William Shakespeare, in a line from Hamlet’s great soliloquy, says “…what dreams may come when we have shuffled off this mortal coil must give us pause.” Perhaps they must, but so should the dreams, especially the daydreams, we embody in material form while we are still in this life. All of us, those of us who are urban dwellers most unarguably, live our lives embedded in the material expressions of the dreams of those who built the environments we inhabit.
Every artifact began as an idea. “Somebody dreamed it up,” is a common, usually critical, way to express it, and it’s the truth. The material product may realize the maker’s intent well or badly, but each was designed and produced to answer some purpose.
Frequently products outlive the purposes for which they were made. This applies to all durable items but especially to buildings. When the product is a building it’s almost always so. We have businesses originally built as residential space, factories reborn as stores, schools converted into apartments, and on and on. Sometimes the re-purposing is successful, and the building in it’s new use is as good, or even better, than it was in its first, but this is the exception. Usually a structure passes through a series of uses which it accommodates less and less well. Eventually, more and more heavily used, less and less well maintained, too valuable to tear down, but too raddled to repair, it festers till fire or a spasm of civic renewal removes it, and the cycle begins again.
It isn’t clear what can, or should, be done about this. After all, it’s not reasonable that everyone who produces a durable artifact should have to anticipate all the ways it might be used in the future. If it safely and usefully does what it was designed to do, the makers have done their job.
Zoning boards and city planners have a role to play, but at best there are, and should be, limits to what these bodies can require of people trying to make the best use they can of resources available to them.
Maybe the best that can be hoped for is that when we embody our dreams in material form we recall that it’s likely that others will be left to make the best of what we leave behind when, one way or another, our need for them has passed.