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
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
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