Where does the idea come from that architecture can become obsolete, suddenly lose its value and utility, and so become expendable in a short period of time? This paper traces the origins of the idea of architectural obsolescence to early-twentieth-century American financial district demolitions, tax policies, and decaying cities. In mid-century, many architects worldwide responded to obsolescence positively by embracing ephemerality and short-life buildings. Others, however, sought to revalue the obsolete and reinstate permanence, for example, through an invigorated preservationism, concrete brutalism, and ecological design The idea of obsolescence thus gave way in the 1970s to sustainability, today’s dominant paradigm for conceptualizing and managing change in the built environment, conserving rather than expending existing resources.
Daniel M. Abramson is professor of architectural history and director of architectural studies at Boston University. Previously, he taught at Tufts University. Abramson’s research focuses upon matters of economics, society, and architecture from the eighteenth through twentieth centuries, with a specialization in British and American subjects. He is the author of three books: Obsolescence: An Architectural History (University of Chicago Press, 2016); Building the Bank of England: Money, Architecture, Society, 1694–1942 (Yale University Press, 2005); and Skyscraper Rivals: The AIG Building and the Architecture of Wall Street (Princeton Architectural Press, 2001); as well as being co-editor of Governing By Design: Architecture, Economy, and Politics in the Twentieth Century (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2012) with the Aggregate Architectural History Collaborative, of which he is also a founding director.