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Life, Death and the End of 20th Century Architecture

Kevin Roche is closing his office in New Haven this year. Cesar Pelli turns ninety-two this week. Robert Venturi and Vincent Scully have recently passed. Architecture is not forever. It is a human endeavor, subject to change, despite our desire for permanence.

 

Architects work in a low paying field of devotional pursuit. Many become architects because the final results of their labor are built and tangible. Despite those motivations, nothing is permanent, and those creating today’s buildings (and even the buildings themselves) vanish after a certain number of tomorrows.

 

When we combine hope and the physical world to create art, a part of the human condition is captured. Part of that reality is the inevitable ending of our time on earth. The realization of death is exquisitely human: we’re the only living thing that knows that we will die. 

 

 

But our buildings are almost never created with any sense of their own physical mortality. The northerly latitudes of earth face an ice age every 100,000 years or so. Whether we here in New England like it or not, hundreds of feet ice will scrape every inch of northern North America’s surface and remove everything upon it, including every building I have ever designed (if they somehow last that long).

 

 

No architect wants to think that what we make will ever leave us. Alas, everything dies.

 

In the flood of technology that has transformed every generation of construction since the Industrial Age, how we make buildings continually changes. I see huge wooden models of cathedrals made to manifest Renaissance designs. I deal with 100 year old blueprints. I drafted on mylar, used a Diazo printer, then computers, now Revit. 

 

 

But the veneration of the hero architect has not changed. Palladio, Jefferson, Wright, Kahn and, yes, Roche, Pelli and Venturi, embodied the Master Builder persona: the singular human as Captain of the Good Ship Architecture. That genius role model has evolved because humans have the capacity to expose and celebrate each other as individuals. Over the last 200 years our buildings have become fully associated with their designers. This personalization morphed further with the advent of the Historic Preservation Movement, when McKim, Mead and White’s Penn Station was reduced to rubble after just 53 years. The permanence imperative became a cultural priority in this last half century. Recent starchitects and their mid-century Modernist icons have seen an explosion of preservationist fervor, despite the relative youth of the buildings.

 

We have begun to attempt the creation of life everlasting for Great Architecture, and so the passing of those buildings’ creators becomes an even greater trigger of ennui than when Frank Lloyd Wright or Le Corbusier died after years of occasional demolition of their work. I was taught structures by Frank Saul, who bragged that he was the engineer who agreed (after three others declined) to sign the demo permit for the owners of Buffalo’s Larkin Building, demolished a decade before Wright’s death. Now in the same city the Darwin D. Martin House has been fully rebuilt at a cost many times that of its original construction (after part of it had been removed).

 

As the creation of buildings has become technologically removed from the touch of the human hand—both in design and in construction—it’s easy for architects to become inured to the craft of building. During this rise of the robots, the poignance of the passing of the designer is more starkly felt. The fleeting temporal reality of the lives of the last century’s architects we come to love (or hate) is more meaningful now because the preservation movement has become as much about aesthetic merit as it once had been about the value of history.

 

Eero Saarinen died at fifty-one, with extremely powerful architecture both in his wake and sadly unrealized before him. Zaha Hadid was a young sixty-six when her exploding career was cut short. Wright and Pelli and Roche designed into their ’90’s. At any age, when there is physical evidence of a creator with us after their death, we inevitably muse about what they would be designing if they were still alive. Mozart, Vermeer, and, yes Wright have created legions of devotees to project their creations beyond their death. Connecting the designer with the designed makes the tangible personal. Death connects what we have done with who we are.

 

Fashion lives by caprice and thrill. Architecture has a life sentence in its generation: the intent to outlive the moment makes buildings immortal in our perception. The attempt to deny change, let alone removal, is even harder in the Modernist gleam and sparkle of white, pristine geometric sculpture. We cannot stop time, no matter how much we want to.

 

The passage of time and of every human, even those attempting permanence in building, should give us perspective. The built realities of every architect’s life are ultimately more legacy than calling card. My grandfather, Harry Dickinson, working for the Carlin Construction Company, served as “Clerk of the Works” for the approaches to the George Washington Bridge. He is there, for me, every time I pass on or under them, and he is, for a brief moment, fully present, sixty-three years after his death. The life of every legacy is alive in those of us who live on.

 

In the last month, Robert Venturi has been more alive in our minds than anytime in a generation. The ideas, the designs, even the era of intellectual questioning of the midcentury, came back to life at his death. As the last of the Late Modern Masters pass, will we rethink the meaning of what they wrought beyond the compelling images, or will we simply praise the fallen?


It’s easy to hero worship the dead: we validate our love for them by retroactively perfecting their lives, and the legacy of architecture is no different. Veneration of the dead is catapulted into hyperbole by instant communication, sharing, connection. In the whiplash of immediate reaction, the snap of death creates a louder break in our day-to-day than ever before.

 

Whether it’s the passing of Zaha, or Venturi, or even Tom Wolfe, death compels retrospection. We stop moving forward and pause. Other than gravity, history is the only universal constant in architecture: will we realize that reality in this coming technological revolution?

 

Featured images: The Larkin Building, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, and the Jockey Club Innovation Center, designed by Zaha Hadid Architects.

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