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

What goes up must also come down, finds Annmarie Adams

June 5, 2014

The history of architecture celebrates the design and construction of buildings, but what about their disappearance and decay? The architects of ancient Rome assumed that their monuments would last for ever, and employed massive scale and extraordinarily strong materials such as concrete to ensure longevity. Do architects still think that way? Stephen Cairns and Jane Jacobs’ Buildings Must Die looks at the mortality of architecture through ageing, misuse, demolition, obsolescence, natural disasters and a host of other fates.

Buildings Must Die is not a deep, historical study of vanished monuments. Its central premise is that because we think about architecture as if it were alive, we should also think about how buildings die. This long-lived anthropomorphism includes endowing many of our buildings with the potential for respiration, growth, memory, feelings and even intelligence. Buildings with human characteristics, in fact, have often been considered superior. Today’s smart buildings, for example, like smartphones, use advanced computing capability or responsive materials to make decisions for us, saving us time and money. It follows, then, that buildings, like all living beings, must pass away. According to Singapore-based Cairns and Jacobs, death has been much repressed in the literature of architecture owing to the profession’s investment in the idea of creativity. “Architecture’s persistent natalism comes from the foundational link to creativity by design, a link that has been rehearsed, modified, and reasserted throughout the history of the discipline,” the authors claim. They are right: certainly architectural education focuses on the production, and never the destruction, of buildings.

Although the book’s tone is nearly conversational, almost like a series of lectures, it may pose a challenge to readers new to architectural theory and its associated jargon (humorously known as “archibabble”). Chapters on decay, obsolescence, disaster, ruin, demolition and ecology follow four “theoretical” introductory chapters, where the authors link dozens of texts ranging from Old Testament passages to advertisements for Cor-Ten steel. Throughout, Cairns and Jacobs are deeply interested in language and particularly in what they see as an evolving vocabulary around architectural death. The difficulty for some readers, then, might come in facing unfamiliar terms such as “hyperpatina” and “ruin porn”. One consolation is that the authors co-write in the first person plural, which means that we are often told how to think and see.

The strongest sections of Buildings Must Die are the lengthier accounts of case-study building deaths. Standouts include an account of Glasgow’s Red Road high-rise residential estate, built in 1966 and demolished in 2012, where the architect’s choice of a steel-frame construction “militated against flexibility, as did a shrinking welfare state and a popular disaffection with high-rise housing”. However, it was the use of asbestos that brought it down. Exceptional glimpses of famous buildings in less-than-robust states are also rich contributions to our understanding of these canonical structures. The authors show us Le Corbusier’s famous Villa Savoye, for example, through its history of leaking. Kisho Kurokawa’s 1972 Nagakin Capsule Tower in Tokyo, a much-lauded “plug-in” tower designed for changeability, is revealed as a mildewy mess just waiting for demolition.

Less successful are accounts of demolitions that architectural aficionados already know well, such as the 1972 demise of the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex in St Louis, an event architectural historian Charles Jencks famously called the end of Modernism. Historians might baulk, too, at the ways the authors jump around in time and space. In the course of Buildings Must Die, we visit buildings in Japan, Taiwan, the US, France, New Zealand, the UK, Indonesia, China and Thailand, with “birth” and “death” dates that range from antiquity to last year. Imagine a book on world leaders that looks at how they died, rather than their accomplishments, for an explanation of why the book’s subtitle acknowledges that this perspective is “perverse”. Despite and perhaps even because of these quirks, Buildings Must Die has the freshness of a project that takes a field and turns it on its head – or, perhaps, blows it up.

Buildings Must Die: A Perverse View of Architecture

By Stephen Cairns and Jane M. Jacobs
MIT Press, 304pp, £22.95
ISBN 9780262026932
Published 13 June 2014

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