Preservation and change are usually opposed to each other and have no common link. Traditional forms of preservation try to prevent change, by stabilizing structures, trying to keep buildings as they are, or attempting to return buildings to their imagined original character with interventions aimed to “reverse” change. But change naturally accompanies the physical life of a building and is a continuous, slow process which includes weathering, bleaching, and material disintegration. The natural forces of change are accompanied by social and technological forces of change in the form of maintenance, repairs, upgrades, and design interventions. Any attempt to preserve or conserve also produce change, and ultimately, as in Plato’s words, “nothing endures but change.” Thus if we agree that we cannot stop change then the approaches of adaptive reuse could provide the important link between preservation and change, allowing us to find creative and meaningful ways to work with the passage of time from the past to the present, and orient old buildings towards a sustainable future.
Let me begin with a useful history of preservation that Rem Koolhaas provided in a talk he gave at Columbia University in 2004. He argued that ideas, institutions, and laws of preservation in architec-ture emerged in the belly of two revolutions that shaped the modern world—the French revolution and the industrial revolution. Significant about these two moments was that they were also hugely destructive moments, and marked dramatic breaks with the past. It was in the moment of rupture and change that the whole question of what to keep, the desire to hold onto the past, and what to hold onto from the past, became an issue. As Koolhaas tellingly noted, “preservation is not the enemy of modernity but actually one of its inventions”.1
In New England one can track a similar history of preservation in the founding figures of the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities (SPNEA), established for “the purpose of preserving for posterity buildings, places and objects of historical and other interest.” In tracing the role of William Sumner Appleton, Jr., the historian James M. Lindgren argues that the emergence of historical societies in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries cannot be understood without the fears of a changing society being “transformed by immigration and industrialization”2. As New England’s Anglo-Saxon Protestant elite faced a “status revolution,” figures like Appleton found “satisfying compensation” in restoring “glories of the past.”3
However, architectural preservation from the start came with questions of “age” and “authenticity”—what kinds of interventions were appropriate for protecting the past?—what kinds of change were “authentic” in giving the appearance of unchanging past? In a debate in the mid-nineteenth century between the English art critic John Ruskin and his continental contemporary Eugene Viollet-le-Duc on the role of architectural “restoration” in preserving the past, you can see that they agreed that interventions for restoration were modes of change – what they disagreed over was the nature and impact of that change. In The Seven Lamps of Architecture, Ruskin passionately decried “restoration” as “the most total destruction which a building can suffer” for he believed that “it is impossible, as impossible as to raise the dead, to restore anything that has ever been great or beautiful in architecture”4 . Viollet-le-Duc on the other hand promoted the idea of restoration as a “means to reestablish [a building] to a finished state, which may in fact never have actually existed at any given time.” 5 While for Ruskin the attempt to “restore” or “return” a building to its imagined original glory was impossible, Viollet-le-Duc had no illusions about the task of historic restoration and the newness of its ultimate creation.
Since these debates, international laws and institutions of preservation have emerged, from the seven-point manifesto of the Athens Charter for the Restoration of Historic Monuments in 1931 to the later Venice Charter of 1964, and these charters include the use of “modern techniques and materials” in restoration. Thus restoration is not tied to original techniques of building, but require inevitably an engagement with forms of change. This is also true of the US Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Preservation Planning, which provides a conservative definition of preservation as “the act or process of applying measures necessary to sustain the existing form, integrity, and materials of an historic property.” It does not allow any alterations or additions to the exterior, but considers upgrading of mechanical, electrical, and plumbing systems as appropriate within a preservation project. Although preservation here seeks to construct an historical artifact, it has to embrace technological change.
Perhaps the most progressive of preservation charters is the Australian Burra Charter for heritage conservation. It clearly states that their mandate “is not about preserving our culturally significant places without allowing change, but is more about understanding why a place is important and then managing change in an informed way so that the historical significance of the place is retained and possibly enhanced” 6. As a charter, it embraces more than technological change; it also embraces social changes over time which result in the disuse of buildings. It thus states that “[o]ver time, buildings and places need to adapt and change to different circumstances and the needs of the user or occupier. Heritage conservation is an informed process that manages and allows for this change, but at the
same time perpetuating the cultural significance
of the place.”
In its recognition of a need for a creative engagement with change, the Burra Charter comes closest to ideas of adaptive reuse. While there are many definitions of adaptive reuse, it can be understood as a process of adapting old structures for purposes other than those initially intended, or transforming an unused or underused building into one that serves a new use. As defined by RISD’s Department of Interior Architecture journal Int/AR: “The field includes the reuse of existing structures and materials,
transformative interventions, continuation of cultural phenomena, connections across the fabric of time and space, and preservation of memory. Summarized,
it deals with issues of preservation, conservation, alteration, and interventions in the field of architecture and interior studies.”7
Adaptive reuse has, of course, always been an essential part of the history of architecture, as changes in economic, political, and domestic affairs demanded that existing buildings be put to new uses, and came to represent symbolic of shifts of imperial power, status, and social formations. However, it was only in the mid seventies that adaptive reuse became a formally recognized field of study as an alternative for resuscitating underused buildings of historic significance. Faced with an environmental crisis today and the urgent need to conserve our resources, adaptive reuse has gained greater attention and renewed vigor to repurpose our existing built environment rather than simply build anew for our changing needs.
While adaptive reuse means working not only with “historically” valuable structures, but also with ordinary buildings - industrial structures, storage buildings, former office and residential buildings, and so on – as Koolhaas points out, what we consider worth preserving has also been changing. Once preservation societies focused on the ancient, the sacred, and the beautiful, but now we also want to preserve the modern, the ordinary, and the interesting. Thus by linking preservation, adaptive reuse, and change we have the opportunity to rethink them as dynamic concepts – to understand that natural, technological, and social changes are an intrinsic part of our beloved old buildings and carefully consider what we keep and hold onto in all adaptive reuse of the built environment.
Furthermore, as sustainability become critical to our architectural vocabulary, we need to orient our old buildings for the future not only in terms of environmental sustainability. While environmental sustainability requires the reuse of built materials, conservation of the embodied energy of the existing structure, avoidance of waste, and the preservation of land, cultural sustainability is equally important for us to pay attention to. Cultural sustainability requires asking old enduring questions, regarding what and how to keep the past, authenticity and invention, and the art of making and remaking historical meanings, as we link the past to the challenges of the future. As we intertwine preservation, adaptive reuse, and change, environmental and cultural sustainability
must energize our vision.
1 Future Anterior Volume 1, Number 2, Fall 2004; article is
the transcription of part of a talk delivered by Rem Koolhaas at Columbia University on September 17th, 2004
2 James M. Lindgren, Preserving Historic New England
—Preservation Progressivism and the Remaking of Memory,
Oxford University Press 1995
4 Ruskin John, Seven Lamps of Architecture
(“The Lamp of Memory”), originally published in 1849,
Dover Publications 1989
5 Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, The foundations of
Architecture : Selections from the Dictionnaire Raisonne, George Braziller 1990, P. 195.
6 The Australia ICOMOS Charter for Places of Cultural
7 Berger, Hermann, Wong, Int/AR, journal on Interventions and Adaptive Reuse Volume 01, 2009