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Buildings Must Die:
A Perverse View of Architecture
Blair Satterfield

Stephen Cairns and Jane Jacobs
MIT Press

Bernard Tschumi’s Advertisements for Architecture1presents the decay of Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye as the building’s most architectural attribute. Through a clever juxtaposition of text and image, Tschumi produces a provocation that “proposes a critique of the limits of architectural thought and space through the transgressive act of finding pleasure and beauty in the rotting corpse of Modernism’s first born” (p. 232). Finding pleasure in the deterioration of an iconic modernist masterpiece is a fitting way to enter Buildings Must Die: A Perverse View of Architecture.

With this book, authors Stephen Cairns (professor and director of Future Cities Laboratory, ETH Singapore) and Jane Jacobs (professor of urban studies, Yale-NUS) offer a thought-provoking meditation on the decline, misuse, decay, and inevitable death of buildings, a thesis that runs counter to the discipline’s long-standing fascination with architectural beginnings (from design to construction). In writing this book, Cairns and Jacobs have assembled a work that challenges architecture’s “natalist” tendencies along with what the authors refer to as its “delusions of permanence.” The expressed aim of the book is to help “recalibrate [architecture’s] purpose … in the name of architectural agency and its capacity to make worlds differently.”2 By extending architecture’s creation myth through the anthropomorphizing of buildings, the authors guide the reader to an inevitable conclusion. If buildings are in fact bodies, if architects bring buildings into existence, and if one even considers buildings to be living systems, then should it not follow that those buildings should, like bodies, decay and perish? This is the basic premise of Buildings Must Die, and death, with all the cultural, theoretical, and conceptual implications it entails, is the constant through which comparisons and critiques are made.

The book begins by orienting the reader to this perspective. In the opening chapter, Cairns and Jacobs outline their thesis and establish terms. The subsequent three chapters are devoted to building a theoretical foundation and “terminal literacy” around the topics of design and creativity; waste, deterioration, and death; and economics. These sections are exhaustively referenced, and while sometimes meandering, they benefit from a conversational writing style and willingness by the authors to lead the reader through the text. The strength of the book lies in the case studies—which comprise the second half of the chapters—looking at the many faces of architectural death through the lenses of decay, obsolescence, disaster, ruin, and demolition. Here we are invited to consider Toyo Ito’s U-House through its thematic and literal demolition as a monument to a family’s mourning, Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye as revealed through an account of leaking, and Shigeru Ban’s Cardboard Cathedral in Christchurch, New Zealand, which is offered as both a response to disastrous destruction—the 2011 earthquake—and a building that is designed and built to be temporary, anticipating its own inevitable demise. These three projects represent a fraction of the myriad works presented. The list of case studies is extensive and includes buildings by architects ranging from Eero Saarinen, Cedric Price, and Carlo Scarpa to Rem Koolhaas and François Roche. The book ends with a final reflection that seeks to delineate opportunities and ways forward from the fertile ground of dead and dying buildings.

Cairns and Jacobs advocate “an architecture that tarries with deformation, decay, deterioration, devaluation, and destruction.” The concept of the book is presented as “perverse” because again, it rejects our obsession with beginnings in favor of middles and ends. It also focuses on the paradoxical push-pull in architecture between creation and destruction, the latter often necessary to provide ground for the former. Buildings Must Die does more than simply point out this fact. It reminds us that it is still important to focus on the lessons of slowness, decay, and death. There is value in the old, the broken, and the beautifully worn, just as there are lessons in the cultural constructs of economics and fashion that too often dictate the terms of a building’s exit from this world. Buildings Must Die offers an alternative perspective that could allow architects to better contextualize the material consequences of their production by contemplating their ends as well as their means. This is laudable as our profession grapples with a host of fierce problems that include increasing resource scarcity, population growth, and the economic realities of globalism and asset urbanism (as examples).

While the review of this book is largely positive, there is a rub. The authors, who are expressly interested in the corporeal bodies of architecture and the material realities of construction, decay, and demolition, largely eschew deeper specifics of these topics in favor of lateral connections and wordplay. The survey moves between concepts ranging from dross, junk, and rust to dilapidation, demolition, and ruin, touching too briefly on examples of each. This could leave the reader longing for a deeper examination of fewer examples. Despite this criticism, it is clear that Cairns and Jacobs have command of their subject and have brought together a wide and diverse set of ideas to make their cases. While the book remains squarely in the disembodied world of theory and criticism, it does offer concrete arguments and perspectives on what is a fascinating and underserved topic. Buildings Must Die ultimately breaks new ground and offers a valuable and fresh perspective. This book about the material, cultural, and conceptual consequences of decay and death leads one to reconsider the attributes of old and new buildings alike. In doing so, we see opportunities for physical bodies that exist in, and inevitably leave, an increasingly virtual, immaterial world.

Bernard Tschumi’s Advertisements for Architecture were a series of postcard-sized text-image juxtapositions created in 1976–77, each a “manifesto of sorts,” according to the architect.
Renata Hejduk, “Death Becomes Her: Transgression, Decay, and eROTicism in Bernard Tschumi’s Early Writings and Projects,” Journal of Architecture 12, no. 4 (August 2007): 393–404, 396.

How to Cite this Article: Satterfield, Blair. Review of Buildings Must Die: A Perverse View of Architecture, by Stephen Cairns and Jane Jacobs. JAE Online. September 22, 2016. https://jaeonline.org/issue-article/buildings-must-die/.