Decay and Resurrection:
An Engineer on the Ecosystem of Abandoned Buildings
THERE’S A DENTIST’S OFFICE captured in photographs that, along with a number of companion images, got quite a bit of circulation in print and on the internet a few years back. The narrow, confined operating room, nested high in an office tower, is depicted with the usual furnishings of a dental practice: a patient chair, a wall-mounted X-ray camera on an extended scissor arm, a few surgical lights, and an instrument table with a rinse sink. It’s equipment with mid-twentieth-century styling that must have looked sleek and bold not so many years ago, but in the photos the stuff is all cocked and strewn across the room and covered deep in fallen chips of mustard-yellow paint, plaster dust, and shards of broken glass. Abandoned, it looks ancient and eerily left over from another time. The image is part of a fad of sorts, a recently reinvigorated fascination with recording and exhibiting the state of empty urban buildings, structures sometimes provocatively labeled by those who collect and disseminate the images as “ruins.”
Recently published monographs, magazine articles, museum exhibitions, documentaries, blogs, and other websites recirculate the images. And let’s be honest: many are stunning. Grand ballrooms where dancers once twirled and courted are now shown reduced to lonely, haunted caverns. Vast, once productive industrial halls are depicted as empty cathedrals of rust, grudgingly lit by daylight that filters through smeared and grimy glass. Graffiti-embellished classrooms cluttered with toppled desks and waterlogged books display a ramshackle chaos fit for a schoolboy’s most anarchic daydreams. These intoxicating images of lost eras evoke strong emotions: awe and wonder, longing and regret, maybe anger. Untangling those feelings isn’t always easy.
Observers of this trend line up on two sides. Some feel that such attention is sensational, exploitive, and unnecessarily negative. Others defend the photos on aesthetic or social grounds, seeing them as a fitting indictment that draws attention to the need for preservation efforts and to the problems of threatened neighborhoods. The images are meant to raise questions, say their proponents.
I confess to finding these defenses less than persuasive. The images are too powerful to be benign. The aesthetic longing to gaze is too close to the less wholesome impulse to gawk. And from a social perspective, the call to indict seems dangerously close to the impulse to sneer. I find myself wanting to defend our cities from the indignity. It may be that my line of work predisposes me against moralizing, a predisposition that focuses my attention on settled matters, not the questions and speculations that are the breeding ground of art, and also faith.
I consider myself fortunate to spend good parts of my professional life working in abandoned historic buildings, poking into the darkness with a flashlight and sifting through debris-strewn floors in boots caked with damp plaster dust. When I first enter a building it’s not usually the weighty concerns of urban planning, preservation, and public policy that strike me with greatest force. Most often I’m first won over by a simple fairy-tale conviction confirmed: that behind any rusted door might reside a world of wonder, distinct from our own and displaced in time. Hidden within the gray unused city buildings that we shuffle past on foot or race by in our cars lie grand labyrinths of space, shape, and color, lovingly crafted by the imaginations of the past: enchanted places hidden from view, but close enough to touch if only we have the key that fits the door. For a moment, wonder is enough.
Once inside, though, there’s work to be done. Upon first entering an unfamiliar building, I’m assembling a mental inventory of its components and sorting them into two categories, structural and nonstructural, then attempting to reconstruct the intentions of the original builders: how did they intend for this building to endure the forces of wind and snow and daily use? A careful survey and documentation will follow, then numerical analysis. Where and how do outside forces impact the building? And what paths do these forces take through the structure as they work their way down to the foundation? Are the individual building elements and materials still fit for the task of keeping the building safe and useable? And what can be done to correct deficiencies where they’re found? Finally, recommendations in the form of drawings and specification will be prepared for preserving or restoring the building’s structural integrity.
I won’t be alone. Many others will do their bit to appraise the suitability of the structure for a new life. Architects, investors, estimators, historians, planners, code officials, all are watching the building, though passersby may not know it. Skilled observers of all sorts recognize elements of value buried behind the rubble. The value may be economic, social, or cultural, but the watchful eyes of both commercial and civic interests are rarely unaware of opportunities in the shifting cityscape of potential. Only through careful analysis and planning can that potential be quantified in such a way that interested parties will be ready to commit resources to giving a building new life. Someone will need to survey and evaluate the mechanical elements: blowers, boilers, water towers, elevator sheaves, ventilation shafts, and electrical cabinets, while others document the architectural elements and plan for their restoration: wood windows, plaster castings, stone carvings, terra cotta tiles, iron gratings, terrazzo floors, and brass rails. It may seem that a building has been forgotten, but more likely it’s being repeatedly evaluated just outside of the public view.
The city where I do much of my work, Detroit, was built with an eye on progress. The explosion of construction early in the twentieth century was founded on optimism about manufacturing and the prosperity it would bring. As the automobile rapidly evolved, the factory evolved along with it. Manufacturers determined to outdo one another with their cars naturally sought to do the same with their facilities. The two developments transformed not just the city but the world. And as workers from around the country flocked to Detroit for jobs, the city became populated not just with a modern workforce, but with the new buildings needed for its housing, shopping, education, entertainment, and worship. The city has ample reason to be proud of its architecture from this era. Its technological prowess, aesthetic innovation, and soaring beauty were conceived in a spirit of progress, as a step on the path to the future, not a static monument to a future past.
