demolition

I hate demolition.

While there is no question that there are some buildings that no longer have the right to exist, I always find shocking and disturbing the blind violence of demolition.  Maybe because I spend so much time trying to bring buildings into being and I am so aware of the struggle, time and money, dreams and expectations that entails, the utter erasure of a building is profoundly upsetting to me.

We all know now that we should be deconstructing buildings, not demolishing them.  It is part of being a responsible architect to look to solutions that first maintain all the embodied energy that even the worst, most devasted building contains.  But for me the genuine sense of grief at seeing a building brought down does not reside in any logic of sustainability, either in terms of energy or socially.

Many years ago in Chicago, the city decided to demolish some of their dilapidated housing along the near south side.  Early on a chilly morning, I joined a large crowd of demolition-junkies to watch the building brought down.  I had seen plenty of these demolitions on television, the precise implosions, the drama and frank beauty of it all.  So when the charges went off and the building crumbled, amid the cheers of the crowd I was surprised to find myself not excited or fireworks-awed, but rather suddenly profoundly sad.  As the concrete dust cloud raced over us, what struck me was what a complete and total loss had just occurred.  The building was dreadful, a sad and crumbling public housing project.  But it was also a place where kids grew up, where joys and pains were lived out, and where now all signs of those lives embodied in that building were completely erased.  Gone in a spasm of the most solid of materials, concrete, turned to dust.  Maybe it was the exaltation of the crowd that now seemed so perverse, or maybe it was simply my love of buildings, maybe I am just an over-sensitive architect.

I have not lived in a place of war.  I grew up with my mother’s stories of the London blitz, of the perseverance it engendered but also the loss of a sense of identity with buildings destroyed, the places of memory erased.  The destruction of buildings so completely, whether by bombs or precision-set charges, seems to be such a tragedy.  All of those lives lived out in rooms and halls, offices and stairways.  All the tradesmen who had  placed pride and work and sweat into its creation.  The people are gone, and their silent witness, the mute walls and floors and ceilings, gone as well.

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McArchitecture 1

Why is this stuff so ubiquitous?  A lot has been written and said about this kind of design, its geometry, contextualism and novelty.  I am maybe not so interested in those aspects of these designs, but rather their remarkable sameness.

Their individual designs are more or less good or bad, but their hold on international, global architecture is matched maybe by only blob-itecture:

and again, a remarkable sameness about these designs.  Or maybe again, the masses of glittering towers planned and built around the world (or at least in the cheesy rendering world):

So, what do these designs say about our architecture culture or the built environment?  Well, glass must be cheap, and place and space are minor concerns compared with image and supposed novelty.  Monuments to ego, these buildings are all trying to out do each other in their magnificence and astounding creativity.  That in the end they all come out looking a lot alike is never really questioned.

These kinds of buildings have always had a major role in the story of architecture.  They are in a sense extreme examples of the playing out of an architectural language.  However, I think we quickly become tired of these buildings, their one trick pony broken down.  And less we forget:

the ‘astounding’ are often quickly demolished.  These New York buildings were all the most magnificent architecture of their day and are all demolished today.  They too are a bit generic in their use (and abuse) of an architectural language and, they also were largely about the use of that language.  So, beyond ‘modern’ or ‘traditional’ or ‘victorian’ or any other architectural language, the sameness of these buildings lies in their intent to be “magnificent”.

Architecture, good architecture that is, is much more than a language, metaphorically or otherwise.  It should be about use and place and meaning and so many other things beyond “Wow!”.

(Historic New York demolished building photos from Nathan Silver’s Lost New York)

Pops and Scrapes, Boulder’s Compatible Development regulations, Part IV

Yet another in a series of quick reviews of the City of Boulder’s new Compatible Development regulations due to go in effect January 4th –  in this version we take a look at the intersection of these new rules laying over the demolition/historic preservation rules.

The City requires a separate historical preservation review for buildings that are over 50 years old and undergoing significant demolition. To avoid this regulation and possible landmark designation (which greater restricts the ability to due many types of renovations and additions), the city requires that the project retain at least 50% of the existing roof and all of the walls and adjacent roof for walls that face public streets. So, what does this mean for a simple Martin Acres ranch, a typical American suburb of the 1950s?

