Architectural history in an era of capitalist ruin

WE LIKE TO THINK OF BUILDINGS as being permanent, unchanging. They feel permanent; after all, it is part of a building’s basic purpose, reliably sheltering us from the elements. But the unfortunate truth is that most buildings do not last long. It might shock you to learn that a 2001 U.S. Census report found that the average age of a residential building was a mere thirty-two years. In neighboring Canada, the average age of all non-residential buildings falls just short of eighteen years.[1] Nor is this perpetual youth—a symptom in part of wear and tear, constant development, and demolition—restricted to everyday buildings; it’s true of capital-A architecture as well. Many Modernist buildings, even those designed by important architects, are considered obsolete after only two or three decades. 

Fortunately, for some buildings, the large institutions behind Capital-A architecture and Capital-P preservation devote considerable time and resources to safeguarding the architectural legacies of Great Artists, or the buildings that once housed Great People or played spectator to Great Events. These are the fewer than 2,600 buildings deemed National Historic Landmarks, those structures which, according to the qualifying criteria: “have the strongest association with a significant event in our nation’s history, that best [tell] the story of an individual who played a significant role in the history of our nation, that are an exceptional representation of a particular building or engineering method, technique, or building type, and/or have the potential to yield new and innovative information about the past through archeology.”

What if I told you one of the largest ever undertakings in American historic preservation was happening on Flickr?

In reality, even this loftiest of federal designations lacks the teeth to prevent significant alteration to historic buildings: property owners are free to make any changes (including demolition) unless doing so is prohibited or restricted by local law. And the more common designation, inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places, which covers over ninety thousand sites, still leaves many buildings vulnerable to demolition or significant modification—all the better to please the rentier class. In an article debunking “common myths” on the National Trust for Historic Preservation website, homeowners with listed properties are reassured about the supremacy of private ownership over history: “Some people may consider your house to be a national treasure, but it’s still your house. You can rent it out, lease it, transfer it, will it away, or dispose of it in any way that tickles your fancy.” Local and state historic registers offer more stringent legal protection of their listed buildings, but these designations apply on an intensely politicized case-by-case basis. Often, this means old buildings are fussed over, or otherwise protected by laws and cushy tax benefits, in an effort “to preserve community character,” implying that newer buildings have none.

In fact, what all these historic designations have in common is that they restrict protection, as a matter of convention, to buildings over fifty years old. The significance of a younger building must be proven, which requires it to have had some involvement with notable architects, valued historical figures, or momentous events. The concept of significance at work here, in other words, is one that takes for granted the notion that history is a forward march led by a handful of Great People; under this sad rubric, most buildings are by definition insignificant, regardless of the value they may have had for those unknowns who experienced them. These everyday lives and experiences, this reasoning demands, do not contribute to history.

Meanwhile, the houses of the elite, designed by architects and included in architectural history, become either storied private properties or house museums. Common housing that has been faithfully maintained sometimes joins the ranks of these desirables; otherwise it becomes a subject of archaeology. Even if buildings old enough to have “character” are restored—such as nineteenth-century factories whose walls enclosed the horrors of labor—they are, in the end, transformed into lofts whose luxuriousness is subsidized by taxpayers. Just as a fraction of the U.S. population hoards most of its wealth, a tiny number of buildings are chosen to house its history. And these buildings, more often than not, offer a history owned and controlled by the social, political, economic, or cultural elite.

Yet historic preservation is not inevitably elitist or reactionary. In fact, the complaint I’ve raised here has been much debated within the historic preservation community itself, with many American preservationists arguing for standards closer to those in Australia, where a building’s spiritual importance is weighed alongside its age and architectural merit. It’s also true that we can’t possibly save everything; nobody is caping for historic landmark status for the Olive Garden down the road. What I take issue with is that the criteria established by historic preservation has become the de facto standard by which we measure the significance, both emotional and cultural, of a building’s loss. And, what’s worse, these criteria are informed by historic preservation’s role as a project of moneyed institutions, whether they be museums, cultural centers, nonprofit organizations, universities, or governments, whose power has allowed them to play an outsize role in the shaping of architectural history—at least until recently. Predictably, historic preservation’s strategy of leveraging money, power, and elite history has undermined its professed aims; the past year alone has shown us that the likelihood of losing an “important” building grows nearer to the likelihood of losing an unimportant building. In the face of these changes, which are a result of major preservation commissions ceding ground to big city developers, perhaps it’s time to familiarize the big institutions of architecture with the methods and attitudes of those devoted to the built environment found right outside their front doors.

