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In for the Kill: Buildings Must Die

Moving beyond ruin lust and decay-porn, this study seeks to analyse far more than what distinguishes dirt from patina

Buildings are of course inanimate (ignoring the possibilities, mentioned briefly here, that nanotechnology might soon render them almost ‘living’). However, for centuries anthropomorphic metaphors have abounded in architectural discourse, and the architect’s role has frequently been seen as that of a creator, giving ‘birth’ to a building. But if buildings are born, does it follow that they must also age and die? Is examining the resonances of descriptions of buildings’ varied end of life experiences, which this book sets out to do, a helpful way to allow architects to usefully and creatively engage with urban development in new ways? This book goes beyond the ‘Ruin Lust’ of the recent Tate show, and the decay-porn of many recent photo-studies of crumbling concrete, to analyse far more than what distinguishes dirt from patina. It aims to deliver not ‘a death sentence for architecture’, but ‘a path to a new way for it to be in the world’, and one in which architects will have a role to play.

It’s a dense and complex study that draws on a vast spread of critical theory including concepts from economics, history, geography, anthropology, organisational studies and material and building science, as well as established architectural theory. The ‘perverse view’ of its title is ‘the necessary and paradoxical relationship between architecture-as-creativity and nihilism’: to build, in most cases today, we must first demolish and create a site. That process itself can be creative.

The authors devote separate chapters to five ‘keywords’: Decay, Obsolescence, Disaster, Ruin and Demolition. They acknowledge that these are not discrete categories, and it is often the teasing out areas of ambiguity, overlap or disjuncture that are most revealing. Obsolescence draws on the authors’ work at the Red Road flats (the Glasgow estate where the live blowing up of five remaining towers as part of the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony has recently been vetoed, what a pity that happened after the book went to press). It explores the path to a diagnosis of obsolescence, noting that this is very much a value judgement. At Red Road, strategies for adaptation and renewal (including preplanning of floors to make larger units) conceived when the buildings were first designed, have been written out of a story of failure. Similarly financial circumstances mean that replacing the individual capsules at Kurokawa’s Capsule Tower, is not going to happen. Why is this sort of outcome so often the case? 

Frank Duffy’s statement that ‘there isn’t any such thing as a building. A building properly conceived is several layers of longevity of built components’ is quoted here. Is it because of the overwhelming power of the building as living-being metaphor, that we still don’t embrace this approach, and projects like Park Hill have to be conceptualised as the successful conservation of the essential spirit of a whole historic artefact, and not a reutilisation of just one component?

There is too much in the book, so much that promising sounding projects are frustratingly mentioned only in passing (such as Hanna Gobels’ work on Berlin where ‘architectural cultural entrepreneurs … are reshaping … the city through a ruin aesthetic’). The authors have a hugely international perspective as well as a multidisciplinary one (both now work in Singapore, they have been based in New Zealand, Australia and Scotland). It is a book of ‘gatherings’, and occasionally it lacks perspective. I’d say that there was more than just ‘a whiff of tongue-in-cheek about The Rubble Club’, but the meditation on this spoof self-help forum for architects whose buildings have been demolished in their lifetimes is nevertheless penetrating and provocative.

As I was reading the book the news that Glasgow School of Art was on fire came on the radio and Twitter feeds. I read the following: ‘It is not replaceable, or rebuildable. There is no other building like it, anywhere. I never thought I’d see this in my lifetime. It’s like someone has died.’ Another commentator added, ‘I know this is the part where everyone says what a great guy the dead man was but the @ GSofA really was as good as it gets, architecturally.’ While accurate reinstatement may be the best choice for this masterpiece, whether it is concluded that it’s dead or just in need of extensive intensive care, Cairns and Jacobs ask us to be more critically aware, and suggest that by not being more sophisticated in our creative reactions to how buildings physically and socially age we are missing out. 

Buildings Must Die: A Perverse View of Architecture

Author: Stephen Cairns and Jane M Jacobs

Publisher: MIT Press

Price: £22.95

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