I have spoken fondly before of buildings that are on the brink of collapse, decaying and unloved. Their decline is attributable to the second law of thermodynamics which asserts that entropy always increases, thus inevitably reducing man’s attempts at order. This universal law of impermanence is a force that is constantly shaping Architecture, our cities and the cosmos. As architects we can ignore the irreversibility of time resulting from this law, or acknowledge it as a critical dimension in which architecture exists.
Joseph Gandy, the troubled genius draftsman, often depicted the impermanence of architecture through paintings of Sir John Soane’s buildings as ruins. Although this may have been a fashionable picturesque trend of the time to romanticise Soane’s built works, the effects of contemplating architecture’s impermanence and perpetual move towards higher entropy structures can be poignant and insightful to us as designers.
Gandy’s famous painting of Soane’s Bank of England immortalises the building as a timeless ruin. As well as representing the architecture in a dramatic, evocative perspective, these paintings can also pose questions relevant to today’s construction industry concerning the lifespan and future usage of our current building stock.
Contemplating our modern buildings as ruins is not a popular trend, perhaps as it is difficult to envisage modern construction materials aging as gracefully as the classical palette. However acknowledging that our buildings will always move towards higher entropy structures (i.e. -they are time based) means we can design with this movement in mind. The process of becoming a high entropy structure is one of interaction between building and environment: both human behaviour and the natural world.
Resisting this interaction is short sighted; designing with it opens up possibilities for holistic and deeply sustainable ideas. Flexible, adaptive and responsive buildings that willingly change with time can be conceived. Existing unused and unloved buildings can be re configured and re used. Beginning with the end in mind might not be as pessimistic and is it first appears but rather a liberating tool for architecture.