Review: Obsolescence by Daniel M. Abramson
There’s a line tucked away near the end of Daniel M. Abramson’s Obsolescence when he riffs off of Wolfgang Sachs’ twin crises of nature and justice. Abramson frames his critique of architectural obsolescence as caught between a rock and a hard place: “can you have it both ways – austerity and social justice?”
Abramson tracks the concept of obsolescence throughout the 20th century from its birth as a tax strategy – a way for building owners to write off their expenses – into a genuine crisis of sustainable architecture. If buildings are going out of functional use nearly as quick as they are going up, what stops this from turning into replacement-as-consumption?
The book levels several critiques against capitalism, but not all of them hit the mark. By focusing on obsolescence’s birth as a tax advantage, Abramson makes the pre-income tax built environment sound like a preservationist’s arcadian dream. He refers often to Roman ruins poking out of 19th-century European cities, but loses track of the city for the monuments: the commercial structures that make the best parallels for his 20th-century examples of hospitals, museums and office buildings don’t appear in his selection of the historical record.
On the other hand, his tracking of the American peculiarities of obsolescence is on point. By demonstrating how “financial decay” became part of modernization theory, and layering the concept of “creative destruction” onto modern architecture, Abramson is able to show how a word was invented and became inevitable.
If a landowner can make more money from a new building, minus demolition costs, than they can make from the old building – then the old building is obsolete. Nevermind how it fits as a part of the fabric of the city or a space for working, argues Abramson, obsolescence is a product of capitalism and the way land is valued.
This dovetails well with Rachel Weber’s From Boom to Bubble, and the books’ focus on Chicago is not a surprise in either case. This is the city with the best-recorded booms (and bubbles) in land values and the most expressive use of architecture to portray these prices. Abramson succeeds the most where he shows how obsolescence became an inevitability, the death and tax effect of a building.
Again, the book gets a bit looser when it leave the US to show how architects have tried to conquer obsolescence. While it’s interesting to see how van der Rohe’s National Gallery in Berlin was meant to defeat obsolescence through mutability, other examples fail to regard how even the most famous architects have clients, who have needs and bottom lines. It would have been interesting to bring in more voices: how did teachers deal with schools with moving walls? Did patients appreciate a hospital with inhuman proportions?
As Abramson concludes, he examines gentrification in the 21st century. He begins to venture out of the Western European tradition and looks at adaptive reuse. There are interesting points where Red Bologna and East Germany’s ambivalence towards obsolescence is hinted at, but not fully examined. Cities like Istanbul, who had its historic core of Istiklal gutted in order to provide rent-seeking, are ignored. These are my own pet peeves.
Lines like “gentrification is in effect the neutron bomb of urbanism: buildings intact, people gone,” show a genuine care for how people interact with this dance between architecture and capital. It’s a line that makes me wish Abramson would explore the issue more – or at least perhaps differently. For as much fascinating work is in Obsolescence, it still can fall into the trope of heroic architects grappling with a system. The system of financially-guided obsolescence is his first target and certainly the most interesting part of this work.