Most houses in Martin Acres were built in the late 1950s and are now liable for review under this demolition rule. To avoid this rule and comply with the solar ordinance and the new Compatible Development regulations, I give you this:

This pig of an addition is probably the easiest, simplest structure you can build and avoid the demolition rules while still abiding by the solar ordinance and Compatible Development Regulations. The righthand side of the addition is slipped off the walls of the existing house to meet the bulk plane rules, the pitch of the roof is the maximum that be built within the Solar Ordinance. (A flat roof, by the way, would not allow sufficient head room on the second story.)

The original intent of the Compatible Development regulations was to establish a set of parameters to weed out large, ungainly additions. It is clear from the example above that you can not regulate something as slippery as “compatibility”.

After hearing countless hours of arguments for these new regulations the overwhelming impression was that many people in Boulder simply felt like a lot of the recent new houses and additions were just plain ugly. Compatible Development rules were to eliminate these monstrosities, but such ogres come is all shapes and sizes.  I would not wish for a hopelessly subjective, project-specific architectural review like one encounters in suburban Home Owners Associations. However, I also think that these regulations will not do what they were crafted to do – it seems that “ugly”  is easy.

And, beyond the strictures of the Compatible Development regulations, should we have in law a provision that all buildings older than 50 years be reviewed for their historical/architectural significance? Clearly this will eventually include every building in the city, unless someone makes a point of tearing down every building when it reaches 49 years old (An architectural Logan’s Run if you will.) I am a strong advocate for retaining older buildings, both from an architectural and sustainable perspective. However, when the most common ranchburger builder-suburb falls within those reviews, it is only time that will keep us for fighting to save the McMansions of the 1990s.

we couldn't save Penn Station, but we can the Boulder ranch

Pops and Scrapes, Boulder's Compatible Development regulations, Part IV

Yet another in a series of quick reviews of the City of Boulder’s new Compatible Development regulations due to go in effect January 4th –  in this version we take a look at the intersection of these new rules laying over the demolition/historic preservation rules.

The City requires a separate historical preservation review for buildings that are over 50 years old and undergoing significant demolition. To avoid this regulation and possible landmark designation (which greater restricts the ability to due many types of renovations and additions), the city requires that the project retain at least 50% of the existing roof and all of the walls and adjacent roof for walls that face public streets. So, what does this mean for a simple Martin Acres ranch, a typical American suburb of the 1950s?

Most houses in Martin Acres were built in the late 1950s and are now liable for review under this demolition rule. To avoid this rule and comply with the solar ordinance and the new Compatible Development regulations, I give you this:

This pig of an addition is probably the easiest, simplest structure you can build and avoid the demolition rules while still abiding by the solar ordinance and Compatible Development Regulations. The righthand side of the addition is slipped off the walls of the existing house to meet the bulk plane rules, the pitch of the roof is the maximum that be built within the Solar Ordinance. (A flat roof, by the way, would not allow sufficient head room on the second story.)

The original intent of the Compatible Development regulations was to establish a set of parameters to weed out large, ungainly additions. It is clear from the example above that you can not regulate something as slippery as “compatibility”.

After hearing countless hours of arguments for these new regulations the overwhelming impression was that many people in Boulder simply felt like a lot of the recent new houses and additions were just plain ugly. Compatible Development rules were to eliminate these monstrosities, but such ogres come is all shapes and sizes.  I would not wish for a hopelessly subjective, project-specific architectural review like one encounters in suburban Home Owners Associations. However, I also think that these regulations will not do what they were crafted to do – it seems that “ugly”  is easy.

And, beyond the strictures of the Compatible Development regulations, should we have in law a provision that all buildings older than 50 years be reviewed for their historical/architectural significance? Clearly this will eventually include every building in the city, unless someone makes a point of tearing down every building when it reaches 49 years old (An architectural Logan’s Run if you will.) I am a strong advocate for retaining older buildings, both from an architectural and sustainable perspective. However, when the most common ranchburger builder-suburb falls within those reviews, it is only time that will keep us for fighting to save the McMansions of the 1990s.

we couldn't save Penn Station, but we can the Boulder ranch