Building Mortality

The Department of Energy claims that the typical building in the United States lives for seventy-four years before being demolished. In China, new builds average a mere thirty years before being razed. With building lifetimes now shorter than our own, how should architects address the global challenges and consequences associated with high rates of building mortality?

We’ve spoken to prominent figures who seek to transform the ephemeral material culture of the built environment in different ways. Francis Kéré told us about local manufacturing culture in Gando, Burkina Faso, and the civic responsibility people share for building maintenance across generations. Meanwhile Billie Tsien and Tod Williams expressed a clear set of values that give their buildings a lasting identity while also reflecting on the loss and pain that architects might experience during their own lifetimes. For Camilo Vergara, the built environment is in a constant state of cultural and memorial accumulation and posits that there is no unifying conclusion we can draw from a building’s finite lifetime.

What we’ve learned is that there are multiple understandings of a building’s physical or figural lifetime. The diversity of our contributors’ answers urges us to be conscious of our broader professional responsibilities to conserve resources but also to exercise our authority as designers of cultural artefacts that might exist longer in memory than they exist as material.