Designing for a Building's Future

Designing for a Building's Future

by René Boer

Often, all aspects of architectural production, from its conceptualization and design to its materialization and promotion, converge towards the opening day of a building: the day when the ribbons are cut, the architects are praised, and the champagne flows in abundance. In other words, the official birth of a building.

In the lead-up to this day, press releases have been published, containing picture-perfect renderings of the building and a statement loaded with superlatives. The photoshopped images with shiny surfaces, successful people and blue skies, together with the promotional “archilingo,” are uncritically reposted on digital architecture media channels such as Architizer, ArchDaily and Dezeen. When a building first opens its doors, journalists pour in for the photo opportunity and dutifully report on the architect’s act of creation. The tenants get their keys and the dust settles.

Having all the spotlights on a building’s first glorious moment is of course nothing new in the architectural world, but the fact that a building survives beyond the opening day is willfully ignored—now more than ever. Besides the lip service paid to the sustainable materials “that will last,” usually not a single glimpse of what the actual “life” of a building might look like is provided.

Athens Olympics 2004, Photo by Ioanna Sakellaraki

Of course, it is difficult to predict the future. Still, it is surprising that despite the long-term influence new buildings have on their inhabitants and the urban environment, projections of any kind on how these relationships may unfold are a rarity. What might the possible life span of a building be? How will it be inhabited in the years to come? Could it be used for other purposes in the (distant) future? What will it look like decades from now? How might new technologies influence the way it is used? And what will the ongoing impact of this building on the city be like?

In other words, the “future legacy” of a building is generally given very little thought, rarely considered in the design process, and almost never shared with a wider audience. Architecture, according to Stephan Cairns and Jane Jacobs, authors of the book “Buildings Must Die,” is imbued with a “natalist fixation.” They suggest that both within the profession and in the wider society, it is the materialization of power and the accomplished (st)architect’s geniality that is celebrated, instead of a building's long-lasting contribution to society. However, this celebration is based on a delusion not much different from Fukuyama’s thesis on the “end of history,” in which the present is attributed with unique, durable qualities unlikely to change anytime soon.

Ex Communist Party House, Photo by Ioanna Sakellaraki

This “fixation” is of course stimulated by the financial context in which contemporary architecture is realized. Often, immediate profit is the core rationale of a building's creation, which reduces the interest of stakeholders in how it will perform socially, economically or physically over a longer period of time. In the case that the property is intended for rent, a 30 or 40-year exploitation and maintenance scheme might be in place, at least providing a financial horizon. But even then, it's unlikely that any vision has been developed on how a building might function in a radically different social context or how a changing city, or any other significant future development, might impact its use.

The pop-up trend in architecture, which became popular during the financial crisis of the last decade, also illustrates the shortsightedness of the field. While pop-up projects, whether they are a summertime restaurant pavilion or a temporary refugee camp, often take into account the entire lifespan of a construction, they do not provide perspective on the long-term urban development of an area beyond that brief, single intervention. As these projects have to work with temporary available space and limited financial means, they often do not leave a lasting legacy. In addition, these projects also often suffer from a lack of a vision on how an archipelago of nomadic pop-ups could have a more durable impact on the city beyond its current role in stimulating gentrification.

Interior Michigan Theatre Detroit, Photo by Ioanna Sakellaraki

Not taking the possible future trajectory of a building into account often leads to its “failure.” Unable to adapt to new circumstances and developments, many buildings have become obsolete with the passing of time. Besides the negative socio-economical impacts that abandoned remnants of the past can have on their immediate surroundings, the question of ecological performance becomes increasingly important. With the demolition and construction sectors being major contributors of CO2 emissions, we simply cannot continue to put up and tear down buildings at this rate.

The fact that most architectural projects of a certain scale will leave a spatial legacy of some sort makes stakeholders involved in their construction responsible for a project's outcome. Therefore, related professions may want to broaden their horizon and attempt to relate to the future of their projects at least in some way. Without becoming naively utopian, researching and speculating on possible social, technological and political developments and the future transformation of the immediate spatial context deserves more attention and can become an integral part of contemporary design processes.