It’s in this context that the word “ruin” is so jarring and incongruous. Granted, it’s a label selected to provoke, but if it’s fair to provoke, it’s also fair to push back. From where I stand, the term implies a view of time that’s completely foreign to the founding spirit and ongoing aspirations of Detroit. Consider the relatively recent careers of the industrial designers who developed the now abandoned dental equipment. They surely were concentrating on producing the very best that the technology of the day could offer. They were designing for the future, and though obsolescence would be inevitable, there would have been consolation in knowing that the obsolescence to come would be a testament to yet further progress. It would have been quite unthinkable that the consequences of progress would be the consignment of their efforts to the realm of quaint and static nostalgia.
It was, after all, not long between when the dental office was proudly new and when it came to be labeled a ruin. In the temperate climates of industrial America, buildings left unattended fall into disrepair very quickly. We could perhaps measure the time in generations. The buildings your parents remember from when they were your age, if neglected since then, are now at risk of being labeled ruins. And the buildings your grandparents remember, if similarly neglected, may be damaged beyond hope of being saved.
Two generations. It’s that quick. Grass and weeds will start to grow through the paving of a parking lot after just a year or two without use. It doesn’t take a whole lot longer for trees to find their way onto rooftops. Saplings seeded by birds or by the wind make themselves at home in crevices of brickwork or in gravel used as roof ballast. Left to grow, trees will burrow their roots into the roofing and begin nature’s process of reclaiming the building.
A breach in the roofing, whatever the cause, will quickly grow, introducing water to the interior, which initiates the development of hostile microclimates. In taller buildings these microclimates will vary by floor. The highest floors experience the greatest atmospheric swings, and surrounding plaster, wood, and lath quickly fall away. These topmost floors bear the brunt of rainstorms, but also dry out first when the sun returns. They experience the cold of winter and the heat of summer with least protection, and are buffeted by stronger winds than we on the ground. Move a few floors down and the rains are blunted, but they are also prolonged, as the upper floors drip and drip long after storms have passed. Less sun and less air circulation mean these floors dry more slowly. Plaster that becomes wet may seldom fully dry before rain or sleet returns. A few floors further down, materials may know nothing but incessant damp and dank. Surprisingly, a few floors further yet, conditions may yield some relief and relative stability, thanks to the protection of the absorbent layers of debris above.
Stair towers often experience something quite different, as open or broken windows generate differential air pressures that drive perpetual drying winds up the shaft. Some stair shafts accumulate enough dry plaster dust heaped on the treads that climbing them becomes treacherous, like walking up sand dunes. Elevator shafts, by contrast, are often wet, with little or no air circulation. Any water that reaches them falls unimpeded to the basement levels, where the elevator pit fills, leaving no way for water to escape. Sometimes entire basements or subbasements fill with water, permanently submerging abandoned mechanical and electrical equipment in dark, watery chambers. Stubborn dull warmth from the surrounding earth outside the basement walls may just barely prevent these pools from freezing and encapsulating their contents in solid blocks of ice during long winters.
Surrounding these nonstructural elements is the load-bearing building frame, most likely made of steel—possibly bare steel, or steel encased in concrete, or concrete reinforced by steel. To the engineer, the physical properties of steel make it a wonderful material to work with. It would be hard to imagine a more useful mix of flexibility, workability, dimensional stability, uniformity, and strength. When in the late nineteenth century technology made the production of steel affordable and then made the material abundant, architecture and manufacturing were radically transformed. But steel is not without faults. It weakens quickly under high heat, and it’s no good with water. Water is the big problem. As a steel beam begins to corrode through oxidation, not only does it transform layer upon layer into a useless crust, but that crust powerfully expands to several times its original volume, destroying materials nearby.
Wood, another framing material, doesn’t corrode in the presence of water as steel does. Instead, it decays or rots as bacteria or fungi consume it—though at least it doesn’t swell like corroding steel. Curiously enough, the decay of wood and the oxidation of steel occur under exactly the same conditions: rot and rust need nothing more than oxygen and water—that is, wind and rain—to do their work.
Many of us in temperate climates carry a bias that rain is bad and sun is good. Elsewhere in the world this notion might seem simplistic or even foolish, but here in urban America we generally go about building our buildings doggedly determined to keep the rain out and let the sun in. Given how poorly our favorite structural materials perform in the presence of water, keeping the rain out is a good plan, but our love for letting the sun in can get us into trouble. Windows and skylights leak and fall into disrepair for a variety of reasons. Even our roofs fall victim to the sun, their polymer components shredded by relentless ultraviolet radiation. When we allow water into our buildings, nature proceeds deftly about the business of reducing them to dust of a variety of sorts.
