Obsolescence (feat. Teaching Tuesday)

 This weekend I read Daniel Abramson’s Obsolescence: An Architectural History (2016). I mostly read it for fun, but I have also been thinking about issues of obsolescence, functionality, and space on UND’s campus, in our community, and in the context of an archaeology of the contemporary world, particularly in the context of our accelerated and accelerating world and sense of time.

The book argues that obsolescence in architecture emerged in the early 20th-century when the U.S. government changed the tax code to allow for deductions based on the depreciation of buildings. At the same time, the rapid development of U.S. cities – particular Chicago and New York – and the availability of capital in the first three decades of the 20th century led to the demolition of buildings that were often less than 20 years old and the building of new, larger, more sophisticated structures in their place. Finally, this coincided with a progressive view of the modern world that saw social, economic, and even political development of society as linear and the new overwriting the old as key to the process of perpetual renewal and improvement. 

This promoted a functional approach to architecture that influenced building and design throughout the 20th century. While this approach has seen critiques, most famously in Brutalism which offered forms that conspicuous resisted functionalist demands and the work of, say, Peter Eisenman which simply ignored function as a useful category for his architectural forms. In the end, however, the long tail of progressive ideas and function views of architecture has persisted although often redefined in terms of “adaptive reuse” or even sustainability which like the concept of depreciation was incentivized through both policy and a monetized view of architecture and space.

I got to thinking about obsolescence lately in three different contexts.

First, as I blogged about yesterday… 

Second, I serve on the Grand Forks Historic Preservation Commission. This has given me a front row seat to thinking about the future of architecture in our community. As any small city, our urban fabric is undergoing constant change. Old buildings are being repurposed and demolished, new buildings pop up, and criteria and impressions for what is important, appropriate, and useful fluctuate. Determining what is obsolete and no longer necessary or desirable and what qualifies as important to the character of the community is on our monthly agenda. Functionalism and the representative value of architecture stand side-by-side. As Abramson noted, the concept of obsolescence shaped sometimes overzealous efforts toward urban renewal in the mid-20th century and what one person sees as blight, another sees as telling a story about the history of our community. 

In my neighborhood, there is an enthusiastic effort to slow and even reduce traffic flow down a residential street that has slowly become a significant thoroughfare. While the community efforts to slow the flow of traffic are legitimate expressions of anxiety about the impact of traffic in our neighborhood, there is also a historical element to their resistance. The street, they claim, is and was a residential street and was not designed to handle the greater flow of traffic. As a result, the flow needs to be re-routed to preserve the character of the neighborhood. 

The interesting counterpoint, of course, is that the function of streets and the character of neighborhood change through time and with use, what originally served one purpose, now falls short. This isn’t to suggest that we simply redefine the function of our beloved neighborhood street, but to demonstrate how the notion of preservation and obsolescence often go hand-in-hand.

Third, I’ve been thinking about classrooms a good bit lately. Last semester, I taught on an almost brand-new collaborative learning classroom. It was quirky and did not really fit the way that I taught my class. (I blogged about it here). The newness of the room pushed me to think about whether my teaching style was, in fact, obsolete and required updating to adapt to the new architectural koine in UND classrooms.

Fortunately (maybe), my history 240 (the Historian’s Crap) is in an older classroom that features, among other things, a real chalk board and a cart with a (chalk) dusty-laptop  computer and a digital projector. The room is clearly designed around the expectation that I will lecture to the students and the primary form of visual communication will be words on a chalk board. The active and collaborative learning room, in contrast, did not even have a central screen or a digital project, but instead has televisions arranged at each table, hung from the outer walls of the room. To show students anything visual involved drawing their attention away from the front of the room and redirecting it outward. The rooms we use shape not only how we teach, but how we learn and this, in turn, shapes our attitudes toward authority, toward the past, and to the experience at the university.

The idea that a room or a style is obsolete is a value judgement that is grounded in a linear view of time in which new presents are constantly overwriting and obviating outmoded pasts. Anyone who has taught for even a few years knows that even the most comprehensively research pedagogical technique, method, or procedure, is only as a good as the educator who handles and implements it. More than that, most of us are trained to view with intense skepticism any view of the present or future that is incompatible with the past. If Ambramson’s critique of obsolescence in architecture can teach us anything, it’s that contemporary calls for sustainability and reuse only make sense within a model of thinking about space (a discourse, if you will) that includes and, in fact, privileges obsolescence. 

It’s a good reminder not to get too hung up on progress and not to fret change.     


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