In our architectural pursuits, we often seem to be in search of something newer, grander, or more efficient—and this phenomenon is not novel. In the spring of 1910 hundreds of workers labored day and night to demolish the Gillender Building in New York, once the loftiest office tower in the world, in order to make way for a taller skyscraper. In New York and many other places, then and now, this was just one of innumerable razed metropolitan monuments.
In the innovative and wide-ranging Obsolescence, Daniel M. Abramson investigates this notion of architectural expendability. The idea that the new necessarily outperforms and makes superfluous the old, Abramson argues, helps people come to terms with modernity and capitalism’s fast-paced change.
Belief in obsolescence, as Abramson shows, also profoundly affects architectural design. In the 1960s, many architects worldwide accepted the inevitability of obsolescence, experimenting with flexible, modular designs, and envisioning expendable short-life buildings. Others, we learn, were horrified by the implications of obsolescence’s ephemerality and waste, and turned instead to the conservation rather than disposal of resources. Abramson’s fascinating tour of our idea of obsolescence culminates in an assessment of recent manifestations of sustainability, from adaptive reuse and historic preservation to postmodernism and green design, which all struggle to comprehend and manage the changes that challenge us on all sides.