Forever Young

By Max Levy
Texas Architect Magazine
May 2006

Drive between any two Texas cities and you may be surprised at what often emerges as the most engaging building seen alongside the highway. It’s probably not going to be the truck stop or the fast-food franchise or the awkwardly expressive church. More often than not, the most affecting building will be some rural ruin: a farmhouse, a barn, an equipment shed, long abandoned and weather-scoured. Curiously, almost all the other buildings you’ve seen on the trip, though relatively new and trying desperately not to age, seem more or less dead, while these ruins seem by comparison to be soulfully alive. You hurtle past them, they recede in your rear-view mirror, but they linger in your mind.

Forever Young Article Nostalgia is a part of our attraction to the old structures marooned out in those fields, but something deeper draws our attention. Sometimes it’s their savage silhouettes that recall the avant-garde energy of Frank Gehry or Sam Mockbee. Other times it’s the opposite that catches our eye: forms that are just so simple. The fact that these buildings may be leaning or sagging to some perilous degree only seems to heighten their stark presence. And then there’s all that gray, weathered wood, rusted metal, and time-worn masonry. We architects, who invest so much work in resisting the effects of nature on our buildings, are secretly awestruck by the beauty of such extreme weathering.

At certain times of day or season, at certain angles of view or light, these old places can even evoke a sense of timelessness or poetry. It is precisely these two qualities that alert our modernist sensibilities to these ruins; for modern architecture at its best is very much about timelessness and poetics. These are also qualities we seldom encounter anywhere these days, so when they do show up, regardless of the packaging, we are very alert to their presence. Agrarian buildings often achieve this highly charged state after they have weathered, while the weathering of modern buildings tends to diminish this condition.

Why are modernism and weathering so at odds? Historical architectural styles, in their adoration of the past, seem to fare better in this regard. Picture, for example, two buildings, both clad in wood siding painted white—one a nineteenth-century Greek Revival structure and the other a mid-twentieth-century modern flat-roofed design. Now picture the white paint peeling. The Greek Revival building seems at ease with this bit of weathering. Some might even feel its romance increased. Meanwhile, the idealism of the 1950s building now seems too fragile to have been left outdoors. What was originally so bright-eyed now seems forlorn. To maintain its power, modernism must be pampered, continually groomed. It can have no wrinkles, no gray hair, no loss of vitality. It seems that modernism has this crazy, unattainable wish to be forever young.

This wishful thinking is played out in the architectural press. Seldom do we see anything published other than images of buildings in the full bloom of youth. On the rare occasion that we do see an image of a building that has aged, it is usually a “before” photo in an article about the building’s triumphant restoration. Pictures of newly minted buildings can take on lives of their own in the cultural world and in our own imaginations. How many times over the course of our careers do we return to these perfect images as touchstones? How important they are as encouragements, helping us across rough places. But only in the abstract realm of print or electronic media can the “forever young” architectural wish actually succeed. For the real building standing out in the weather, it is another story.

Dust on a windowsill is washed down a wall by the rain and is baked into a permanent stain by the sun. A structural span of delicately honed proportions sags just slightly after a time. A building panel warps out of alignment with the panel below it, emphasized now by a distracting shadow at the joint. These seemingly minor things can break the spell that modern buildings strive to hold over our perceptions. Though widely regarded as “strong design” modernism is in truth the most fragile mode of architectural expression. It is strong yet fragile in the same way as poetry. Change just one letter or syllable and the whole poem goes on the blink. Modern buildings and poems both edit out the superfluous, and bring the essential into tight focus by refining and adjusting. When successful, buildings and poems can be strangely transcendent. But a blemish on a modern building can assume the visual weight of any other part of the overall, carefully controlled, reductive composition. The blemish becomes visually inescapable. Ultimately it can even dominate the scene and mock our idealistic aesthetic intentions.

When we design the “forever young” image into our projects, we usually do so at the expense of other things. Very often those other things include weatherability. We secretly anguish over this issue when orchestrating the details of our buildings. The detail that will weather well very often interferes with that expression of ease we seek. The more weatherable detail tends to be more bulky, or introduces an undesirable extra line, reduces flushness or thinness. To achieve relatively short-lived though glorious architectural effects, we seduce ourselves into making the same detail mistakes over and over again. And over again time passes, our buildings’ special effects spoil, and nature humiliates us. Why do we keep operating against our better judgment? It is as though we are in some kind of trance.

We are entranced by the idealism of modernism. Most of us are not even aware of this idealistic current flowing beneath all we do. Regardless of the caliber of our commissions, or the degree of intensity with which we address them, this current persists, however dimly. The modes of modernist expression we pursue may be white or gray, technological or earthy, but we are all propelled by the same idealistic desire: to lift people above life’s complications. This goal can be brought into reality through rather abstract means—the deft choreography of a floorplan, the beauty of pure form, the meditative quality of natural materials unadorned, the embodying of natural light, a graceful structural system. All these aesthetic appreciations amount to a type of idealism. Occasionally, when this idealism coalesces in a work of architecture, it conjures an atmosphere of timelessness. To experience such an atmosphere is uplifting, and it is a worthy goal of our work. But we often become so entranced in our reach for timelessness that we lose touch with time’s actual passage and the inevitable toll weathering will take upon our buildings.

Each building material has its preferred range of exposures to sun, rain, and compass. Some materials, if simply protected by an overhang, can last a hundred years or more and weather gracefully along the way. The same material unsheltered may, in only a couple of years, look neglected or abused. When we’re in the presence of this type of disappointing weathering, we feel distanced from nature, complicit somehow in human folly. On the other hand, when we’re around a building that is in the process of weathering handsomely, we feel more in concert with nature, and the passage of time seems less a negative thing.

Some of this thinking must have played a part in the amazing arc of Le Corbusier’s career. His early work was predominantly white, striving for the machined, sunning itself, heedlessly exposed. By contrast his late work was gravity bound, of robust materiality, with time’s passage visibly invited aboard every surface and detail. Alvar Aalto, too, began his career with white, spotless rationality; and he culminated with indeterminate forms whose discontinuous surfaces acknowledge nature’s defiance of evenness. And over the course of both careers as their exteriors synchronized to nature’s will, their interiors increased in warmth and opened to a wider spectrum of human mood.

It is a peculiar thing about modernism that almost all its key ideas were mined early on by the masters, and that many of us think our only path now is to refine the ore. This refining process, fueled by changing fashion and advances in technology, has its value and pleasure but tends to dwell on appearances. The work that results from this approach often conveys an exhilarating burst of youthfulness, and often fades disappointingly after a few years of adverse weathering. However, in the later work of the masters cited, there are principles that run deeper than appearances. These principles, coming as they did toward the ends of eminent careers, were never fully explored, and so we may choose design paths today that carry on this exploration. Over the past few years traces of these paths have appeared in the work of a new generation of architects. These works admit that buildings not only age, but that they can do so eloquently. Perhaps at this point in the evolving history of modern architecture we may be ready for a little less “forever young” and a little more “forever.”