The Impermanence of Architecture



Most everything is at some point of decay. This may not be a holistic interpretation of a process which is admittedly complex and universal but the spirit of the thought is untarnished by proof from nature:

A human completes its creation at birth and must then experience the many degenerative processes of living independently of its provenance.

A flower when cut from the plant will slowly die of dehydration.

An overgrown woodland will burn

It is both objective and existential that all objects, born naturally of the earth, must have some reasonable end. Objective because we can understand existence best through tactility. This is a sensory understanding of things in which communication of an artifact is evident through touch, sight, smell, taste, and audibility. Existential because every object has an intangible cultural meaning grafted into its morphology. This is extra-sensory, or even anti-sensory because meaning is a speculative quality constantly augmenting and diminishing within a given context.

An object’s existence can be divided into three indeterminate categories: life, death, and whatever happens after death. The human body, for instance, may have a beginning and end but does the sociological entity that defined that organism live beyond its physical confines? And in what capacity? To consider this topic for too long, I fear, would lead to a slow and insolvable dialogue in which religion and generic philosophical theories would dominate the conversation. In that respect, this essay will rather deal with the impermanence of architectural objects and their corresponding sociological attachments.

In architecture, the discussion of imminent expiration is perhaps more apparent because the discipline is largely predisposed to formal arguments. It is not that questions of existence are minor to architectural theory, but rather they pose irresolvable metaphysical propositions. Is architecture merely physical, or does it play a mediating role between objectivity and cultural meaning? My preemptive conclusion is that architecture is not only an agglomeration of materials but the particular performance of those materials within a sociological system. The fundamental importance of an assemblage is the relationship between its material composition and the various phenomenological attachments society ascribes to the relic.

Ruin or Relic

Obviously some works of architecture have performed better than others in resisting their impermanence. One can enumerate the elite among them with ease: Pantheon, Parthenon, Stonehenge, and surely any other structure of religious endowment. These works last longer because the object is protected by a social enamel, extending its tenure in the cultural vernacular. In other words they are objects made significant by fetish. This is the essential definition of a relic. If these historical heirlooms had no cultural clout, they would be nothing more that the stuff with which they are made; concrete, stone, and stucco. This is the essential definition of ruin.

The lives of individual buildings are terminable for various reasons including natural disasters, political distaste, and social irrelevance. Take for example, one such mundane victim of these fatalities: the platonic American home. One can imagine the physical representations of this ideal: a five seat car, four bedrooms, a dog, a television, those essential kitchen appliances that are useful only for holiday cooking. The social ideal is domesticity and the object is a house.

As domesticity is either revealed to be perfect or imperfect the condition of the house is altered. Divorce could cause an accumulation of dinge on the exterior wood siding; marriage could add a fresh coat of paint. Death could cause the gutters to coagulate with silt. Birth could encourage a renovation of the downstairs half-bathroom. While these are minor changes to the morphology of the structure, there is cause to examine larger social movements and the effect on this house: economic depression, crime, war. These sociological factors characterize the physical manifestation of a structure and, in turn, define it as a ruin or a relic.


The inception of design asks the creator to determine a terminable condition for the product whether consciously or as the by product of ego. Many architects design with a seemingly interminable duration in mind for their buildings. The design is fetishized as a sublime creation to be preserved beyond its expiration. I wonder what architectural dialogue would emerge if designers were told that their buildings would only last briefly in our cultural zeitgeist? Would they design the decay of the building rather than its immortality? These questions are essentially personal to each architect’s theoretical prerogative; but it is clear that all things will have some reasonable end whether in admiration or desolation.


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