Designing for the Long Haul

We all have seen “modern” buildings that were passé before their time, designs whose “stylin’ shock and awe” faded so fast that they barely survived the ribbon-cutting. In some instances, the urge for progress has led to the destruction of perfectly serviceable buildings. In New York, they tore down Yankee and Shea stadiums, while in Boston they make do, and quite nicely, with Fenway Park (pictured), which opened in 1912. To be fair to my Bronx Bombers, their ballpark, completed in 1923, had a good run, and the new one is designed with homage to the original, though smaller and with more amenities. By comparison, Shea Stadium, born in 1964, was a pup when it was euthanized last year. There was no interest in reprising that design.

The current attention to sustainability too often ignores the need for structures that our great grandchildren will love one hundred years out, while still practical and flexible enough for inevitable changes. Sustainable architecture is not simply about heating and cooling, as important as they are. To endure, even the most practically engineered buildings need to be endearing because buildings need people to help them survive. Despite our architectural pretensions, we have to face it: buildings do not last without loving care.

To get to a future where the things we make carry on, I look to the past for perspective, to see what has lasted, and why. The irony is that some “modern” buildings of yesteryear grew tired quickly despite their original energy. And some brick bastions have crumbled. Pruitt-Igoe, the notorious huge St. Louis housing project, was dynamited! So have been a number of striking Las Vegas ‘statements.’ Obviously, since all sorts of buildings have lasted, style is not the determinant. One argument for modernism is that it is “true to its times.” Well, that hasn’t always worked either. The times changed. Buildings can be modern, or traditional, and last. Or they can NOT last. So what’s the secret?

Dwellings and offices that ignore the people inside them are not sustainable. Of course, mundane buildings that show no heed in their making other than a concern for economy or a prison-like durability (like Pruitt-Igoe, or too many public schools) will engender the same respect that they offer their users; and they will be discarded sooner than planned. The way we make buildings carries messages to inhabitants long into the future–I care for you, so please care for me.

On the other hand, some flights of imagination remind me of the Paris fashion designs that transform those ethereal skinny models into rigid rocket ships or flouncing puff pastries: it’s a great show, but who lives in those outfits? They become “so last month” so quickly, and that’s their point – so they can do it all over again next spring. When architecture’s highest aspiration is to be a show, an entertainment, it becomes transient (as in Vegas); and we know today that the costs to the earth are too high to simply create a stage set that we discard when the run is over. The shocking effect of the new and unusual may be appropriate for the other arts to make moral and aesthetic points, but architecture has different moral responsibilities.

Our creations must be tended by others, and we fool ourselves if we cut them out of the planning. At the moment, too many architects seem to think that awe alone will do the trick, will save their buildings. They’re kidding themselves because the awe will soon be shucked. And if an over-muscled building seems to dare its owners to try and tear it down, guess what happens?

Thus we architects are handed a difficult task, to work with clients to understand them beyond their physical or economic needs. The shelters we make for them need to shelter their souls as much as their bodies. We need to address an array of psychological wants – a sense of refuge as well as safe haven from the elements; a continuing stimulation that won’t wear off, that comes from the change of weather, or light, or use. Ultimately, the places people inhabit should speak to them, should recall and applaud who they are, reflect where they are and what they do, and celebrate their presence. This, we hope, will inspire them more than us. If it can do both, all the better.

Now comes the really hard part. How do you do that so that generations get a kick out of it? You need to put elemental delights in buildings; timeless spaces and light that will reward regardless of what the currents of time bring. No matter what the style you use, the basics need to be in there: light that changes with the day and season; materials that are warm but age well; spaces that support but also inspire; imagery that projects feelings to speak through the ages. Simple really.

Photo: Wooden seats from the original grandstand at Boston's Fenway Park, by Aidan Siegel/Wikimedia Commons