Friday, January 4, 2013

Designed Impermanence

Crunch. Crunch. Boom.

Holy shit, that’s cool.

And by “cool”, I mean mesmerizing. I’m standing on the corner of 16th and L Street in Washington, DC, watching what is essentially a mechanical dinosaur eating its way through an empty building. The building being demolished is now nothing more than a crumbling ruin of concrete chunks and rebar curly-cues – a heavy, slow, animal that real-estate evolution has chosen to leave behind. The new building that grows up in its place will be lighter, smarter, and better adapted to its surroundings. It will hopefully carry forth lessons learned in all its previous iterations. The mechanical carnivore I’m watching sate it’s appetite on the doomed structure is doing so not out of malice, but in the name of progress – the way nature intended. Sort of.

In his Futurist Manifesto, AntonioSant’Elia commented that “every generation should build their own city”, and I believe he was right. Our buildings should reflect our contemporary ideals and stand as indicators of the progress we’ve made and the future we intend to create.  However, as I stand watching the machine crunch through concrete and steel producing tangled piles of rubble, I can’t help but wonder if our buildings are too permanent and if this permanence is holding us back from true innovation and progress. Culture, technology, and fashion are constantly shifting trends that change with the daily push and pull of society, but our buildings often stand idle for 60 years or more with little more than periodic facelifts along the way. Why aren't our buildings designed to more fluidly adapt to the changing needs of society?

Demolishing buildings in the traditional manner is both expensive and wasteful. As efficient as that badass mechanized dinosaur was at its job, it wasn’t actually “eating” any of its meal – it was merely destroying it. Somewhere in the distance, I hear Mother Nature weeping at the waste. At its feet lay a massive pile of concrete, rebar, sheet metal, and other detritus that is now nothing more than landfill and scrap recyclables. It was looking like a major effort to demolish this building, and the only benefit is the empty space it will leave behind. It seemed to me that the cost and associated hassle of demolition and disposal were often deterrents to a healthy turnover of buildings and infrastructure. How many buildings are left in place and given only minor adjustments over time because the cost of demolition and redesign and construction is prohibitive? 

Buildings, and the cities they make up, are indeed complex machines that involve countless hours of investment, planning, design, and construction, so it’s no wonder that permanence is seen as a virtue. But designed impermanence could also be a virtue worth implementing. After tearing myself away from the scene of the building being methodically destroyed in such awesome hungry-mechanized-dinosaur fashion, I attended a photography exhibit on the city of Detroit (Detroit Is No Dry Bones at the NationalBuilding Museum) and its vast area of now derelict real estate. Huge swaths of development that previously housed one of America’s most successful and innovative cites now stand empty and crumbling. The photographs of vacant skyscrapers, abandoned theatres, and neighborhoods of uninhabited homes were proof that cities can easily grow, but cannot necessarily shrink to adapt. What if the city were built to be dismantled?

Del Ray Building - Photo from Detroit Is No Dry Bones by Camilo Jose Vagara

Imagine a dense urban core where skyscrapers still grace the horizon but with an ever-adjustable skirt of development surrounding it. Houses and small commercial buildings sit lightly on the land and are all built to be erected and dismantled as needed – their parts and pieces easily reassembled somewhere else or even combined with others to make new buildings. Voltron would be proud. There is no waste to be landfilled, and the cost of dismantling – not demolition – is more than made up for by the new stock of building components left in its wake. As Detroit grows, so can its boundaries. As Detroit shrinks, buildings can be easily removed to reveal open plots of land for agriculture or public spaces. Density can quickly and easily be managed to adapt to a city’s needs. Constantly shifting buildings will allow for and encourage continuous innovation and improved functionality as we reinvent the city.

Suburb Eating Robot by Andrew Maynard