Introduction: What is Decay?

Buildings require care and maintenance.

To consider decay in architecture is typically to consider the physical deterioration of building materials. It is a familiar residential concern: every flickering light bulb, cracked tile, and loose floorboard demands an engagement with the inevitable degradation of physical matter. The New York Times provides an “annual home maintenance checklist” which includes “giving the house a bath” among dozens of other tasks. Buildings are, they seem to suggest, big babies—constantly in need of caregiving.

Buildings are typically understood to be “alive.”

Demanding upkeep and maintenance, buildings rely on human caregiving to remain “alive.” This aliveness is inherent to the very language used to describe architecture. Building systems are colloquially imbued with physiological significance: “skin” to describe building envelope, “bones” for structure, “lungs” for mechanical air distribution, and so on. Certain discrete elements have even been formally anthropomorphized such as concrete “footings.” Buildings may be “sound”—healthy, robust. Critically, buildings also “stand.”

How do we make sense of decay if we consider buildings to be alive?

If buildings must “stand” to be alive—and to be architecturally coherent—how then do we make sense of decay, which in its origin means “to fall”? Etymologically, “to fall”—the Latin decadere—is closely related to the verb “to die”decedere. The process of decay is positioned as a fall away from an original un-decayed state, while the process of dying looks toward the future state of death. Is decay, then, a fall away from a previous state—defined in relation to the past standing building—or is it a process of dying—defined in relation to the future death of a building? I argue that decay is in-between both, materially and temporally.

We can understand decay as a liminal state.

As an ongoing and inevitable process of decline, decay is temporally in between the past “newborn” state of a building and its future “dead” state. As a process of material deterioration, it is in between the clean and the dirty, the healthy and the unhealthy. To return to the familiar realm of home maintenance, even calling such work “upkeep” implies a race to keep up with decay which is always one step ahead—always marking an unstable point in time.

Decay describes the material and temporal boundary between states of matter.

I will focus on decay as the boundary between two spectra of material states: the spectrum of cleanliness to dirtiness, and that of aliveness to deadness. These are not separate poles but interrelated. Because decay is a liminal state, it is a boundary in motion, not a fixed line. It does not describe a fully ruined state; its relationship to cleanliness and dirtiness implies the ability to reverse the course of deterioration and recover a previous state. By the same token, its approach towards death may be accelerated. Decelerating or accelerating the inevitable process of decay is undertaken by human actors. The way in which decay is identified, acknowledged, and addressed is therefore determined by the economic, cultural, and social values of the context.

The boundary of decay is defined in terms of value.

Decay, then, is value-laden. It follows that the lifespan of a building is, by definition, a matter of value, with different stakeholders upholding different indicators of “aliveness”—be it structural robustness, real estate market viability, historical significance, cultural capital, or many others.

So what does decay reveal about agency in the built environment?

I have suggested that decay, understood as the boundary between aliveness and deadness, is a matter of value. Decay in the built environment is value-laden not because the biological processes of decay itself have a particular value, but because human actors have the agency to accelerate or decelerate a non-human process (material decomposition) through labor and maintenance. The work of deceleration includes the already familiar home upkeep, but the acceleration of decay—and what motivates it—is often invisible.

How has decay been misused?

Tools like demolition, eminent domain, urban renewal, and toxic dumping comprise an expanded definition of decay—understood as a transitive verb: to actively (often invisibly) decay the built environment. These methods may be considered decay not because they involve material decomposition (though this is often one of their effects), but because they lie on the same boundary between aliveness and deadness, cleanliness and dirtiness. Urban renewal, for example, is predicated on the belief that dirtiness—a material condition coded for a racial one—may be excised from the city to allow for a clean rebirth.

The motivation for this hegemonic act of decaying is predicated on differences in the conception of “aliveness.” Racial and economic disparities impact our conception of “aliveness,” and this ontological ambivalence has spatial consequences in the built environment—which is itself dependent on being understood as “alive.” The degree of “aliveness” granted to both physical and social bodies is a matter of value. In other words, the buildings destroyed (and people displaced) by urban renewal are not “alive” enough. Here, the boundary between life and death in the built environment is skewed towards hegemonic aims.

Where do we go from here? How can decay be leveraged for just aims?

My aim is twofold: first, to bring decay, understood as a liminal state, to bear on multiple scales of the built environment in order to demonstrate the spatialization of inequity; and second, to suggest the mobilization of a political architecture through leveraging decay. By uncovering decay at three scales—the material/structural scale, the building/urban scale, and the community/landscape scale—I seek to recast architectural thinking about decay and demonstrate its productive potentials.