- Obsolescence: An Architectural History by Daniel M. Abramson
Obsolescence: An Architectural History
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016.
x + 192 pages, 68 black-and-white illustrations.
ISBN: 978-022-631345-0, $35.00 HB
ISBN: 978-022-631359-7, $10.00 to $35.00 EB (various formats)
Obsolescence fundamentally involves loss—the old making way for the new, the so-what stepping aside for the gee-whiz. Yet as Daniel M. Abramson argues in his history of obsolescence in architecture in the twentieth century, the idea has played an even greater role as a constructive force, one that has been at the very center of architectural and urban practice over much of the last hundred years. Architects and planners designed because of obsolescence, using it as the justification for plans that replaced buildings and even cities. They designed to accommodate obsolescence, creating structures that could change over time without requiring complete demolition. And they designed in spite of obsolescence, shaping new approaches to the built environment, like adaptive reuse, which revalued places that in earlier decades would have earned the designation of obsolete.
Throughout this concise and well-argued book, Abramson explores obsolescence as an idea used by architects, planners, public officials, and real estate boosters alike. He moves chronologically in uncovering this history, showing that a variety of actors interpreted an abstract paradigm in concrete ways to modify buildings for diverse ends. In doing so, he convincingly demonstrates how obsolescence has given logic to the construction and reconstruction of the built environment. Explaining this in a wide variety of contexts allows Abramson to also demonstrate the reverse: how continuous transformation of the built environment has naturalized the idea of obsolescence and made it one of the broadest paradigms used to explain modern life. Structures and plans never simply "illustrat[e] simple historical or theoretical conclusions" (11), Abramson argues. They also shape them. Indeed, one question over all others guides the book: "What can architectural history teach history that might not in other ways be learned?" (11).
The primary realm in which Abramson directs his investigation and, certainly, the most ambitious is the history of capitalism. As historians have shown, capitalism, an economic logic whose function depends on its seeming naturalness, was neither inevitable nor natural. Rather, it has triumphed by way of individual decisions, policies, and historical contingency.1 Architectural obsolescence, Abramson explains, provides an ideal object lesson demonstrating this social history. As the title of his chapter 1 suggests, obsolescence, too, was invented, and the built environment played a major role in its emergence as a dominant system. In booming early twentieth-century American cities like New York and Chicago, where easy money, rapid technological change, and the growth of population and business generated turbulence in the built environment, real estate interests found utility in the idea of obsolescence, which helped to rationalize architectural and monetary gains and losses that otherwise seemed inexplicable. Obsolescence offered "the consolation of explanation" (19), Abramson writes: a concept that could make sense of the demolition of Chicago's Marshall Field Wholesale Store, one of the final works of architect H. H. Richardson, which stood for only forty-four years before meeting its demise in 1930, or New York's Gillender Building, a pioneering early skyscraper that stood for just thirteen years. Changing fashions, users, technology, and competition were among the factors that made such transitions inevitable, even predictable, real estate observers explained. Buildings had a natural life span, they claimed. Even before their completion, their demise could be quantified.
As this suggests, in the early twentieth century obsolescence already functioned not only as explanation but also as justification. From here, as Abramson explains, the idea that commercial buildings had natural life cycles moved into the mainstream, extending to other types as well. The broad acceptance among urban developers of obsolescence as an inexorable fact in the built environment gave rise to several of the key principles that underlay the capitalistic transformation of cities in the decades that followed. The enshrinement of obsolescence in federal tax code represented one such principle. By the early 1930s, the U.S. government allowed owners of commercial buildings...