Robert P. Davis, Architect

revised 20 December 1996

Everything falls apart--natural or not, good or bad, sooner or later. It is the way of things to wear out, disintegrate, become tiresome, or just run out of gas. And, when things decay they spoil, become dysfunctional, and sometimes smell bad. They're best thrown away. Or maybe not--at least without a second look. The patterns of decay are the response to life tests that appear for our edification like textbook quiz answers printed upside down at the end of the chapter. The marks of erosion, the "weak-link" failed part which stopped the whole mechanism tell us what should have been done last time or what might be done next time.

There is a limit to perfection. In Oliver Wendell Holms' Wonderful One-Hoss Shay (1891) he tells the story of the Deacon's buggy whose parts were made so well that nothing wore out first. After 100 years of service to man and boy it collapsed in a heap, every part having failed at once...

"Have you heard of the wonderful one-hoss shay,/That was built in such a logical way,/It ran a hundred years to a day,/And then, of a sudden, it--but stay./I'll tell you what happened without delay,/........All at once the horse stood still,/Close by the meet'n'house on the hill./--First a shiver, and then a thrill,/Then something decidedly like a spill,--/And the parson was sitting upon a rock,/At half-past nine by the meet'n'house clock,--/Just the hour of the Earthquake shock!/--What do you think the parson found,/When he got up and stared around?/The poor old chaise in a heap or mound,/As if it had been to the mill and ground!/You see, of course, if you're not a dunce,/How it went to pieces all at once,--/All at once, and nothing first,--/Just as bubbles do when they burst./End of the wonderful one-hoss-shay. Logic is logic. That's all I say."

Things decay in time: if the useful life equals expected longevity, it's worn out; but when decay occurs prematurely, the thing has "broken". The components of the wonderful one-horse shay had equivalent periods of decay so it failed as a piece. The joke is that it almost never happens that way. Some constituent element fails and the whole mechanism grinds to a halt, crashes and burns, or just stops doing what it's supposed to do.

There is no lack of interest in why things break, but it is not usually to find out what went wrong but who did it. Finger-pointing in our litigious society offers the swiftest remedy: why worry about making something better when someone can be found to take us off the hook, make us whole, buy us a new one, or reimburse us for suffering the pain of imperfection. The responses to Richard Feynman's impromptu O-ring demo divided among those seeking knowledge or blood. Engineering failures like the Challenger explosion, the Hallmark Hall mezzanine or Washington State bridge collapse fascinate with the mystery of why they went so spectacularly wrong. The pattern of decay is eagerly tracked because the payoff is so big.

We often throw things away before they wear out simply because we're tired of them. Their presence is boring, depressing, and finally annoying. Our interest, not the thing itself, has decayed. New things energize their owners simply because they have no connection with past failures or disappointments. Shopping dispels depression because each purchase, however small, has the potential to transform. When it inevitably fails, the newly acquired thing becomes ordinary or "old", its alchemical magic has decayed to dross. A proverb says, "change your place to change your luck," and there are plenty who move or build new houses to do just that. This decay of perception is illustrated in The Picture of Dorian Gray which becomes corrupted instead of the man; the remedy for decay is a curse which hides the truth.

Decay clears the decks, cleanses the palate as it were, making way for new life. It is our refresher of last resort. All that decomposition going on around us is both destructive and rejuvenative. And as such it is both threat and opportunity. To some the certainty of the past is preferable to the indeterminate future, and they will hang on for all they're worth to what they've got. It is a kind of failure of nerve exemplified by (among many examples) the urge for preservation and/or restoration. Veneration of our ancestors and their achievements is a virtue. When it obstructs the present and forestalls the future, it becomes a perversion. Much of the hilly Korean countryside is a patchwork of tiny fields bounded by low walls of rock wrested out of the soil in the course of making marginal land arable. Many of those fields are blistered by large, unnatural lumps--the graves of farmers who have been buried "in their favorite fields". The most productive land is systematically taken out of cultivation through the preservation of memory. Restoration of the mediocre or the merely old in the name of history has the same effect.

Decay represents a kind of wisdom--the pattern of wear and exposure an accumulated history of use. There is as much to read in the accidental dents as there is in the rot of decomposition or the breakage of parts. Abandonment tells a more complicated story--was the failure intrinsic to the thing or does it have an altogether different and unrelated cause? One wonders at the source of energy and optimism needed to build the now-desolate wrecks of towns on the Dakota plain. But not for long, as the earth absorbs the disintegrating materials of the rotting house, shop, and barn in the time of a generation. In the same space of time some plastic objects Museum of Modern Art's well-tended Design collection have turned to dust, smelly blobs, and other forms of goo. The Angel of Death has a free pass, good everywhere and for all time.

Decay and raw nature are socially inapproriate. Their effects are sensorily screened from polite society. Their touch is repugnant, their smell foul and noxious--maybe. And to protect us from uncertainty we construct our buildings as sealed worlds into which nature cannot penetrate. The light and air inside are tamed and tempered. Every crack is sealed with silicone. No springtime zephyr, no stray sunbeam can get in. Yet (as Galileo said to his inquisitors) the earth moves! Masonry cracks, roofing springs leaks, circuits break and engines shut down, the air grows stale and hot, the lights go out, and even silicone dries out.

The Irony is that as we try harder to forestall decay in our bodies and our environment, the average "shelf-life" of architectural design has decreased. Architecture, which has begun sharing with clothing fashion its terms and interests and whims, has also earned fashion's limited attention span and temporal delicacy. Design which depends for its effect on polished surface, precise alignment, and unmodulated exposure is spoiled easily by movement, weathering, and dirt. Iconic references are easily blurred by natural accidents. A crack in a carefully controlled composition ruins the effect. Such fragility is like the face-life which looks good for a while then collapses into a grotesque mask of too-tight and too-loose skin. Decay happens; it cannot be painted out of the picture. We best accept the inevitable with grace.