There are two ways to build. One is to strive for absolute visual perfection, and then wage a desperate and invariably losing battle to preserve it. The other is to accept that perfection is not just unattainable, but also unnecessary, thereby making time’s passage an ally instead of an enemy.
Much of modern architecture, and especially the work of International-style architects, was predicated upon the former approach. Worshipping at the altar of the machine, modernist architects strove for flawless surfaces and absolute precision of detail. Alas, in the case of many modernist works — including some of the most renowned examples — any state of perfection that may have existed began to decay the moment the buildings were completed. After a few short years of sullying by weather and the ordination wear and tear of human habitation, those sparkling white walls and razor-sharp corners came to look more than a little tatty. It’s been the good fortune of many modernist icons — say, Mies van der Rohe’s Barcelona pavilion, or Corbusier’s Villa Savoye — to be known mainly through old documentary photographs in which, frozen in time, they can remain forever crisp, clean and stunning.
Which brings us to the other approach: the idea of building timelessly. If it really can be done, why do we architects manage to do it so seldom? Perhaps it’s because building in sympathy with time’s effects, rather than being eternally at war with them, requires us to give up the cherished ideal of visual perfection, and to accept the disturbing fact that no matter how hard we try to forestall it, Mother Nature eventually has the last word over everything we build.
Despite such rather daunting opposition, however, many architects still seem hell-bent on flouting time and nature. With expectations bordering on delusion, they specify glossy paint over steel that’s ineludibly doomed to rust, demand great swaths of flawless stucco that’s bound to become laced with cracks, and devise complicated color schemes whose maintenance will soon be neglected by generations with differing taste.
The modernist faith seems to die hard, however. Many architects continue to subscribe to the idea that buildings can and should feature flawless, mechanistic finishes. This may help explain why so many relatively new buildings seem to have weathered their brief years so badly.
Ironically, it’s been the very buildings that were held in contempt by “serious” modernist architects — the Revivalist designs of the early 20th century — that have aged most gracefully. Some of these were painstakingly authentic copies of historic styles, while others were carried out with a theatrical flourish bordering on caricature. However, in no case did their architects regard perfection as an ideal, or natural aging as an enemy to be overcome. Today, despite the passage of so many decades — many of them spent in neglect — these buildings have lost none of their original vitality. On the contrary, time has been very kind to them, burnishing many into a state of venerable grace that even their architects could never have imagined.
Or could they?
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