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Winter 2005
photo by Rose Lincoln  
Daniel M. Abramson

Daniel M. Abramson, associate professor of art history, is at work on a book that examines the notion of obsolescence in modern architecture. He spoke with Tufts Magazine from his office at Harvard, where he has a one-year fellowship from the Charles Warren Center for Students in American History.

You have talked about how people once pursued flexibility of design to avoid obsolescence. How successful was that approach?
The idea of creating flexible space is important, especially in the mid-20th century. The design result was broad, clear-span spaces. No walls, in effect, and a minimum of column supports. The implicit idea is that the space could be partitioned as needs change. The architect most closely associated with that is the German architect Mies Van Der Rohe, who had the idea of universal space. By the middle to the end of his career, all of his buildings, essentially, were spatially the same, whether it was a proposal for a convention center or an art museum or an academic building: the main floor would be completely open. This is kind of an extreme case of trying to deal with the problem of obsolescence without saying so. Anecdotally, this approach appears not to have worked. The well-known example is the Pompidou Center in Paris, designed by Renzo Piano and Richard Rogers to have broad, clear-span exhibition spaces temporarily partitioned. Subsequently, those exhibition spaces were remodeled to create rooms, because curators wanted rooms with permanent walls, a certain scale.

Is there an architecture that achieves a kind of timelessness by virtue of being practical?
There’s a school of thought and approach to architecture that believes in an anonymous architecture perfectly suited to what people want. In my own view, nothing is timeless, that the way that New England houses are built, for instance, has to do with their coming out of a very particular historical circumstance. The fact that we continue to live in them is more habit than design.

How have attitudes changed about the idea of obsolescence, compared to 50 years ago?
We’ve evolved now to dealing with the perceived crisis of obsolescence. Fifty years ago buildings could be considered “incurably” obsolete, that is, people couldn’t see how the building could maintain its utility and the solution would be demolition. These days, adaptive reuse is a much more accepted tactic in older American and probably most Western cities. It’s not necessarily the case in Asia, where we hear these stories of whole areas of older Beijing or Shanghai being decimated. Here, we don’t often even call buildings obsolete. The term may have had its day.

Is there more consciousness about the value of older buildings?
Yes. People talk about place now more than they ever did before. A sense of place, the character of a place, the uniqueness of a place—a place that has a specific identity created and related to individualized perception and cognition of the aged and familiar. The maintenance of older buildings has also been folded into ideas about community, which is more social and political. So, for example, in Boston, the city’s great catastrophe was the destruction of the West End. For Boston, the destruction of the West End shocked people into a greater appreciation of older buildings, the sense of place from a community perspective. I think we’re now in a completely different mind frame about the diagnosis and prognosis for cities than we were 50 years ago.

Is the notion of obsolescence obsolete?
I think it may be. It’s my working hypothesis at this early stage of the project that the perceived crisis of obsolescence has passed, and that the professions involved in the built environment have found a whole series of ways to mitigate the problem. For example, facilities management is now a highly developed profession. As another tactic against uncontrollable change in the built environment, we now have an obsession with heritage and memory.

On the topic of historic preservation—you’ve looked closely at how architecture is influenced by capitalism, and how in the past older buildings were often deemed obsolete because they were, as you write, “unable to produce maximum profit for their capitalist owners.” Regarding Boston, can you comment on how historic buildings like Fanueil Hall represent capitalism helping preserve architecture?
What people call globalization, where consumption and tourism are at the cutting edge of advanced capitalism rather than production, is perceived as a powerful force in contemporary architecture. Capitalism is believed now to be in a postindustrial phase; consumption and leisure more the driving forces than before. For example, President Bush implores people after 9/11 to go out and shop and travel to Disney World. The thing we can do to help our country the most is to shop. That’s why it’s become a cliché that the contemporary world is all about consumption. One hundred years ago, I don’t think a president in a moment of crisis would have asked us to shop. He would have told us to save our money and work harder, not shop and recreate harder.

Do you think buildings that are built now will be brought down in 30 or 40 years?
No, I don’t think that’s going to happen here in the United States because the costs now outweigh the benefits, economically, politically, and culturally. Fifty years ago people could feel that everything was being and would continue to be rapidly replaced. I think there still might be an assumption that a building’s not forever—the idea of a building’s “life span.”

Do you have a favorite old building and a favorite new building?
One of my favorite old places in Boston is the Ether Dome room on the top floor of the Bulfinch Pavilion of Massachusetts General Hospital. It’s a little bit out of the way and quirky. I love the room’s intimate yet monumental proportions and its vaulted enclosure. And just up Cambridge Street is my favorite modern building, the State Services Center complex by Paul Rudolph, comprising the Hurley Building and Lindemann Center. This is the boldest and most dynamic complex of buildings in the city—it is very un-Boston. And I’m fond of the Hancock Tower. You can be in Copley Square and hardly know it’s there, and from a distance it just glows. I don’t think there are very many cities that have such an ineffable, beautiful building on their skyline.