If architects feel obliged to design timeless buildings, you’d never know it from much of the work being built today. The current fashion for nonfunctional excrescences and complicated paint schemes bespeaks an increasingly cavalier attitude about the need for buildings to age with grace, and the burdens they create for their owners when they don’t.
For too many architects, how a building looks in its opening day portrait seems to matter more than how a it will survive the rough road of actual use. After all, any building is ageless once it’s safely enshrined in the architect’s portfolio. How it fares in real life is often something else again.
Paint remains the number one vice of shortsighted architects. While five-color paint schemes are a guaranteed grabber on opening day, it’s only a matter of years--and sometimes months--before all that painstaking brushwork chips, fades, and requires recoating. Renewing such complex designs is an expensive undertaking that, when it’s done at all, seldom approaches the quality of the original job.
Nor is much thought given to exactly how such painted structures will be maintained. In a recently-built outdoor shopping plaza, for instance, I came across a hundred-foot-long pergola meant to support climbing vines, which the architect unexplicably chose to build out of painted steel. Did he or she ever consider how this structure, preordaineded as it was to rust, would be repainted once it was overgrown with creepers?
Fabric awnings are another common bit of architectural flim-flam. Among the most short-lived products in architecture, awnings are indispensible for their intended purpose--providing shade and shelter. Too often, though, they’re used gratuitously, like so much silk ribbon, in the hopes of adding a festive air to an otherwise dull design. Inevitably, most examples are mildewed, faded, or hanging in very un-festive tatters within a few years.
Many architects who do manage to resist the quick fix of fabric awnings instead fall prey to horizontal glass canopies--another idea that looks lovely in a computer rendering, but simply doesn’t work in practice. Gravity being what it is, all those crystalline surfaces quickly collect an unsightly layer of dirt, dust, and dead insects--an outcome that even the most rigorous maintenance can’t prevent.
Then there’s the whole panoply of outriggers, props, sunscreens, and other gratuitous bric-a-brac that nowadays sprout from building facades For lazy architects, such offhand applique’ is yet another shortcut to visual impact. After the fad for gewgaws inevitably passes, however, these features serve mainly to ensure an excruciatingly dated look.
None of these are willfully negligent design choices on the part of architects--just stupid and misguided ones. We architects think nothing of devoting hours or days to choosing colors and finishes. Yet a glance at much recent work suggests we spend much less time thinking about that most fundamental of architectural qualities: a building’s ability to grow old with grace.
As the reformed Modernist architect Edward Durell Stone put it in 1966: “Architecture is not millinery. Fashions pass by, buildings remain to become grim reminders of transient enthusiasms.”