Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Sean Keller reviews Obsolescence

Daniel M. Abramson. Obsolescence: An Architectural History.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2016. 208 pp.

Review by Sean Keller

We take for granted that architecture is a discipline of space. Often ignored is that architecture is also, and in a unique way, a discipline of time: its work is to shape and hold space through time. In the long era of modernism, in which disruptions of history have been so central, the temporal dimension of architecture takes on particular, if under recognized, importance.

Daniel Abramson’s Obsolescence: An Architectural History is an important book because it directs our attention to a key temporal concept of twentieth century architecture, urbanism, and design. As Abramson ably shows, during the first half of the twentieth century obsolescence developed as a term through which the relationships, or nonrelationships, of permanence and dynamism were mediated. Architectural obsolescence provided one answer to—or better one organizing frame for—Eric Hobsbawm’s polemical question (quoted by Abramson) “How is it, then, that humans and societies structured to resist dynamic development come to terms with a mode of production whose essence is endless and unpredictable dynamic development?”[1]

Gathering a broad range of sources, Abramson shows how obsolescence, first applied to buildings by real estate specialists, became embedded in US tax law, thus codifying, normalizing, and monetizing the assumption that over time a building inevitably becomes increasingly less useful, until it must be replaced. After 1945, the concept was extended to whole neighborhoods as a foundational premise of the nation’s cataclysmic postwar urban renewal schemes. During the 1960s, as these modernist plans were realized and as social unrest erupted around the world, architecture’s duration in time—it’s permanence or impermanence—became the orienting issue for all positions within the discipline, from advocates of pop-inspired transience (Archigram, for example) to melancholy poets of the past (Aldo Rossi, for example). By focusing on obsolescence, Abramson is admirably able to trace connections across the entire network of architects, planners, developers, and critics, before and after the Second World War, and from Japan to Eastern Europe. In doing so he has also, as he notes, unfolded an armature on which much more historical work can grow.

In the last third of this relatively short book, he presents an intriguing sketch of the transition, begun around 1970, from the paradigm of obsolescence to our current regime of sustainability. Here two (understandable) methodological difficulties surface—ones that had been largely concealed by the historical distance of the earlier material. First, is the question of how one interprets an ideological construct, such as obsolescence or sustainability. As Bruno Latour has reminded us, modernist critique of an ideology can too easily miss its entanglement with facts on the ground.[2] An ideology of obsolescence certainly was used to frame urban renewal programs that were classist and racist, but it may also be true that the neighborhoods slated for demolition were often overcrowded and underserviced. (In fact, because of systemic economic and racial antagonisms, it would be surprising if this were not the case.) Similarly, sustainability has certainly become a marketable ideology of its own, but we are nonetheless burning up the planet. Here everything depends on the details, on the critical assessment of conditions as well as discourses: Are we actually throwing away fewer building today than in the past?

Second, since Abramson is surely correct in saying that the concepts of obsolescence and sustainability are entangled with our existence under capitalism, we would need an interpretation of capitalism itself in order to make judgments about these concepts. By adopting the quasi-neutral tone of the historian, Abramson, in his description of sustainability as yet another strategy of resistance co-opted by capitalism, short-circuits nuanced judgment of the many different sustainabilities and their potentialities. Surely the lesson of the case of obsolescence, so well told here, is that such concepts are ideological levers that can adjust the course of the world. Given the current direction of the global environment, we should surely not be overlooking any tillers we can get our hands on.

[1] Eric Hobsbawm, “Interview: World Distemper,” New Left Review 61 (Jan.–-Feb. 2010): 150.

[2] See Bruno Latour, We Have Never Been Modern, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge, Mass., 1993).