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Working Papers

The Half-Life of Buildings

Working paper #638
Witold Rybczynski

This article provides a discussion of the factors that affect the “greatness” of a building over time. The examples described include Boston City Hall, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Library, the Chrysler Building, and 30 Rockefeller Plaza. The author concludes that both taste and function play a role in this process. Architectural tastes change every thirty or forty years. It is inevitable that even a “great” building will at some point be considered “old-fashioned.” It helps if a building is functionally as well as aesthetically outstanding. Another major variable of great buildings is whether the architecture captures people’s affection. It is not enough that a building be popular with the general public; it must also be loved by its owners (the taxpayers, in the case of public buildings). If owners love a building, they will put up with a certain degree of dysfunction—no building is perfect— they will take the trouble to maintain it, make repairs, upgrade obsolete technological systems, and spruce it up every twenty to forty years.

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