Our Nation’s Disposable Public Buildings

Chatterbox is 41, doesn’t exercise much or eat particularly well, and yet has never been hospitalized in his life. Compare that with Lincoln Center, which is 40, has had $25 million spent on maintenance and repair during the last decade alone and, according to today’s New York Times is contemplating renovations that could run in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The tiles in the reflecting pool are coming loose. The travertine steps in front of Avery Fisher Hall (which itself was gutted and rebuilt in the 1970s) are crumbling. Paving blocks in the plaza are cracking. The whole thing is starting to look like an uglier version of the Roman Forum. It’s pretty much the same story at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., which is still shy of its 30th birthday. This raises the question: Are public buildings of the mid to late 20th century, despite the modernist rallying cry of “form follows function,” less durable than public buildings that predate 1900?

Chatterbox posed this question to Vincent Scully, Yale’s Sterling professor emeritus in the history of art and perhaps the most eminent architectural critic in the nation. He said it is definitely true that contemporary architecture is not built to last. “I’m just writing a thing for the Times millennium issue about what will be around in a thousand years,” he said, “and of course, nothing will.” Why? “Things used to be built of solid stone, with stone vaults. That’s going to last a long time.” Now buildings are constructed out of steel and reinforced concrete, which doesn’t last. “Form follows function,” Scully says, “always was a myth. It really was an aesthetic obsession.” The International Style’s exaltation of the flat roof, for example, shortened buildings’ shelf life, he says.

Another major contributor, according to Christina K. Wilson, public programs coordinator at Washington’s National Building Museum, was air conditioning, which inspired architects to do away with the massive walls needed for insulation and cross-ventilation. “You can’t have cross-ventilation and thin walls,” she explains. (The museum is currently hosting a somewhat more upbeat exhibition about how air conditioning changed American life.) With the advent of the curtain wall, “you don’t have, for example, any trim, because the glass is supposed to meet the wall.” This helps create leaking problems and makes it hard to control indoor temperature. Has the return to more classical building design during the last couple of decades helped? Not necessarily, Wilson says, because “contemporary architecture still puts heating and cooling and square footage requirements before durability.”