Shadow Populism

What if I told you one of the largest ever undertakings in American historic preservation was happening not through the graces of any large institution, but through the autonomous participation of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of individuals across the country, who are collectively stitching together their own narrative of architectural history?

The “Kmart” group on the photo-sharing website Flickr has amassed a staggering twenty-five thousand photos of its subject, a struggling American discount store. It hardly matters that, against the grain of the high-architectural image factory, many of these photos could not be called artistic—a number of them appear to have been taken with shaky cell phones, or from the wrong side of a speeding car. The production of high-gloss photography is not the purpose of this group. It’s purpose is to document a slow extinction.

Like many brick-and-mortar retail giants, Kmart has not fared particularly well in the era of internet commerce. At its peak in 2000, Kmart operated 2,171 US stores. As of May 2018, only 365 survive, with thirteen more closures and liquidations announced as of this writing. Recognizing this decline ten years ago, the Kmart Flickr group, as well as other Kmart-related websites like, have meticulously amassed photographs and other archival materials, such as vintage advertisements, creating what is likely the single most complete visual archive of the store outside of Kmart’s own corporate archives. In the discussion section of the Flickr group, users meticulously track changes to individual stores, with many reporting directly from the field. Several users check in on individual stores on a schedule, recording changes in a degree of detail even seasoned scientists would find enviable: in the “Discussion” section of the group, user styertown provides one such bone-dry update on a few of his local stores: “In Passaic, NJ, Belleville, NJ and Farmingdale, NY, they have rotated many of the shelving gondolas by 90 degrees and re-configured Jewelry and some apparel.”

Flickr, a quasi-social photo aggregation site, has proven to be one of the premier platforms for this style of archival work from below, especially in the post-blog era of the social media-driven web where data has become more and more consolidated on a few central digital platforms. Given the relative paucity of competitors, and the industriousness of its users, the scope of subjects handled by Flickr’s ethnographers is vast. There are Flickr groups for photos of pretty much every commercial chain, from drugstores to supermarkets, fast food restaurants to hotels. There are Flickr groups devoted to documenting signs both vintage and contemporary; for motel postcards and dead malls; for abandoned buildings and defunct brands of every stripe. It’s not just commercial landscapes that are being documented, but also residential architecture, and even formal architecture, such as midcentury modern and late modern architecture. There are factions, for example “Keepers of Pasadena,” devoted to documenting the architecture of specific regions or cities, regardless of the aesthetic merit of these buildings. Individual users often amass bodies of work in the thousands and tens of thousands of photos. One “Charles Hathaway” (username romleys), whose bio lists “cook” at Mazzio’s Pizza as his occupation, has uploaded over eleven thousand photos of the American commercial landscape. Users such as walmart3 and gameking3 have each taken over fifteen thousand photos of retail chains. Many large contributors to various Flickr groups have similarly impressive stats.

Such projects are not only limited to Flickr. Surely most of us have stumbled upon Facebook groups devoted to documenting America’s continuously transfigured built environment. Even niche groups local to me, like BALTIMORE OLD PHOTOS, or Good Ol’ Glen Burnie Mall, have membership lists in the thousands. Some nationwide pages, such as Dead Mall Enthusiasts, boast over twenty-six thousand members. Tumblr blogs, too, are a large source of archival material, particularly scans of old magazines, advertisements, and other print publications.

I would go so far as to say that these groups consist of an entire shadow-world of populist historic preservation, one operating almost entirely beyond the purview of established institutions. These populist preservationists, though detailed in their observations, forego the formalities of library science and ignore the standards set by official preservation criteria. Yet the total scope and scale of their projects rivals (if not exceeds) that of the Library of Congress’s Historic American Buildings Survey (HABS) and Historic American Landscapes Survey (HALS), the two most substantial national surveys of written, photographic, and architectural documentation of American vernacular architecture, combined.

And yet, despite their organizational and methodological separation from “official” preservation, these groups and their purpose are not completely without their ties to past movements in architectural history and theory.

The Postmodern Morass

The term “populist” is a muddy one, used both to endorse and disparage groups and movements across the political spectrum. For its part, architectural populism is often framed as one side on a dividing line between an “us,” consisting of vernacular or common architecture (the architecture of everyday), and a “them,” comprising the elite institutions of architecture and its great practitioners, from Vitruvius to Frank Gehry. A marked distinction is made between unimportant and important architecture; and it’s a distinction, as I noted above, that is reinforced by the related institution of historic preservation, which often plays the legal and symbolic role of arbiter by determining which buildings are and are not disposable.

