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OBSERVATIONS : DESIGN : The Old Versus the New : Architectural Strategies for Recycling Aging Buildings

August 30, 1987|BARBARALEE DIAMONSTEIN

FOR MUCH OF America's history, new meant good, newer meant better. Now, in a veritable revolution in American attitudes, we are seeing a reversal of what Walt Whitman called "the pull-down-and-build-over-again spirit" of the United States. Change meant progress, progress meant newness, and newness meant throwing out the old--including the built world.

Adaptive re-use exemplifies this new shift in attitude. The New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission said more than 10 years ago: "Creative adaption provides pride in our heritage, a link with the past, respect for the aesthetics and craftsmanship of another time, insights into our own development, ample creative opportunity for architectural innovation and problem-solving, enhancement of the urban fabric, greater security, stability and beauty, while conserving basic materials and meeting modern needs." To some extent, adaptive re-use is an extension of common sense to a pragmatic realization that it is practically impossible to remain purist about the functions of a building. It permits us to live in converted schools, to shop in converted post offices, to study in converted train stations. In a sense, recycling can also be seen as a form of architectural criticism.

There is no guarantee, however, that old buildings, even those worth preserving, will actually be preserved. Benjamin Thompson, whose recycling projects have included Boston's Faneuil Hall / Quincy Market complex and New York's South Street Seaport, stated: "Most old buildings are eminently worth saving because they speak to us about time and tradition and where we came from and because they display materials and workmanship that we cannot afford to duplicate today. (However), without an attempt to use some imagination in both preserving and updating them, most of our heritage buildings (are) going to be disposed of." In other words, if the worthwhile buildings are to be saved, they will have to be saved for something other than mere restoration--

or mummification, as some critics put it.

For all its positive results, the adaptive re-use phenomenon has not escaped criticism. Philosophical and economic complaints, as well as questions of appropriate design, are being raised by preservationists, developers and neighborhood residents alike. One of the loudest outcries--one that would never have been raised but for the flourishing success of adaptive re-use--is that traditional rehabilitation concerns, such as historical and architectural integrity, are being overshadowed by the commercial interests of private developers. Ada Louise Huxtable, former New York Times architecture critic, pointed to the South Street Seaport, a commercial fishing center converted into a fashionable mall along New York City's East River, as a potential example of this controversy. "The city is about to sacrifice the last of the genuine character of a fragile historical survival to economic development masquerading as a way to save the past," she wrote. "Out of innocence, or ignorance, we continue to make the kinds of bargains for preservation that turn out not to be bargains at all." Huxtable identified a growing concern. Too often preservation is coming to be equated with the construction of vast commercial malls, and one cannot help but wonder if this is a fad of which the public will soon tire. These "cathedrals of consumption" may eviscerate the original architecture and its history, leaving a much slicker and more controlled atmosphere.

Issues such as those posed by commercial malls impress upon us the need for an intelligent, educated, overall policy of adaptive re-use. The phenomenon has matured enough so that our attention now must not simply focus on "saving" buildings or neighborhoods but also encompass more complicated considerations. What criteria should be applied, for example, in determining which structures to rehabilitate? Some buildings may have qualities completely apart from architectural detail that mark them as worthy of saving and re-using. A structure may have special significance within a community, as in the case of one old Los Angeles building in Watts that was a factory during the Depression and at that time employed the parents of many current residents. The structure was preserved and converted into a shopping plaza not because of its high architectural distinction but because it is, to the community, a place of genuine meaning.

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