I was first introduced the term ‘adaptive reuse’ during my third year in the architecture program at Woodbury University. There was an exhibit in one of the studio galleries which showed some of the students’ work during their summer travel abroad in Paris and Barcelona. Their beautiful drawings, rendered in pencil, ink and water color, captured the traditional architectural details and interior axonometric perspectives of church and other monastic spaces. The students were instructed to meet at a particular location in the city and come up with a design for a contemporary space within the existing shell of a historic building. The idea was to learn, observe and appreciate the importance of historic preservation while experimenting with contemporary intervention; how can an existing space, whether sacred or iconic, be reused for adaptability to various functions?
Around that same time, a few of us became interested in deconstructivism, an avant-garde movement in contemporary architecture which included the works of Peter Eisenman, Frank Gehry, Thom Mayne, Daniel Libeskind, Eric Owen Moss, Coop Himmelb(l)au, to name a few. It is characterized by buildings that were often times fragmented and chaotic, revealing exposed structural elements inside and out. Some examples of their work involved the conversion, or transformation, of abandoned buildings that were carved out to make room for these “collided” insertions and additions.
Most of the architects mentioned above may not be household names, but you would have no doubt recognizing I.M. Pei’s glass pyramid design for the Louvre in Paris. When you take the escalator down into the brightly-lit excavated space below, beneath all that towering glass and tensile steel, you are caught by the awe-inspiring view of the 17th-century palace looming in the background. Proposed in 1983 by French President Francois Mitterand, as one of his Grands Projets, the Grand Louvre was awarded to I.M. Pei, who proposed a glass pyramid to rise from the middle of the main court, the Cour Napoleon, as the new entrance into the world’s largest museum. A majority of the renovation took place beneath the urban scale courtyard, while the old structure remained untouched for the most part. This is a perfect example of an adaptive reuse project. What was once a fortress in the late 12th century under Philip II, it was expanded many times to become the present Louvre Palace. 500 years later, Louis XIV decided that it would be a museum to display the royal collection, including artifacts from ancient Greek and Roman antiquities. After the French Revolution, the National Assembly decreed that the Louvre would house the nation’s greatest art masterpieces.
Many other famous museums slowly followed suit, including Herzog & de Meuron’s Tate Modern in London, which was transformed from an old power station into a new building for modern art. As older buildings become obsolete and can no longer sustain their programmatic requirements, adaptive reuse becomes a viable option for the preservation of sites, even on residential-scale projects.
In 2010, an abandoned eight-story water tower in Kennington, London which was registered as a landmark building, made local headlines as two developers decided to turn it into a living space. However, they were met with not just legal and financial complications. Structural damages over time were exacerbated as it became a nesting ground for pigeons, and plants taking root within the crevices of the detailed brickwork. With architectural features like diagonal brick buttresses, stone lintels, and other Romanesque features, it resembled the Venice Campanile in St. Mark’s Square. The 150-foot tall tower was transformed into a three bedroom, four bathroom home, with a living room soaring eight stories high in what used to be a square cast-iron tank designed to hold 750,000 gallons of water. The space was retrofitted with large windows on all four sides to provide amazing panoramic views of the city skyline. An existing concrete staircase within the tower is now connected to all the bedrooms and baths via a new elevator shaft. A new modern 980 square foot, 3-story addition, known as the Cube, was added on to make room for an open-plan kitchen and a modern, spacious living area that were otherwise too large to fit within the tower. The 4,000 square foot renovation was no easy feat, costing the developers £2 million, or $3.2 million with a tight construction schedule of eight months.