Daniel Abramson on Obsolescence, Sustainability, and Beyond

Tufts’ undergraduate urban studies collective, UP3, invited professor Daniel Abramson to speak at Sophia Gordon Hall about his work on obsolescence in architecture. Abramson is director of the Architectural Studies program at Tufts, and will be releasing a book on the topic later this year, titled “Obsolescence: An Architectural History.”

According to Abramson, obsolescence emerged about 100 years ago as a paradigm of change and how to manage it. As businesses could deduct obsolescence from income tax payments, it became advantageous for them to speed up the rate at which their assets obsolesce. Authorities later defined obsolescence for various types of buildings (e.g. 40 years for an office building).

In the context of urban renewal, obsolescence was frequently referred to as “blight.” City evaluators, in determining areas in need of redevelopment, used architectural obsolescence as well as cultural aspects as parameters. Areas like the West End in Boston, an historically working class neighborhood, were deemed blighted and promptly razed and rebuilt.

Architects such as, Georges Pompadou, Kisho Kurokawa, and Peter Cook sought to incorporate moveable walls, loose site plans with demolish-able or expandable blocks, and replaceable parts into their buildings.

As the urban planning theories of Jane Jacobs began to take hold and people began to value obsolete buildings for other purposes, the trend of obsolescence in architecture began to fade. Abramson cites sustainability and green design as having supplanted obsolescence as the current dominant architectural idea. When asked by the audience what would follow sustainability and green design, Abramson replied that he doesn’t know. Until the zeitgeist changes it is hard to imagine a more rational approach to building and design.