Buildings Must Die: A Perverse View of Architecture

by Stephen Cairns and Jane M. Jacobs. MIT Press, May 2014. 304 p. ill. ISBN 9780262026932 (cl.), $30.95.

Reviewed September 2014
Patricia Kosco Cossard, Art Librarian, Art & Architecture Libraries, University of Maryland, College Park, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

cairnsThis provocative book is a counter-point to Braungart's and McDonough's Cradle-to Cradle (2002) which called for environmental solutions beyond recycling. The authors, Cairns and Jacobs argue that a "virtuous cycle of perpetual renewal, in which a terminal endpoint need never be encountered" is unrealistic and deters from architectural creativity. Inertia and waste are not only facts, they should be engaged with by developing a sustained contemplation and theoretical consideration of how buildings move between value and waste.

The authors acknowledge that their work is an extended memento mori with aspirations to successfully take up Jacques Derrida's challenge to the architectural profession to experience its own ruin. Cairns and Jacobs propose a conceptual framework and taxonomy of terminality essential for the profession to embrace the inevitable fate of its creations.

The first chapters lay the theoretical groundwork for engaging issues of waste, deterioration, and death. Drawing from philosophy, cultural studies, politics, and economics, key vocabularies are identified informing what the authors call a "terminal literacy." The following chapters are empirical case studies of building decay, obsolescence, disaster, ruin, and demolition, arguing for an awareness of distributed agency in design. In one of their stronger arguments, the authors assert that obsolescence is proof that architecture shares agency with its shadow identity of real estate development, demonstrating how "building lifecycle is a construction of valuation, place, and time." The authors investigate how architecture and biology share elements of decay and how ruins have inspirational value. Engaging disordered, marginal, interstitial, or loose spaces such as ruins can inspire an unprogrammed creativity of distributed agency. Creative destruction, collaging, and design by erasure can also be essential to reshape the built environment. The book concludes with a direct deconstruction of Cradle-to-Cradle in order to prove why buildings must die and architecture needs to be there when it does.

This work is a significant addition to the scholarship of waste studies and sustainable design. Any course using Cradle-to-Cradle should also include this work. Students, scholars, and librarians of architectural theory, material and building science, historic preservation, real estate development, urban design and planning, will benefit from its interdisciplinary perspectives. The bibliography, nearly forty pages long, is an excellent resource in itself as a reading or desiderata list, for any serious study of building lifecycles, waste, sustainable design, or materiality. The index highlights the work's taxonomy and sites used in the case studies. Binding wears easily. The print font is the readable Helvetica Neue Pro. Illustrations include photographs, diagrams, drawings and renderings.

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