No building, even one designed by a celebrated architect, is safe any longer from the mercilessness of capital.

It was not so long ago, however, that institutions both architectural and otherwise acknowledged and embraced rhetorics of populism themselves. At the dawn of postmodernism in the late 1960s and early 1970s, several important thinkers celebrated the spirited architecture of everyday life. As a precursor to this movement, Jane Jacobs made the case for the complex social arrangement of the traditional urban fabric at a time when mass urban renewal fueled by modernist concepts of urban planning had branded it a hotbed of crime and filth. Later, landscape writer John Brinckerhoff Jackson emphasized the need to expand the study of the built environment to the scale of the landscape; he made the argument that the study of ordinary buildings and infrastructures is central for understanding changes in society, economics, and culture as they occur. Before he was famous for his multi-decade histories of postmodernism, architectural theorist Charles Jencks wrote a book, Daydream Houses of Los Angeles, that both sneered at and celebrated the fantastic and eclectic residential architecture of Beverly Hills. Today’s Instagram-popular photographers of the changing American landscape, such as Dan Bell and PH Donohue, build upon an ideology and style of photography established by Robert Adams and Stephen Shore. And, finally, perhaps the most relevant of these populist writings is the 1972 work Learning from Las Vegas by Robert Venturi, Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour. Part ethnographical and architectural survey of the Las Vegas strip, part examination of the symbolism and iconography of urban sprawl, and part critique of the institution of modernist architecture, Learning from Las Vegas centered the tastes and values of “common people” against the demands of elitist and unsympathetic architectural institutions. In general, the solution to this problem proposed by these authors is for architecture that deliberately blurs the lines between mass (us) and high (them) culture. The ideological framework of the authors is clearly expressed on the first page of the book:

Architects are out of the habit of looking non-judgmentally at the environment, because orthodox Modern architecture is progressive . . . it is dissatisfied with existing conditions. Modern architecture has been anything but permissive: Architects have preferred to change the existing environment rather than enhance what is there. . . . We look backward at history and tradition to go forward, we can also look downward to go upward. And withholding judgement may be used as a tool to make later judgement more sensitive.  

It is important, however, to note the differences between the practices of today’s populist landscape ethnographers and their predecessors. The most striking is that Venturi & Co.—themselves attached to the architectural institutions they criticized—viewed the practice of studying common architecture explicitly in terms of “withholding judgment” and “looking downward” on what is observed. Even given their populist approach, the authors still strike a pose of alienation toward the architecture of the everyday, accepting it as qualitatively separate from (albeit useful to) real architecture. (How noble of the intelligentsia to grace the lower depths with their presence!) This alienation is also reflected in many of today’s academic institutions, where the study of everyday architecture is often relegated to fields that are explicitly not subsets of architectural study, such as sociology, anthropology, and cultural studies. The construction of what constitutes “populism,” in the view of architecture theorists like Jencks or Venturi or Scott Brown, is called into question by fellow theorists, including leftist thinkers, namely Fredric Jameson.

In Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Jameson is skeptical about the idea of populism put forward by postmodern architectural theorists. His criticism is twofold. First, postmodern theorists, in appealing to the common people, fail to distinguish forms of commercial culture—like branding and television and architecture designed for the interest of the market—from the “older kinds of folk and genuinely ‘popular’ culture which flourished when the older social classes of a peasantry and an urban artisanat still existed”—that is, folk or populist culture that was later “extinguished by the commodification and the market system.”

Second, Jameson writes, what is often called “populism” is merely a symptom of a larger cultural shift “in which what used to be stigmatized as mass or commercial culture is now received into the precincts of a new and enlarged cultural realm.” The aim of the broader project of postmodern architectural populism, in other words, is not to admire or learn from the everyday architectural landscape, but to elevate capitalism and consumer culture, which underpin this landscape, to the status of art. In this respect, as Jameson argues in his broader critique of postmodernism, culture itself has now become “a product in its own right”; where modernism was at least concerned with critiquing the commodity, “Postmodernism is the consumption of sheer commodification as a process.”

The online architectural populists I’m describing, however, subscribe neither to an ideology that lazily blurs mass and consumer culture, nor to a structural critique of capitalism or consumer culture. What makes these online groups more populist than postmodernist, in fact, is that they comprise, quite literally, “the people.” To this end, they have taken it upon themselves to document and celebrate their architecture: the architecture that surrounds them. Unlike the postmodern theorists, who assume that the tastes of “the people” are inherently lowbrow, these groups express interest in a number of styles regardless of their aesthetic standing in architectural history. And the hundreds of thousands of participants in Facebook groups devoted to whatever location or type of building are politically and demographically diverse, brought together only by these architectures as a common interest.

