How do buildings survive?

Jorge Catarino • Senior Partner and Architect


At a time of pandemic when viruses attack humans, I was asked to write a text on urban regeneration in the post-pandemic scenario. We have scientists telling us how human beings survive them. We have historians narrating us past cases and what happens to them after, and we have politicians plotting the future consequences.

But… to what do buildings survive? Generally, to men! We are the ones building them and – most of the time – the ones destroying them.

Architecture produces two types of works: the surviving and the ephemeral ones.

We account for good and bad examples in both cases, although in the surviving works the number of good works significantly exceeds the others. When designing or building, the criteria within which the intervention will fall is unknown. This doubt distresses those who execute it since prehistoric times. According to Mr. Fernando Távora – Architect – the first architectural invention came about when someone in a cave remembered to open a window. The door was not a human invention, as the cave already had an entrance… and it was not through the cave windows that the human work reached us. Nor through architecture. But through artefacts and, most importantly, through painting. We had to start lifting stones (essentially) so that architecture (as we define it) could reach us.

In Classical Antiquity they sought the immortality of works through beauty and in the Middle Ages through weight. We have been improving techniques, creating materials, and innovating shapes. We formed theories, substantiated shape and use, moved from homely to industrial and revolutionised lifestyles.

However, we moved both forward and backwards. War, disasters, or the simple need to implement new lifestyles were reason enough for us to destroy what had been built before. But even in war, care has been taken in the preservation of such works that gathered the consensus on the necessity of their survival. In the bombings of the Second World War, special indications were given not to destroy certain monuments or certain types of works (some because of the need for future use, others perhaps for fear of purgatory, which must be bulging with destructive souls of good architecture examples).

It seems to me that good architectural works have a higher survivability than others, for several reasons. Most interventions are short-lived and ephemeral. And this ability to survive does not stem so much from the quality of the materials or their execution – to cope with the course of time – but more from concepts about the architectural value of the work.

The point is, when trying to plan what should be kept or not, the first analysis is the same: What is the architectural value of each intervention?

This is the question whose answer decides “How do buildings survive?”, whether in a war, peace or pandemic scenario.

My concern focuses on who is going to give these answers. Now and/or after the pandemic…

Truth be told, the pandemic is lastly overcome with a vaccine.

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