Architecture and (Im)Permanence

Becky had an interesting post about the Rubble Club.  Here several inter-related thoughts:

1. She and the news story do hint at the terrible economic and material waste implied in such early destruction of buildings, unconscionable in terms of issues of sustainability, given that architecture is one of the world’s greatest users of energy and resources.

Venturi House 22. It also reminds me of the recent news stories about Robert Venturi’s Lieb house, though that had a happier ending.  When new owners decided to tear the Lieb House down, an art collector bought the house and had it moved to another location (see recent NY Times article). Venturi was quoted elsewhere about how much more “fragile” architecture is than painting: “Architecture is the most fragile of all the media – it has a practical application as well as an artistic application… People demolish and change buildings all the time and an architect’s work is destroyed, but you wouldn’t think about altering a painting or music.”

3. Why would we never think about consciously destroying or even altering a Robert Rauschenberg painting, and yet do it to architecture?  I guess we do often “preserve” or “restore” buildings to their “original condition.”   Is it because the Rauschenberg is worth more money than most buildings?  Funny thing to see the high price of some paintings, often worth more than the houses or museum additions they are in.  Jeff Kipnis, in a recent class lecture (to which I was alerted through our studio TA Matt Huber), commented what a strange thing that the “Birds Nest” stadium for the Beijing summer olympics COST THE SAME AMOUNT as the opening ceremony (ca. $400 million?).   How can a stadium that will be “permanent” be worth the same as a few hours of “song and dance”?  And the TV announcers mentioned all the athletes’ names, but never the designers of the stadium (Herzog & De Meuron).

GizaPyramids4. Architectural theory, at least since Vitrivius, has often listed “firmness” or permanence as one of architecture’s three most important qualities (the big three are firmness, commodity & delight; or solid construction, useful function, and good design).  Indeed, other than a few small sculptures and ritual objects, some of the world’s oldest surviving art works are architecture (e.g. Pyramids, Stonehenge, and the cities in Mesopotamia), and for a historical era like “Ancient Rome,” we have far more surviving architecture than painting or music or poetry…
House Moving
5. I believe that if YOU were to paint a painting, and also to build a house next year, the house is much more likely to survive into the next century than your painting… Who other than your mom is going to keep your canvas?  Right?  Why?

6. You’ll learn about many famous buildings in architectural history class this fall, where the construction of one building required the destruction of another.   This is often the case with religious and symbolic buildings, where new buildings are built on top of, or next to older ones, often as a sign of suppression or succession:  St. Peter’s was built on top of older versions of the cathedral; the Moorish Alhambra was built on top of an important Christian church; most Maya pyramids have smaller one underneath them.  At the famous Ise Temple complex in Japan, for thousands of years carpenters have been ritually rebuilding exactly the same temple next to the previous one, and then dismantling the old every twenty years.  The Steelers’ Heinz Field in Pittsburgh begot the implosion of Three Rivers Stadium next door (for some in Pittsburgh, football is a religion)… Most renovation, additions, and upgrades require demolition of someone else’s architecture.   Many of the big housing “projects” from the 1960s and 1970s, including in East Liberty and in Chicago, are being torn down and replaced by smaller-scale housing.  Many critics feel that after WWII in Europe, more architecture was torn down by planners in the name of “urban renewal” or “rebuilding” than was detroyed by bombs.  Architecture is full of destruction!

7. I think it’s important early on in your career to learn not to become “too attached” to your own creations, nowhere more so than in architecture. It’s fine to be proud. But nothing is so perfect, so sacred that it can’t be improved, or worked on, or even destroyed… There can be something “liberating” about “letting go.” I learned that lesson in freshman-year painting studio, when my painting professor painted on a canvas I was proud of, providing ideas, critique, and “improvement” to my own work, giving it another life, and telling us all to lighten up a bit, to see it as a bunch of paint and some fabric, not always as “art.”  The famous artist Sol Lewitt made a whole career out of this: for him the idea is more important than the artifact. He had other people make his artworks for him (as do all architects), even after he died, and did not mind if they were destroyed, or had to be repainted after a certain time.

8.  Many architects see their work “end” when they hand over the project to a client, and then the fate is in someone else’s hands, and the building begins to “live” it’s own life. To feel possessive about a building you made, that someone else owns, seems a bit heavy-handed. Or? If you buy a chair, and throw it out after a year or ten years, should the chair designer be offended? How about a car you drive for a year? Why should architecture be so different?  Is architecture a “service” that we provide (like a waiter or your gardener)? Or are we artists that create things (remember, we don’t actually make our own “art works”)?

9.  Other ideas about “Architecture and “(Im)permanence”?  This was the title of a CMU conference run by the Center for Arts & Society in 2005, and now the title of a book of essays called (Im)Permanence: Cultures in and Out of TIme (2008).  It is also the subject of many articles and books if you search for synonyms such as “Installation Art,” “Ephemerality,” “Temporary,” etc.


1 Response to “Architecture and (Im)Permanence”

  1. 2009/06/12 at 6:50 am

    Nice blog and well observed points, most interesting – I love the image of the house taken to the road!

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