What drives these anonymous sharers to take hundreds of thousands of photographs of architecture ranging from Kmart to brutalism? It’s not some self-ennobling attempt to elevate their own standing or taste; it’s more a collective feeling of loss. In expressing this loss, they’re facing up to a fact about architecture that is too often ignored: most of us do not have the power to materially change or preserve the built environment. And though individual architects and preservationists often lurk any forum in which buildings are the topic of discussion, they, as individuals, share in this common lack of power. What’s more, those architectural professionals often understand something their respective institutions fail to grasp: that no building, even one designed by a celebrated architects, or added to the National Register, is safe any longer from the mercilessness of capital. In this scenario of the populist “us” versus “them,” the “us” is, well, us—and the image of the world we’ve constructed for ourselves. The “them” is capitalism.

Toys “Rn’t” Us

When capitalism looks at a building, it recognizes neither the preservationist’s formal designation of its architectural or historical importance, nor the cultural or emotional significance granted to it by ordinary people. All it sees—it’s in the name—is capital. The last year, which has been particularly difficult for both the Important Architecture community and the informal groups of online enthusiasts, has demonstrated this fact with sadistic glee.

For big-A architecture, New York City is the epicenter of this hardship. The city rezoning plan put forth by Bill de Blasio in 2014, which is particularly informed by real estate and business interests, has already claimed its first architectural victim in Midtown. 270 Park Avenue is a handsome, International Style skyscraper built in 1961 by one of the most significant twentieth-century female architects, Natalie de Blois of the firm Skidmore, Owings & Merrill. The announced demolition of the skyscraper, headquarters to the many-tentacled JP Morgan Chase, sparked widespread criticism from architects and preservationists throughout the country.

To make matters worse, the government body charged with overseeing the protection of the city’s important buildings, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission, has been rendered more or less useless under the neoliberal tenure of its recently resigned chair, Meenakshi Srinivasan, who is notorious in the architecture and preservation community for having gone merrily along with de Blasio’s unashamedly pro-developer agenda. And this lack of protection extends even to Extremely Famous Buildings, like Philip Johnson’s AT&T Building, one of the most important examples of postmodern architecture ever to exist, which has faced avaricious developers seeking to demolish its iconic lobby—all the better to install a generic two-story translucent glass storefront of the sort devouring the ground floor of every once-unique building in New York City. (Though the building was awarded landmark status in August, the lobby is still closed and covered with scaffolding and any revised drawings for the redevelopment have yet to be released, which means it’s unclear whether the fight for preservation is really over.) Or there’s another example: the quiet swallowing of Steinway Hall, an icon of both architecture and classical music history built in 1925, by yet another glassy New York supertall. Or, finally, if you want an example of complete and utter failure to preserve modern architecture outside of New York: a Frank Lloyd Wright (yes, that Frank Lloyd Wright, as in the most famous American architect to have ever lived) building was demolished in Whitefish, Montana, in January. Any way you look at it, the writing is on the sliding door: skyscrapers and architectural icons are endangered because regulatory agencies, in bed with business interests, strip away the protections they were created to enforce. This means Big A-architecture and Big-P preservation are finally coming to terms with something online amateur architectural historians have acknowledged for a long time: resistance to change in the age of neoliberal capitalism is futile.

There are winners and losers in capitalism, and the losers don’t get to keep their buildings.

The difference between the architectural populists and their neoliberal counterparts can be found in the quality of their responses to capitalist destruction. When retailer Toys “R” Us—which filed for bankruptcy protection in September of last year as it stared down some $5 billion in debt—announced in 2018 that it would liquidate its stores, a great horde of amateur historians set out to document this demise. The photographs of the store closings shared in Flickr groups cover all aspects of the liquidation, from the auctioning of store fixtures and furniture to signage removal. These images represent perhaps the final archive, the last glimpses of Toys “R” Us (though it has called of its bankruptcy auction), which the world may otherwise never be able to experience again. It means more than you might think: 270 Park Avenue at least had Big Architecture on its side, ready to confirm the building’s significance, to qualify it as worthy, but there is no one who believes Toys “R” Us is an example of worthwhile architecture. The significance of Toys “R” Us, on the other hand, derives not from preservationist committee, but from the (mostly enjoyable) role it played in people’s daily lives. Yes, Toys “R” Us sold Power Wheels and Nerf guns; like most corporations, it sucks in its own special way. But it still managed to put smiles on the faces of children. Tellingly, though—and against the grain of the response to the impending demolition of 270 Park Avenue—there may be no pushback, no fight against the liquidation of Toys “R” Us, but there is grief and acceptance.

