Thesis Dump :: Obsolecence
Part I: Aesthetic and Programmatic Obsolescence
In 1954 at a conference on advertising, Brooks Stevens, an industrial designer, coined the term “Planned Obsolescence”. He defined the phase as: “Instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary.” In his book The Waste Makers written in 1960, social critic Vance Packard broke Stevens’ definition into two parts: “Functional Obsolescence” and “Psychological Obsolescence”. Functional Obsolescence was the practice of creating a product that would deliberately cease to function after a certain period of time, forcing a consumer to replace it. Psychological Obsolescence was an advertising strategy to convince a consumer that a certain product was old, out-of-date, or unfashionable, compelling them to purchase a newer version of the product. Both, according to Packard, were unethical. Although Packard’s categories remain insightful distinctions in architecture and building construction today, this thesis proposes a slightly different division of Steven’s initial category. Planned Obsolescence is here subdivided into Programmatic Obsolescence and Aesthetic Obsolescence.
Programmatic obsolescence attends urban conditions of “gentrification” and “renewal”. As urban centers become more dynamic, people of diverse economic, social, and cultural backgrounds place pressures on the built environment to adapt. For example, the selected site in Williamsburg was initially home to large community of Hasidic Jews; gradually, an influx of Black Muslims and Caucasian Hipsters shifted the demographic of the area. The result—a number of different social and ethnic groups live in close proximity to one another, from Hispanics and a Polish population to Caucasian Hipsters and white-collar professionals—is not to be taken as a final state but as evidence of flux. On the site of the theater in Williamsburg, although gradual decline in the income of the residents in the area contributed to the theater’s demise, the 99 cent store retains portions of the original façade. Now that average income of the neighborhood is again on the upswing, reopening the theater, as a theater, might be financially feasible.
Aesthetic obsolescence, by contrast, refers to the ever changing styles that are released into media, products, and the built world. Whether fueled by Packard’s “psychological obsolescence” in a consumerist society or trickle down from an artistic avant-garde that is image obsessed, the rate of change of these styles, is steadily increasing. New technologies allow fashions and trends to be disseminated, rejected, and often reinstated at a rapid rate. It is the reinstatement of aesthetic styles that is particularly interesting for this thesis. The renewal of styles that have become “psychologically obsolescent” at one point or another doesn’t quite fit in with Packard’s or Steven’s ideas. In this case, since obsolescence is not a permanent condition, it begs the question whether styles can be “psychologically renewed.” Is the idea of “retro” or “vintage” used today built on an inversion of the natural order of obsolescence?
Both modes of obsolescence, programmatic and aesthetic, present problems to architecture. First, while the cycles of obsolescence in other media seem to be accelerating, only recently has architecture attempted to keep pace. As critic Sylvia Lavin claims in her book Crib Sheets, “[T]o be contemporary- to be on time, to move with time and the times, subject to its losses, entropies, provisionalities, obsolescences, currencies, intensities, fads, and flourishes is a possibility that architecture assiduously avoids.” (Lavin, 9)
Secondly, the question of planned obsolescence is predicated on a method of replacement or, more importantly for this thesis, reuse or recycling. Driven by sustainable concerns and a media saturated aesthetic culture, the creation of cycles of obsolescence on which the refuse (aesthetic and material) from one product becomes the building blocks of another has gained popularity. One has only to look at the move to design “cradle to cradle” or the influence of DJ’s who “sample” and “remix”. Because of its ability to revitalize the past, the technique of pastiche represents a subset of these operations of recycling and remixing which might offer a method for developing obsolescence in architecture that accounts for its eventual renewal.