In the next generation, America will see more resurrections of newly obsolete buildings than at any time since the advent of the Eisenhower Federal Highway System, when cities where radically gutted and a new “suburbia” carpet bombed the landscape around them. From 1950 to 1965, urban factories that thrived during World War II were abandoned. Blocks of tight worker housing were lost to a new social and built environment that saw millions of new buildings sweep across fallow farmland outside the city limits.
Now those ancient factories and legacy suburbs are being rethought, because they have ceased to reflect the values of those existing in a world of pandemic caution and accelerated climate change. Beyond the sweeping changes after World War II, this last decade has seen the end of specific building uses that will demand an extraordinary architectural reanimation in the coming years.
A perfect storm of disparate cultural, technological, moral, physiological, and religious changes have affected what needs to be built. It is now conventional wisdom that organized religion in America is in freefall. There has been a definitive and continued drop in belief in organized religion over the decades, meaning that there are more and more atheists, agnostics, and those who are “spiritual” without the need of brick-and-mortar service attendance. Cardinal Gianfranco Ravasi, president of the Catholic Pontifical Council for Culture, said in 2010 that “many churches, which until a few years ago were necessary, are now no longer thus, due to a lack of faithful and clergy.” That trend is likely to continue in the ensuing decade.
This loss of use of religious buildings comes after a record-setting pace of their construction following World War II. The suburban surge in the 1950s reflected another reality: there were very few atheists in foxholes; more than 60% of Americans went to church almost every week after the war. Attendance is now back down to Great Depression levels, and the internet has also meant many “attend” a virtual church, so numerous unused sacred spaces are becoming desanctified, following Europe’s example from two generations ago.
These religious structures are often antique icons on the choicest parcels in their communities, but now sit dormant. Sometimes remnants are kept; sometimes these inefficient, low-tech buildings are removed. However, this is an age where sustainability is becoming a core design criterion—where the energy embodied in every building, the energy need to remove a building, the energy required to build a new one, and the toxins imposed on our environment in their construction or demolition, are becoming morally unacceptable and economically punitive, given the regulations and costs imposed. So sacred buildings must transition to profane uses, a challenge architects are well poised to address.
Obviously, the appearance of the internet radically changed everything. But nothing has been more affected by digital technology than the way we buy and sell things. Even before COVID, retail was changing. Scores of dead malls have been converted to other uses. This long-term change was ratcheted up by the COVID pull back from on-site shopping, rendering millions upon millions of commercial square feet unleasable. At the same time, the space needed for retail distribution is exploding. An estimated 8 million square feet of big-box stores are being turned into distribution centers. Since 2016, Amazon has converted 25 mall spaces into distribution centers, according to Coresight Research. Nearly 15 million square feet of big-box retail space in the U.S.has been converted to industrial space.
But the most recent death of a once-dominant building type was accelerated by the digital revolution and almost finished off by COVID: So many multiplex movie theaters are empty. Before COVID, the rise of streaming made the cost and hassle of going to a movie theater less enjoyable for more and more consumers. The national chain Regal Cinemas alone has closed 7,000 screens. John Fithian, head of the National Association of Theatre Owners, estimates that “around 70% of our mid and small-sized members will either confront bankruptcy reorganization, or the likelihood of going out of business entirely.”
Besides these dead buildings standing, the world may be reinventing how cities are used, and thus how the buildings in our cities are used. Despite a growing ambivalence about disease transmission, most cities have far fewer people today using their downtown commercial real estate. The vacancy rates there are likely to remain high for years.
It is too easy to note failure, the loss of functional viability of the buildings that are now empty without offering any hope for invention, in the context of a landscape glutted with unused buildings. It is also easy to know the conceptual failure that excuses demolition as a necessary cost to realizing our hopes. It is harder to commit to a marriage of change and a belief in what we have. In a recent radio interview, Paul Goldberger quoted G.K. Chesterton to me, “In history there is no Revolution that is not a Restoration.”
Like the Industrial Revolution, the internet inspired holistic changes not only in what buildings were needed for, but how they are made. In a time when there is an unprecedented need to recycle so many building types, it will take the creativity of reinvention to put new wine into old vessels. Just as in the time of Chesterton—the full flower of the Industrial Revolution in the late 19th century—we’re at a breakpoint in determining what buildings we need, while simultaneously inventing new ways to design and build them.
Architects are at the edge of technologies, in the design and building of our buildings, but we’re awash in a sea of existing structures, in a world that is being undone by excess carbon to the point that anything we restore is less dangerous to our future than anything we built new. Churches, shopping malls, big-box stores, movie multiplexes, and office towers are becoming ominously silent all around us. Will architects be able to step up to see the possibilities in so many dead and banal structures? Let’s hope we find a revolution in their restoration.