By Aaron C. Ruby
Perched on the seventh floor of a 1920s-era Little Rock office high-rise, out my window I can see and hear the awful process of a building being torn to shreds and hauled off to a landfill. Two large machines, seemingly with the ferociousness and rage of a pair of Tyrannosaurus Rex tear into whatever lies in front of them. They are ugly beasts and to be glad I'm at a safe distance. Today is Monday, December 27, 2010, between Christmas and New Years and the office and phones are very, very quiet. So here I am trying to focus on my work and the only noise I can hear is the tearing of steel and the collapse of concrete. I am witnessing the demolition of the old KARK headquarters at the corner of 3rd and Louisiana streets.
As an architect, I suppose seeing a building being torn down is a bit gut-wrenching. I know there is a lot of energy and work involved in construction, not only from a designer's perspective, but also from countless others who were involved in its erection and maintenance. No evidence of that will remain now. But don't get me wrong. It's not that I believe in saving every building – I don't. I will admit I'm not really that disturbed by this building's demolition or else I suppose I could have chained myself to some column and faced down those mechanical dinosaurs. It just wasn't that attractive of a building – and so it goes down with little, if any, resistance.
The demolition of the KARK building reminds me of another building recently lost, the old Kempner Bros. Shoe Store on Main St. This building had a lot more to love about it – a Neoclassical façade with terra-cotta ornamentation that has pretty well vanished from the architectural scene today. I imagine that one came down with slightly more resistance.
Clearly one of these buildings was a greater loss to the cityscape than the other. Simply put, some buildings are more valuable than others, though the question of "how valuable" is left up to the current building's owner – as it should be. But still the act of demolition goes against my grain. Especially in today's age of hyper-sensitivity to the environment, energy consumption and building "green," demolition and "throw-away buildings" just seem like something we have moved beyond. It just seems like an awful waste.
In the heart of the ancient city of Rome, there are hundreds of nondescript buildings that are still beautiful works of craftsmanship in their own right. Each has seen centuries of history – and use. Of course, Rome has its landmarks that no one would dare demolish, as does Little Rock. But what is remarkable about Rome and so many other wonderful European cities is the multitude of anonymous buildings, and spaces between, that are just as defining of that city's sense of place as the landmarks we see on postcards.
So though it may seem at first glance that what we need are more demo-proof landmarks (admittedly some of us architects seem to be seeking the next landmark – I think a result of decades of misguided architectural schooling), what we truly need is regularity and consistent density. We lack cohesiveness and predictability, to the point where the spaces between never have the opportunity to evolve naturally and be left alone. If we give our city a facelift too often, eventually it is not known to anyone. We threaten character of place, we threaten memory and ultimately, we undermine our heritage.
But I presume the problem is more complex than I have made it to be here.
Though I have no first-hand experience, obviously, I am convinced that previous generations had a completely different attitude about building than we do today. Take the Pulaski County Courthouse, for instance, or the State Capitol. These grand structures were boldly conceived and expertly executed in their craft and construction. Political controversy aside in the construction of the Capitol, we're left with a gorgeous and awe-inspiring limestone-clad structure that is still in use. I am doubtful that we would have the gumption to attempt a structure for government like that today.
What about our churches? A century ago, they were the most important buildings in town. Today we still admire them and worship in them. What about new churches being built today? Though I hate to be so cynical, I sure see a lot of painted concrete block and flimsy metal. Is this the best we can do?
What I am saying is that perhaps if our effort and attitude in building in the first place were "this building will stand for generations," just as John Ruskin once argued over 150 years ago, perhaps the idea of demolition would become a thing of the past? Or at least we would see much less of it. We might then look to build to last – employing timeless design principles, quality materials, detailing and craftsmanship, widespread use of proven architectural language instead of the latest fad. And we would abandon the search for the "maintenance free," the greatest fallacy in the business of building of all time. To understand my point, just take a quick glance across the street from the KARK building. There are two beautiful buildings that someone loved enough to rehabilitate into a great new school. How fantastic is this?
Sustainable architecture and building green is so much more than the latest recycled carpet and mechanical invention, it is building smart from the start. It is building something that can be both maintained and appreciated by future generations. It is common sense, it is solid, is it flexible and it serves the building occupants well and comfortably. Hopefully, it is something that someone 50-100 years from now, or more, decides is worth saving. TB
This forum was condensed from a letter to the editor written by Aaron C. Ruby, AIA, LEED AP, of Ruby Architects, Inc., Little Rock, AR, a firm that specializes in historic preservation and traditionally inspired new construction. 501-374-7829. www.rubyarchitects.com.