At the beginning of the twentieth century, commercial buildings in the United States were being demolished within as little as five years. Histories of modern architecture have started their accounts with the development of the large U.S. office building before, but Daniel M. Abramson begins his new narrative with their destruction, and with a novel body of research into the office building as real estate and tax liability. This first chapter—which locates the invention of the concept of obsolescence—introduces a book that concludes with obsolescence's seeming nemesis, sustainability. It is a fine dialectic, Abramson shows, since the two paradigms do not so much oppose one another as address the same conundrum: how to manage change.
Abramson is a member of Aggregate Architectural History Collaborative, a fulcrum of what we might term our discipline's materialist turn, by which architecture again represents material interactions that tell us about society's modes of production, economic relations, uneven development, and ecological precariousness. Obsolescence furnishes the perfect lens for such a materialist architectural history, since obsolescence was advanced by real estate experts in the 1910s and 1920s to explain seemingly premature demolitions, especially in the Chicago Loop, as the “result of changing technology, economics, and land use, in which the new would inevitably outperform and devalue the old” (3). The author shows that obsolescence—for all its lofty antecedence in Heraclitus's or Baudelaire's philosophies of transience, and for all its hold over popular culture, from the triennial automobile model change of the 1920s to the throwaway consumer culture after World War II—was initially entirely prosaic. Obsolescence was an invention of the U.S. real estate industry, which sought to write into corporate income tax code allowances for the depreciation of building investments. This the industry had achieved by the early 1930s, largely thanks to its cozy relationship with Congress and the Department of the Treasury. Obsolescence, Abramson shows, is distinct from other moments and modes of change in architectural history, like that of Baron Haussmann in nineteenth-century Paris. Haussmann tore up Paris to make way for something that seemed permanent and monumental, whereas obsolescence naturalized perpetual technical and capitalist change.
As Abramson notes, it was as though “economic forces in the obsolescence paradigm transcended politics, subjective interest, and the role of the state” (33). The notion thus naturalized, the actual term obsolescence was itself free to became obsolete. In the decades after World War II, it was reframed as “blight,” for instance, lending comprehensive urban redevelopment a less calculated, more moral rationale. The book revisits the notorious case of Boston's West End, in which we see how the paradigm also began to recognize that some buildings merited preservation: obsolescence and preservation coalesce from this point until the end of the book.
And so Abramson uses architectural history to answer Eric Hobsbawm's question of how it is “that humans and society structured to resist dynamic development come to terms with the mode of production whose essence is endless and unpredictable dynamic development” (136).1 The architecture and architectural discourse of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries have helped manage, by design, the contradictions between dynamism and constancy, especially as they have been exacerbated by capitalism, under which buildings live and die. So robust is Abramson's account of the interaction of architecture and tax code (surely a little grueling to piece together, for which scholars owe him a debt) that the legal enshrinement of obsolescence in the 1930s is met, at the other end of the book, by the U.S. Tax Reform Act of 1976, which for the first time provided tax incentives to encourage the preservation of historic structures and disallowed deductions for their demolition. As the author observes, “In a country where social policy often runs through the tax code, this was a significant triumph of preservation as ideology” (130).
Indeed, the book establishes that obsolescence and anti-obsolescence have been more ideologies than the scientific rationales they may have appeared to be. For architectural historians, the ideology of obsolescence has two main strands that do not necessarily braid together, as Abramson explains. One was somewhat vulgar, worked instrumentally by the not-so-hidden hands of capitalist renewal, and served as a conduit of class struggle by any other name. By such “chronopolitics” (a term Abramson borrows from anthropologist Johannes Fabian), some groups and places could be denoted as up-to-date, others as underdeveloped, traditional, and stagnant. The rapaciousness of midcentury urban redevelopment can shock present-day readers all over again as they reflect upon ongoing social justice struggles.
The other ideological strand of obsolescence was a thoughtful and dynamic vehicle of social renewal, at its most brilliant perhaps in British and Japanese architecture in the 1960s, as another of Abramson's chapters recounts. In Japan, metabolist architects projected the city in a state of flux; in the United Kingdom, the academic studies of Richard Llewelyn Davies and John Weeks formulated plans and elevations that could adapt to expanding socialized health care. In these chapters the author extends his discoveries about pre- and interwar real estate obsolescence into the better-charted history of the postwar avant-garde, of the indeterminate world of the Smithsons, Team 10, Yona Friedman, and Cedric Price. This is a story familiar since Charles Jencks's Modern Movements in Architecture of 1973, and perhaps the main new insight here is that there was a disconnect between understandings of obsolescence in Britain and the United States, for instance, and between university research and research elsewhere in government and industry.2 Abramson recognizes that this area of history is due for an overhaul: “The U.S. and British cases do not exhaust the possibilities of studying national contexts for emerging architectural consciousness of obsolescence in the 1950s” (71).
At this apogee of the architecture of obsolescence, Abramson correctly notes a certain melancholia, as should any observer of today's projects popping up in Detroit, for example: around 1966, Cedric Price's Potteries Thinkbelt project revived a postindustrial wasteland in the English Midlands yet kept the place's slag heaps as monuments to waste. This reminds us that the two ideological strands of obsolescence—the demands of capital renewal and the possibility of social renewal—are actually extensions of that old dialectic, modernity. As Abramson paraphrases T. J. Clark, “Revolutions in modern life both emancipate and grind upon humanity” (147), and the author's take on modernity might be even richer if it were presented as an augmentation of those interpretations offered by other historians. The melancholic duality of the Thinkbelt could be further teased out by reference to Hilde Heynen and Alan Colquhoun, who similarly perceive modernism as an idealist and teleological conception of history beset by the upheavals of the market and denying its subjects a “dwelling.”3 Replayed through obsolescence, Abramson meets this contradiction again in the midcentury architectural reaction to the obsolescence paradigm—open-plan interior flexibility on one hand and concrete Brutalism on the other.
