Ephemera Regarding Permanence

Manhattan has no choice but the skyward extrusion of the Grid itself; only the Skyscraper offers business the wide-open spaces of a man-made Wild West, a frontier in the sky. — Rem Koolhaas

In Installation Art, Michael Archer writes about architecture, noting “its aspirations to permanence [are] continually undermined”, and it is a truism never stranger. Personal architecture was once exclusively temporary — in fact, often designed to accomplish its movement as efficiently as possible. The chum and the tipi are two dwellings of noted transitory nature. Structures gradually became more permanent as new building techniques and materials were discovered and developed. It was less customary to reside in one location for a brief period and more common to stay affixed to one address, one home, one coordinate.

The 15th through 19th centuries clearly made this an issue of import. Structures from that era are still standing strong, made possible by innovations in materials that, when cared for, don’t disintegrate so much with age. But the recent trend is not in favour of a lasting building, but back to ones of a transient nature. Homes are increasingly assembled with cheap ply, constructed in close proximity so that, in the event of a fire in one home, the entire community goes into a sort of reset stage, rather like a forest. Skyscrapers are constructed of concrete and steel, sure, but that doesn’t stop them from being spectacularly demolished[1]. The 30-story Landmark Tower was built in the 1950s in Fort Worth, and demolished in 2006, a lifespan of just 50 years. The Chrysler Building in New York was constructed 81 years ago, but that’s a mere pittance in the history of civilization.

There are examples of ancient architecture, such as those in Greece, Italy and England. But these are exceptions rather than rules. Surely some contemporary skyscrapers will be left standing in millennia, but the majority will not.

It strikes as surprising how temporary our most permanent of structures are. Our skyscrapers, institutions and historical architecture will all inevitably be removed and perhaps replaced at some point, or alternatively left to decay into a meadow in an ironic, yet appropriate gesture. In The End of Nature, Bill McKibben writes “[o]ur comforting sense of the permanence of our natural world, our confidence that it will change gradually and imperceptibly if at all, is the result of a subtly warped perspective.” This quote could just as easily be applied to the unnatural, man-made world of the city. We have seen it as always there, so we believe it will always be there. We couldn’t be more wrong.

  1. This isn’t a decades-old phenomenon, by the way. The Gillender Building in New York City was demolished in 1910 after standing just 12 years. However, these are not demonstrably non-permanent structures. [↑]