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From Obsolescence to Sustainability: A Century of Architectural Change

Wolk Gallery, MIT School of Architecture + Planning, Cambridge, Massachusetts.
May 7–August 16, 2013

Today, it seems like common sense to avoid waste. Architects design buildings for energy efficiency. Rather than tear down old structures, we often adapt them for new purposes. The less we burn through the earth’s finite resources, the better.

From Obsolescence to Sustainability examines how the pendulum has swung from a 19th-century model for architecture that presumed permanence, through an “out with the old, in with the new” mindset in the mid-20th century, to today’s more prudent green approach. The exhibition charts the evolution with a timeline and pointed illustrations of designs by proponents and detractors of obsolescence.

“Architecture is a mediator of much larger economic, political, and social issues,” said the show’s curator, Daniel A. Abramson, associate professor of art and art history at Tufts University.

Capitalism, with its drive to create money and jobs, supports the obsolescence model. In architecture, the idea arose around 1910, when perfectly sound buildings began to be demolished and replaced by something new, something better. It reached its height in the 1950s and 1960s, when entire neighborhoods, such as Boston’s West End, were razed.

But in the 1970s, environmental concerns, such as an energy crisis that hit Americans directly in the wallet, began to move the pendulum away from the zeal for the new. Regular demolition and replacement of buildings didn’t only bring fresh and shiny options to the fore, it left trash and debris in its wake. It still does, in places where it continues to reign, such as Beijing and Shanghai, where buildings appear to spring up with breathless haste.

Sustainability looks like a fairly noble alternative today. But Abramson, from his perch as a historian, counsels that the preoccupations of the design community and the public are just as likely to stray from green thinking.

We can’t predict what the next throb of change will bring. We can hope, though, that the practice of designing sustainable buildings will become so assimilated into the ethos that architects can set their sights on other goals.