Like Heynen and Colquhoun before him, Abramson surrenders the Hegelian teleological certainty that such contradictions can be reconciled, while retaining their usefulness to critical histories of what is gained and lost in architectural change, and by whom. Most important, he adds to our understanding of modern architecture a less abstract, more socioeconomic attention to the vicissitudes of tax, social, and environmental policy. He references figures who should appear much more often in design history, but who are often overlooked (like the father of “creative destruction,” economist Joseph Schumpeter) or are long forgotten (like New York engineer Reginald Pelham Bolton, an early theorist of obsolescence). For historiographical footings, Abramson turns to Hobsbawm's concern for the ways in which humans reconcile constancy and change, and to historians of science and technology like David Edgerton. Abramson's treatment is all the more appealing for being presented as a heuristic by which to understand things at large: “What can architectural history teach history that might not in other ways be learned?” (11).
Well, one lesson is that obsolescence furnishes a prehistory of preservation and sustainability, which forms a grand coda to the book: “Sustainability inherits obsolescence's obsession with measurable performance, now for energy efficiency” (11). Obsolescence and consumerism were questioned in the 1960s in the American political and economic circles around figures like Vance Packard, John Kenneth Galbraith, and C. Wright Mills, whose critiques would be adopted by countercultural activists. At the same time, Jane Jacobs proselytized that cities contain the seeds of their own regeneration, and in the wake of pioneering preservationist schemes like San Francisco's Ghirardelli Square, we learn from Abramson, by 1978 a third of American architects’ income was estimated to be earned from rehab work (115). But as the exposed-brick wall became the motif of adaptive reuse, preservation could no more escape the paradigm of economic development than had the obsolescence that preceded it; in 1964, London sociologist Ruth Glass proposed the term gentrification to describe the new paradigm.
This provides the book with a convincing pivot from architectural history to contemporary political economy, because it correlates the end of go-go obsolescence with a post-Fordist neoliberalism and market segmentation. More so even than Heynen and Colquhoun, Abramson's thesis repeatedly brings to mind Manfredo Tafuri's landmark history Architecture and Utopia: Design and Capitalist Development, though Abramson suggests that Tafuri “missed an emerging story. A rearguard aesthetic, stylistically, could stand in capitalism's vanguard, ideologically, precisely by reutilizing and revaluing residues and castoffs” (137).4
He continues: “There may be ways to think about capitalism other than as unceasing change and creative destruction…. There may not be one essential mode of change in capitalism” (138). This most speculative section of Abramson's history could bear more explicit comparison with other recent critical materialist readings of sustainability, ecology, waste, and recycling. Obsolescence and sustainability alike seem to treat surplus and waste with comparable coyness: Something must be lost in their processes, but what, and where does it go? It is a question that has detained sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, for example, and the urban metabolists.5 Abramson identifies recent discourse around resilience (the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance) as “a hybrid of obsolescence and sustainability—incorporating the former's acceptance of radical contingent change within the latter's framework of systems crisis management” (156), seeing in its management of change a role for the state and “a kind of retort to neoliberalism's denigration of the public sector” (155). It is an appealing idea for those on the left, though as a means of imagining and managing change, resilience is potentially even more introverted and conservative than sustainability—reminiscent of Herbert Spencer, even—which is why it has already been claimed for managerialism. Inside the history and theory of architecture, however, the basic tenets of resilience are potentially very useful, helping us to understand the conundrum of all buildings: Under the duress of continual alteration, change, and obsolescence, what is so consistent in a design or structure that it can remain an object for study?
It is not often that a historian discovers a trope through which to narrate the history of modern architecture. Nikolaus Pevsner did it using functionalism, Sigfried Giedion and Reyner Banham did it with mechanization and technology, Tafuri with historical materialism, Jencks with semiotics, Kenneth Frampton with phenomenology, Heynen and Colquhoun with variants of gemeinschaft and gesellschaft (community and society), and, most recently, authors like Peder Anker with ecology.6 These predecessors lurk in Abramson's compelling book as he rides the arc of obsolescence from real estate in the early decades of the twentieth century to resilience in the early twenty-first. Inherited from those predecessors is the belief that a grand (or sometimes ignominious) narrative can marshal a century of design, and that the parameters of that story are more or less dialectical: whether architecture should anchor society in relative certainty or set it “free.” Every scholar of modern architecture should at least become familiar with Abramson's thesis, if not for the sites and projects that it visits—the majority of which, from Chicago to Shanghai, will be familiar to subject specialists—then for its research into real estate at the start and for its adept bridging of modernism, postmodernism, and what we might call, for want of a more elegant term, post-postmodernism. Abramson's dogged pursuit of the term and concept of obsolescence convincingly embeds sustainability into the history of modern architecture, not as a diversion from it, nor as its damning, but as part of a live conundrum. We used to throw buildings away; we try not to anymore—but no, sustainability has not delivered the end of history.