Thursday, September 9, 2010

Demolition and memory

I recently got a text from my sister recently in the form of a photo. It was of a pile of rubble and a few small pieces of mechanical equipment, and in the foreground was a chain link fence that said "WELCOME TO BOOGER COUNTY ELEMENTARY VISITORS PLEASE CHECK IN AT OFFICE." I called her quickly and left a message, and she called me back moments later to explain: yes indeed, Kitty's and my old elementary school had been demolished in the past week. A new elementary school had been built in the past few years, and I had heard somewhere that the county government was going to take the old elementary school over to use as city and county offices, storage, and some community-center-type uses. Evidently, this was not to be.

Architects spend their lives learning how, what, and why to design things to be built. Secretly, though, we're fascinated by demolition--watching the tearing down of something is mesmerizing and downright incredible, and I know we're not the only ones. When Glasnost Construction announced at a recent OAC meeting for my project at Gestalt's Bierstadt building that they would start demolition of a few areas next week, nearly everyone in the room--clients, architects, project managers, and engineers--exploded with an excited "I wanna knock something down!!" We all love on some strange level to destroy something, as if we were all mortal incarnations of Kali: the goddess of destruction and resurrection. It's as if we know that once we knock something down, we make room to build something new, even if that new space only becomes an open space or park.

When Kitty and I were kids, Dad used to say that it was weird to drop us off at the elementary school, because when he was our age it was the black high school in his county (yes, kids, before 1964, the year my dad graduated from the white Booger County High School, the U.S. was South Africa without the diamond mines and the good soccer team). It seemed strange to him because walking those halls had been a socially forbidden act in his day--this was a place of separateness, of less-than. Now it was the place where all children, regardless of race or socioeconomic status, gained the foundation for a solid education. He never mentioned to us if the county renovated the school any in order to hand it over to the white kids.

However, I do know that the metal building that was the "new" gym was not original--it was added on after 1964 for sure. Moreover, I recall when the county added on a new building in the front lawn/courtyard space that became the new library, music room, and art room. It was built in the mid-1980s, right around the time when I was in 3rd or 4th grade. According to Kitty, everything is gone now from the site, even that "new" building. This is the part of demolition that horrifies me as an architect. The building is younger than I am, and it was demolished? Really?!

When we build, part of what goes into our material and design decisions is the building's function, which dictates an explicit or implicit life cycle--we call that building an "x year building." For example, the University of Colorado in Boulder dictates that its buildings as 100-year buildings, meaning that they have to last in decent shape for at least 100 years. Other school buildings as well as hospital buildings are often designated 50-year buildings or more. A strip mall, by contrast, is often thought of (and sadly, constructed) as a 20-year building. But if we assume that the library/art room/music room building at a rural county elementary school was built in 1985 and torn down in 2010, that gives a school building a lifespan barely past a PetsMart in the next county. Where is the logic in that?

I suppose some of my irateness is due not just to my professional perspective and training, but also a bit of wistfullness. When we were kids, our dad would be driving us to our elementary school and would point at a heavily-wooded area on the corner of two rural roads. Through the woods, the roof line of a dilapidated building could be seen. Dad would gesture at the hidden building and say how that was the cafeteria/gym of his old elementary school. "The actual school building burned down when I was in high school," Daddy would reminisce, his gentle Tom-Hanks-like southern accent searching for the words to explain nostalgia to his two daughters who were barely old enough to miss anything from the past. "Reckon either lightning ran in on it or someone burned it down."

"I wish someone would burn our school down!" Kitty or I would laugh. (We found school itself mildly tolerable, but the people who attended with us were insufferable.) Strange to think of that now that someone did knock down our school, down to its very foundations. When Kitty showed up with Mom at the elementary school's site on the way to a craft fair, there were just a few piles of rubble and a small Bobcat piling up the last of the chipped-up concrete slab.


ms. kitty said...

That's such an interesting experience, to visit the site of a former important-to-us/me institution. I remember visiting my former high school last summer and marveling at the tiny halls and rooms and the few additions/remodeling done. It was like stepping back in time to visit that space with my former classmates.

Miss Kitty said...

I've been thinking about that all week. [sigh] What in the world are they gong to do with that site, I wonder? It would have been a better place (centrally located in Boogerville) for a new elementary school than where the new school was actually built (five miles outside of Boogerville, hard to find if you don't already know where you're going).

And it IS sad. Now I know how Daddy (and Mom) felt/feel when they see a building they once knew being torn down, or completely gone.

Wilderness Gina said...

Imagine MY surprise when I returned to BC. Mich after an extended absence to find my Junior High (Middle School to all youse younguns) replaced by a strip maul.....oops, mall. With a Convienence store, a laundry mart and 3 vacant store fronts. wow. they really needed the retail space in a town that's about 50% abandoned. Like we said back in the 60's when this Get-the-hell- outa-the-rust-belt Movement began, "Will the last person out of BC PLEASE turn off the lights!"