activities. Without addressing these larger and most insidious problems, we now threaten ourselves with an entirely new kind of obsolescence.