The Impermanence of Architecture
A study of degenerative processes in architectural design
In architectural design there are few certainties. For architects, certainty breeds doctrine and doctrine is antithetical to a free process of creation. For many designers the only truth one needs to know is that form contains space over an indeterminate amount of time. This equation explains the essential role of an architect in solving issues of material culture.
Architects will viciously disagree about what I have just written, and much discourse has already been made on the respective subjects of form, space and time. My particular interest is in the relationship of the three subjects as a theory of architectural design. Like any equation, it can be reworked: form limits space as accelerated by time; space fills temporal form; time alters form at the expense of space. Each of these arrangements proposes a distinct theoretical understanding of architecture while simultaneously having the same meanings. The mutability of these three tenants confirms a lack of doctrine in determining the role of a designer in the making of architecture.
Formal and spatial arguments have dominated much of contemporary architectural theory beginning with the modernists who monumentalized form and space with the so-called “International Style”. Modernists suspended time as a theme of the modern architectural movement by defying historicism, or a record of previous doctrine. This practice reinforced the modern notion that a piece of architecture could and must last indefinitely to be considered a relevant contribution to the discipline.
As seen in the iconic building Villa Savoye by architect Le Corbusier, the wear of time did not support the modernist theory of perpetual permanence. Thirty years after it was generated the building’s form was imperceptibly altered by the hands of time. With this change, the link between architectural form and space was severed as the house reverted to a feral state. The notable architectural photographer Balthazar Korab wrote of his first visit to Villa Savoye that “the building was completely abandoned and stacked with hay on the ground level. Everything was growing wild, . . . and I thought, ‘My God! How did they let this happen?’”1 It happened because architecture, like all other physical manifestations, is bound by the yoke of duration. The material components of the built environment are susceptible to various degenerative processes.
The house is now restored to its previous condition, however not because it was designed for regeneration, rather because it represents yet another historical trope to be made permanent in the history of architecture.2, 3
Most every thing is at some point of decay. This may not be a holistic interpretation of a process which is admittedly complex and universally applicable, 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 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. This point has been previous explored in Villa Savoye. If these historical heirlooms instead 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.
I must express that relic and ruin are essentially the same term in so far as their material degeneration is concerned. In other words, if Villa Savoye was built twice with one left to die and the other to live infinitely, time would treat them the same. The intervening element in this case would be culture; this is an intangible thing determining the fate of a object. These categories, too, are not inherently negative or positive because objects are innocent until their destiny is prescribed.
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 sedan, four bedrooms, a dog, a television, those essential kitchen appliances that are useful only for holiday cooking. In this example the cultural prescription 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 superficial 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 appearance of architectural object and, in turn, define them as ruin or relic.
In the American hypothetical described above, there are a few themes under consideration. One theme is that architectural objects will either linger forever as relics to inform history or architectural objects will disappear in the form of ruins. The second theme is that human culture is the definitive judge of what will become a relic or a ruin. An architect can design a building to perform a particular function in a social situation however it is not the architect who allocates meaning.
The inception of design asks the creator to determine a terminable condition for the product whether consciously or otherwise. 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. As I mentioned, this is not necessarily a negative practice because fetish has produced a history of architecture which can influence generations of creators.
My wonder is what kind of 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? My sense is that the profession would more easily avoid doctrine and embrace degenerative processes as tools in the built environment. Though these questions are personal to each architect’s theoretical prerogative, it is clear that all things will have some reasonable end whether in adoration or desolation.
1- John Comazzi, Balthazar Korab: Architect of Photography, (New York: Princton Architectural Press, 2012), 74.
2, 3 – David Leatherbarrow, Mohsen Mostafavi, On Weathering: the life of buildings in time, (Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1993), 7 -9