Memory  /  Comment

The Archivists of Extinction

Architectural history in an era of capitalist ruin.

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.