Our buildings are either cared for, or they’re on their way to dust. It’s a truism powerfully enforced by the natural world, and one that for me is confirmed through repeated first-hand exposure. It’s a familiar and empirically established cause-and-effect way of seeing things that is the strength, and maybe the guilty pleasure, of an engineer’s point of view.
The essence of engineering is to neatly mesh two types of truth. An engineer, with or without recognizing it, is constantly negotiating between the properties of the physical world and the values held by a community. It’s a balancing act that is quite unfamiliar to most artists, and the source of endless frustration and uneasy squirming among architects. The X-ray radiation emitted by the dental camera conducts itself in accordance with physical laws in ways that can both create useful images of our teeth and damage the cells of our bodies. The engineer designing an X-ray camera weighs the factors and configures what’s known about physical properties in a balance that’s sympathetic with the values of the community as they pertain to health, commerce, and social good.
Structural engineering reflects our corporately held value that buildings should remain standing. Its practitioners are accustomed to the constraints posed by this value, which are meticulously documented in municipal building codes. What engineers have necessarily at their disposal, and what artists gladly make do without, are indisputable values codified. While engineers, in their deterministic way, are very good at implementing and enforcing the settled values on which we all agree, artists are very good at posing questions about values that are not settled.
And isn’t that what the photographic chroniclers of so-called urban ruins do? Unsettle us? Their images confront us with that not uncommon tendency for attraction and repulsion to tug concurrently in the presence of decay. We weigh the temporal against the eternal, body against spirit, fear against hope, the impulse to take flight against the longing to linger and dwell. The images invite us into a world that is unsettled—not just with respect to the uneasy attraction of ruins, but also with respect to a range of questions pertaining to our community priorities, our shared heritage, our regrets, our aspirations, and our hopes.
The divergence between art and engineering plays out in interesting ways in matters of faith. To an artist who sees a world where the miraculous always awaits, ready to reveal itself at any time, art is a means to celebrate and reveal that potential. Whether it’s miracles, mysteries, grace, or other aspects of faith, culturally unsettled matters are rich fields for artists. Not so with engineers. For myself, as an engineer who truly believes the miraculous is always near, my daily work, when faithfully executed, specifically and consistently rejects this nearness. Though I might actually believe that God can intercede to hold up a building that established engineering principals have determined should fall, I would not be practicing faithfully if I made professional judgments anticipating intercession of that sort. For very good reason I willingly limit my craft to settled matters, to codes, and to the truth that experience has revealed to me: that buildings are either cared for, or they’re on their way to dust.
So what then are we to make of my good friends the architects, whose dreams become the subject matter and raw material for the work of both engineers and artists? They juggle two sets of values: the messy stuff of beauty and aspiration, and the settled principles that can with confidence and certainty be applied to serve communities. There is an understandable tendency to apply settled principles to the functional questions of how we live in our buildings every day, and to turn to artistic aspiration only after the practical questions have been solved. Ironically, it’s the parameters of living that change from generation to generation: where we live and work, what we do, how we do it. So architects find themselves pressured to impose lasting solutions on ever-changing questions. Sometimes after the questions have changed, only the artistic impulse remains relevant. This makes enduring architecture hard to create and, frankly, hard to discuss. And though the best practitioners all find ways around this dilemma, solving it takes on particular urgency to those architects who harbor deep social convictions or faith.
The scale of the architect’s work, in sheer size, personal reach, and community impact, generates uncommonly high stakes: stakes that make successes a source of deep pride and losses tragic on a grand scale. As the photos of ruin remind us, the socioeconomic forces that breed building abandonment are profound and complex. The many Detroit buildings that lost tenants a generation ago find themselves facing a make-or-break second generation today. Among those buildings most prominently photographed just a few years back, time is playing out in varied ways. Some have run out of options, and a few have already been demolished. Some are targeted for redevelopment with reasonable expectations of success, and some are already enjoying bright new lives. All are being watched. The provocateur engaging a “ruin” with a camera may feel alone, but he isn’t. Practitioners of more settled disciplines are watching nearby as well: engineers, development specialists, code officials—and architects, too, torn between the settled craft of sheltering us and more slippery task of inspiring us.
The dental office is no longer with us. It’s already been swept away, along with other nonstructural remnants, preparing the majestic 1928 skyscraper for a new life as an apartment building. A complete renovation of the grand thirty-four story Eaton Tower, more recently known as Broderick Tower, is now complete, and today a new generation of residents enjoys its striking views down the length of historic Woodward Avenue and over the bleachers into the Tigers’ outfield.
To have once labeled Broderick Tower a ruin seems off the mark, though the building certainly was at risk. To an unfamiliar adventurer with a camera, it may have seemed lonely, abandoned, and forgotten, but it never lacked attention. Eventually, attention became care, and care kept at least this one piece of our history off of the path to dust.
Above features the work of Gene Meadows, a Detroit-area photographer whose images, in contrast to the trends described here, convey the beauty and dignity of the city [see Plates 8 to 13]. More of his work is at www.gene-meadows.com.