SHORT LIFE

Scarborough College, Toronto. Built 1966. 49 years old

Scarborough College, Toronto. Built 1966.
49 years old

I read an amazing (for me) fact recently. A participant in a Getty Center colloquium on building preservation casually observed that the life cycle of conventionally built (masonry and wood) buildings is about 120 years (before major repairs), whereas for modernist buildings it is only half that time—sixty years. Consider Yale’s masterpieces of the 1960s: Louis Kahn’s art gallery, Paul Rudolph’s A & A, Eero Saarinen’s colleges. They have all recently undergone major renovation, at a cost far exceeding the original construction cost. In the words of  Yale dean, Robert A. M. Stern, “They cost pennies to build and millions to renovate.”

Sixty years! You might say that architects today are delivering half the product that they used to. For a long time, a building’s durability was taken for granted. It might be clad in marble, brick, or stucco, but with adequate maintenance (cleaning, re-pointing, painting and plastering), it could be expected to last. This was because  construction consisted of heavy masonry  walls, whether you were building a villa, a palazzo, or a basilica. This changed when reinforced concrete came into common use. The new material seemed almost magical, allowing dramatic cantilevers, shell-thin vaults, skinny columns. It took several decades to discover that steel and concrete were precarious partners, and that porous, fragile concrete was a poor substitute for stone and brick as external cladding. By then a generation of Brutalist buildings had come into being. Structural steel is durable, but the lightweight glass curtain wall has its own problems: gaskets, sealants, glass coatings. A sixty-year life? probably.

Modern architecture looks so, well modern. Efficient, engineered, precise, machine-made. Who knew? “Oh, by the way. This isn’t your grandfather’s building. Don’t expect it to be around for centuries. In fact, expect to shell out much more in sixty years to keep it going than you paid to build it. Or just knock it down. After all, it wasn’t meant to last.”

2 Responses to SHORT LIFE

  • John Harland says:

    The 120-year lifespan resonates with what we were told in Amsterdam. The lovely canalside houses have to be rebuilt to such a degree each century that the cost is at least as great as rebuilding every 100 years.

  • Robin Lovering says:

    The current buildings are faced with building code, EPA restrictions, energy codes and etc changes that engineers and architects know will make the buildings obsolete in less than 60 years.

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