Michigan Theatre Detroit, Photo by Ioanna Sakellaraki

There are myriad ways of taking this challenge seriously without falling back on unrealistic renderings of futures that won't exist. Thinking about or implementing forms of long-term guardianship of a project could be one possible option. If a building is owned by an association with long-term goals, for example, focused on the provision of secure and affordable housing, it would make different choices than real estate investors with a focus on quick profit. This association could help a building adapt to changing circumstances, such as household compositions and housing preferences. What's more, long-term forms of guardianship could provide a basis for longer exploitation schemes and possibly allow for much lower rents.

Physically preparing a building for future changes is another way to take this challenge seriously. Perhaps its design could allow the building to expand in different ways, making it easy to change floor plans or adjust to adjacent structures within the urban environment. Architectural movements of the past, such as the Structuralists and the Metabolists, have already attempted to put similar ideas at the core of their practice. Many of their projects however, have shown that in reality it can be quite hard and that really allowing for future alterations needs much more flexible building methods.

Designing for the inevitable decay of a building's components is yet another consideration. Instead of ignoring these processes and passing the problem on to future owners, deterioration could be calculated and become a part of the actual project. If done well, this could generate “age value” for buildings, decrease the need to replace everything that looks slightly dated, and change public attitudes towards the natural aging of structures. As different parts of a building will have different lifespans, its design could anticipate the hassle-free and ecological replacement of its components. In many cases, this would amount to the easy removal of everything off a building's core structure, as the structure's lifespan is often much longer than the outdoor cladding or the interior finish.

Sarajevo Winter Olympics, Photo by Ioanna Sakellaraki

More radically, an architect could speculate preemptively on how a building would respond to long-term abandonment. While this idea has been appropriated by architects working under authoritarian regimes, including Albert Speer, whose megalomaniac “ruin value theory” was supposed to ensure that his buildings would become spectacular remnants of the heyday of Nazi ideology, the idea of considering future decay becomes productive when shifted to the scale of the individual building and removed from an ideology of domination. A modest prediction of one's own building as a ruin could protect it from becoming an unsightly or potentially dangerous element in a neighborhood and could consider how it might be re-used even after years of vacancy. To prevent it from becoming a ruin at all, the possible deconstruction of a building through an ecologically sustainable process could also be designed before its construction.

It would be interesting if an architect's research, speculations and designs for a building's lifecycle (and perhaps its possible death and resurrection) were published simultaneous to, or even instead of, the typical documents released before the construction of a building. In this way, a project could be judged for the intelligence with which its future performance is considered. Such a forward-looking approach could play a decisive role in competitions, but would also allow citizens, policy makers and politicians to scrutinize a project from a different angle. Likewise, it would provide another dimension for critics, who could not only drop by to review a building on that festive opening day, but also reflect on these future speculations and continue to follow up on them in the (many) years to come.

Woodward Church Detroit, Photo by Ioanna Sakellaraki

Besides designing the physical legacy of a building, there is also a cultural dimension to consider. How and from which perspective will people in the future judge the design choices made today? How will a building be perceived by the wider public decades from now? When and why will a building be classified as "heritage?" Interestingly, we see that buildings classified as heritage today tend to be appreciated because they are extreme examples of the design trends of their time. These buildings, however, are often not the most practical, user-friendly and sustainable ones, and in many cases led a problematic existence until they were adopted by the heritage industry.

Maybe it's about time to learn to appreciate buildings where their architects have not positioned them so rigidly in time, but made them relate to the past as well as the future. Beyond celebrating icons of a specific time, we can begin to welcome buildings for which a radically different extension has already been anticipated, for which a possible demolition has already been taken into account, or maybe even buildings whose organic materials will continue to grow over time, or even die at some point—in other words, buildings with future legacy inscribed as a central point of the initial design.

René Boer works on the intersection of art, architecture, cities and heritage as a researcher, curator and activist. He is part of the Non-fiction collective and managing-editor at the research studio Failed Architecture. René Boer holds a master degree in Urban Studies from University College London's UrbanLab and has written for among others Harvard Design Magazine, Volume and Studio.

Born in 1989 in Athens, Ioanna Sakellaraki currently lives and works in Brussels. She is a graduate of Photography and Journalism and a postgraduate of European Urban Cultures. She documents urban decay and lost architectural ruins and she focuses part of her work on memory and territory. She is very much interested in the relationship between her photography practice and ideas relating to aesthetically “mapping” the historical and contemporary context of relations with global and social systems of power.

All photos by Ioanna Sakellaraki.