Outgoing President's Message
By David Marshall
America is the greatest nation on Earth, but Americans have a disturbing characteristic that is the antithesis of preservation - we love to throw things away. Disposability has become an unfortunate hallmark of the American Way of Life. Our landfills are packed with items that still had usefulness and value. Many perfectly good old buildings are torn down and replaced with inferior new buildings. In the eyes of many unenlightened Americans, old is bad.
Maybe Americans are this way because, compared to other nations, the United States is a relatively "new" country, having been around for only 228 years. Part of our dumpster-filling attitude must be due to our consumer-based society where nothing seems worthwhile unless it's "new and improved!"
Americans have the modern convenience of disposable razors, disposable toothbrushes and now even disposable digital cameras. We don't bother getting our VCRs or computer printers repaired because it's cheaper to buy new ones. Many Americans are in the habit of getting new cars every three years because they miss that new car smell.
The disposable world we live in makes preservation that much more challenging. Good old buildings shouldn't be considered disposable, but they often are. If we can recycle aluminum cans why can't we recycle old buildings? The irony is that the new buildings going up around the city will one day be considered old and ready for the same fate as their predecessors.
Years ago, I remember reading a quote from famed architect Frank Gehry, the designer of LA's new Disney Concert Hall. Gehry proudly said that all of his buildings were temporary and were designed out of inexpensive and common materials because they wouldn't last long anyway. It would be foolish and egocentric, he believed, to think otherwise. Gehry expressed disdain for the architects of previous generations who considered their buildings to be timeless monuments that would last for hundreds of years.
Frank Gehry is a tremendous architect and influential designer whom I have admired for many years. I can understand Gehry's point, but I still think planned obsolescence in architecture is an ignorant and shortsighted philosophy - especially in this landfill-dominated country. The reason the world still has great buildings like St. Peter's Cathedral, Windsor Castle and the Hotel Del Coronado is because those buildings were not only beautifully designed, but also built with care and quality to last for future generations. Building only for the moment is foolish and a waste of money and resources. Americans have enough things that are poorly made - why should our buildings be just as disposable? Good buildings shouldn't have expiration dates.
I can't help wondering if, in his wiser older years, Frank Gehry still believes that all his buildings are temporary. If so, I doubt that he mentioned it to the developers of the Disney Concert Hall while they were spending $274 million to build Gehry's temporary masterpiece.
Note As you may have heard, in May I stepped down from the SOHO Board of Directors and as SOHO President. I did so because of the increased demands from my architectural firm. I'm moving up to the position of President of Heritage Architecture & Planning and the hours spent volunteering with SOHO needed to be reduced. I leave the Board with great feelings for SOHO and strong pride in what we've accomplished. The current SOHO leadership and staff are as strong and competent as they've ever been. I look forward to continuing to support SOHO and their efforts to protect our heritage.
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