This is the ice-cold reality of the retail death spiral. It’s why people feel the need to collect motel postcards, share old photos of their hometowns, and document the finale of Kmart. The end time is always lurking; the only thing you can do is take pictures and post stories before it happens. There is no alternative, there is no saving your childhood home after it’s caught in the crosshairs of the developer; there is no salvaging the hotel ballroom where you held your wedding reception; there is no rescuing the Sears where you worked your first job. These photographs and stories are not celebrations of great architecture, but they are an epilogue born of existing and preemptive grief for beloved objects and spaces ground up in the gears of money and progress. For these populist archivists, the project would not be so urgent if there were a scintilla of hope for a future without the ceaseless, inevitable ruination of so many landscapes, buildings, and cultural artifacts.

Preservation Unpreserved

The practitioners of online architectural history understand that loss is a defining feature of the capitalist landscape. There are winners and losers in capitalism, and the losers don’t get to keep their buildings. Nor is anyone entirely immune from this feeling of loss: I recently felt a surprising amount of sadness after visiting a dying mall in North Carolina, where my mother once took my sister and me back-to-school shopping. And this sadness felt no different, for me, than the emotion I experienced when I heard that Paul Rudolph’s Goshen Government Complex, the enigmatic concrete building that sparked my interest in architecture in the first place, had lost its own preservation battle.

The loss is the same because architecture, high or common, forms the backdrop of everyday life. I decided to dedicate my life to writing about architecture as I weaved between waves of school children on a visit to Le Corbusier’s Villa Savoye; I first realized I was attracted to women as well as men one fateful tweenage day I spent trying on training bras at a Limited Too. These moments were cornerstones in my life and experience, and the role each built environment played in them was, in both meanings of the word, foundational. The aesthetic quality of the architecture, or the purity of its intention, or its historical gravity, cannot invalidate that.

We spend our entire lives assuming that buildings are permanent, and that, on this basis, we can revisit our pasts. The Kmart archivists know that this isn’t true. Businesses fail, brownstones are razed to make room for luxury high-rises, and whole histories are demolished. The financialization of real estate has delivered blow after blow to residential and commercial architecture through its replacement of old buildings, no matter their architectural merit, with new properties that are more likely to sell for a profit or endure as liquid assets priced for the 1 percent. The agonizing, two-decade decline of retail continues unabated.

John Brinckerhoff Jackson, writing at the dawn of neoliberal capitalism, was right. Cultural, economic, and sociological change can be read through the built environment, whether it comes in the guise of freshly built Brooklyn apartments or empty McMansions, decayed factories or sparkling, windowless distribution centers. These buildings all tell the same stories. In the same way, 270 Park Avenue’s desperate plea for protection against New York City’s bulldozers and the painful withering of Kmart tell the same story. Big city preservationists, who thought they could survive by aligning their interests with those of developers, have instead taken their cities, and especially New York City, back to the days before measures for historic preservation were created to protect vulnerable buildings. Those who study and cherish the landscape of the everyday, oppositely, know that their subjects of fascination, the buildings they love, never had such protections to begin with. So the story, again, is the same: we’re all standing on shaky ground, and the trucks are rumbling in the distance. Come next month, the condos will rise.

[1] It’s difficult, of course, to find statistics on the actual lifespan of buildings, however it is easy to find policy that explains why the age of buildings skews so low. An average building age of thirty-two years conveniently coincides with an interesting date range in the US tax code, the “recovery period,” part of the IRS tax deduction for depreciation, which “allows you to recover the cost or other basis of certain property over the time you use the property. It is an allowance for the wear and tear, deterioration, or obsolescence of the property.” As Baltimore City preservationist Jackson Gilman-Forlini explained to me via email: “The IRS determines how much you can deduct based on the value of the property or the improvements (the ‘basis’) divided over the lifespan of the asset. This lifespan is called the ‘recovery period’ and is set at 27.5 years for residential rental property and thirty-nine years for non-residential property.” When a building reaches the end of this recovery period, it is no longer eligible for the tax deduction because it is considered valueless. This, in turn, encourages redevelopment at a rate of 27.5 or thirty-nine years.

Extracted via The Baffler