Reuse/New use: giving a new purpose to space and place
The contemporary discourse on sustainability in architecture has been focusing predominantly on new technologies, new materials and new building approaches aiming for a greener and more environmentally conscious course of action.
The words “new” and “innovative” have often led the debate, however in order to properly look forward, we first need to take a good look at what we are leaving behind. Vacant buildings in our cities that have outlived their purpose, with less or more historical value but without a true role in the urban context other than that of contemplation. Should they be demolished to make space for brand new architecture? The approach of adaptive reuse shows that this is not always the right call.
“The greenest building is the one that is already built,” claims architect Carl Elefante. As a matter of fact, building new architecture implies the employment of great quantities of resources (financial and material), of energy, and time. Meanwhile, buildings which are considered redundant are kept alive as empty vessels, or razed to the ground with the result of a massive production of waste. Could there be a more efficient way of reimagining our cities? By redesigning the purpose of a building, it is possible to give new life to it instead of merely preserving it or demolishing it.
This sustainable strategy has several advantages. This process of reuse may involve alterations and additions in dialogue with the original building, in order to enhance its usability and its carbon footprint. It prolongs the lifespan of architecture, and has a minor environmental impact than that implied with the activation of a new construction process. Furthermore, a well planned repurposing of a building may have the power to ignite urban revitalization, and be a catalyst for new commercial opportunities and the improvement of the socio-cultural environment of the surrounding area.
In this edition of Time Space Existence, several participants have explored the concept of adaptive reuse and repurposing through their exhibited projects.
Valentino Architects, together with curator Ann Dingli, presented alternative methods of conservation through the repurposing of the Għallis watchtower, a 17th century monument, which has been vacant for years. The exhibition focuses on the plan to retrofit the watchtower to make it become a multi-use structure, for both private and public access. By introducing new usability, the tower has thus been re-charged of its significance and from its original role of being a fortress, designed to keep people out, it may be transformed into an inclusive bundling that invites people in. The watchtower thus evolves in a sustainable way, from empty visual landmark to habitable space, and acquires a whole new purpose and significance for the community.
Another studio focusing on the subject of renovation vs demolition, is the US based studio DXA. In Time Space Existence 2023, it showcases its project for the West Park Presbyterian, a neo-romanesque landmark in New York. DXA Studio was asked to envision a way to rethink how neglected sacred buildings in New York may be saved by preserving as much as possible from the original construction, while adding new use in the form of housing with a financially sustainable solution for the developer. The use of new material is aesthetically coherent with the existing one, and the design of the building is an answer of how to successfully harmonise the style of two different eras, without losing sight of the soul and the purpose of a place. The result is a project which is a hybridization of the Church and its surrounding space, whilst preserving the original construction and most of all, its original spirit.
Agit Studio addresses the theme of adaptive reuse through their project “Re-interpret”, an extension/renovation work in the city of Busan. The project designed by Agit Studio aims to connect two 40 years-old buildings into one, without any major alterations to the originals, but rather through the addition of a contemporary and distinctive element – a red concrete core structure built in and around the two constructions, connecting them. This core is not only aesthetic, as it includes two functional components: the staircase and the elevator. The massiveness of the concrete structure, in harmonic contrast with the lightness of the original features of the buildings, gives a new identity to the slightly anonymous architectural view of the street, nevertheless still keeping the familiarity and recognisability of the pre-existent urban context.
Studio V is an architecture and urban design firm that believes that cities are the greatest artefacts of men, as they contain a collective history and memory for the community. Therefore, the reimagination of the 21st century urban context should be pursued through the creation of a type of contemporary architecture which may not only contain but also enrich the already existing past design. The historic structures are incorporated in modern architecture, and the old is combined with the new. The layers of the past are not erased but revealed and enhanced, and the industrial and historical artefacts such as warehouses, bridges, tanks are reinvented and transformed into new centres of urban life, while never losing their relationship with the surrounding context. An example is the “Silo City” project, a vision for the adaptive reuse of grain elevators on the Buffalo River, turned into an arts and cultural campus that whilst keeping their original features, may again be used and experienced by the local community.
In the constant and fast paced flux of change that we are witnessing, cities are transforming rapidly, together with the needs and habits of their inhabitants. In this evolution, we should not lose sight of the importance of preserving the historicity of the built heritage for the next generations, without overlooking the necessity to renew the urban living. The projects exhibited in Time Space Existence 2023 are significant examples of how renovation and reuse could be keystones for a sustainable way of reimagining our cities.