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The Adaptive Reuse Paradox: Originals Become Newly Original

John McAslan + Partners

The Adaptive Reuse Paradox: Originals Become Newly Original
By John McAslan -

As is well known, buildings consume a significant proportion of the world’s energy. When demolished and replaced, the embodied energy within existing buildings is lost - and yet more energy is used to replace them. So, in the 21st century, the reinvention and upcycling of existing buildings through adaptive reuse is an expression of our collective responsibilities to address the global climate crisis. And after a century of considerable loss of original built fabric in our cities and towns through redevelopment, we are beginning to realize our obligations to find new ways to repurpose buildings and to benefit from their continuity and significant historic, cultural and community value.

My passion for the reinvention of existing buildings began during the early years of my architectural education at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland and had much to do with my interest in the debate surrounding great proto-modern and modern buildings addressed by leading theorists such as Nicolas Pevsner, Reyner Banham and William Curtis. I also spent much of my free time visiting disused 19th century industrial buildings on the Clyde estuary west of Glasgow, which made a permanent impression on me. I found these redundant structures compelling - there was a majestic beauty in their directness of expression and assembly, their physical power, their atmosphere. To me, they still seemed capable and ready for work.

On completing my architectural education, I spent a number of years training as an architect in Boston, combining this with travelling across North America to pursue my interest in understanding more about the architectural masterpieces of the 19th and 20th century, in particular the buildings of Louis Kahn, and by others as varied as Wright’s Johnson Wax Administration Building in Wisconsin, Burnham and Root’s tall, brick-structured Monadnock Building in Chicago and Sullivan’s Prudential (Guaranty) Building in Buffalo, and Bunshaft’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library in New Haven.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the two practices I trained with - Cambridge Seven in Boston and the Richard Rogers Partnership in London - before establishing my own studio, carried forward their own creative principles with an equally innovative spirit, while respecting historic precedents, notably those represented by pioneering Modernists.

SESC (Serviço Social do Comércio) Pompéia, Lina Bo Bardi, centro culturale multifunzionale, San Paolo, Brasile, 1977. Foto di Paulisson Miura, CC BY 2.0

First encounters with “islands” of endurance

And so, in 1984, it was fitting that the first project undertaken by my original practice with partner Jamie Troughton was significantly influenced by my early architectural interests and training, initially expressed in a project rather modest in scale, but big on ambition, namely the transformation of a dilapidated car showroom in London into design studios for a start-up creative business.

Ten years later, I established John McAslan + Partners and since then we have designed and completed projects of all types and scales in Britain and overseas, all of which aim for architectural and engineering clarity - with a significant proportion of our work continuing to involve the transformation through adaptive reuse of existing buildings and sites - some historically important and others less so, but each informed by a sense of the possibilities, both environmentally and creatively.

Adaptive reuse is about continuity in the transient churn of 21st century consumption, data and imagery. It combines practicality and invention and demands the tightest focus on existing structures, contexts, and materials. A specific kind of architectural imagination and intent is needed for these projects, which, in our work, falls into three categories: Repurposing, Repair and Renewal, and turning Old into New.

Transformations of existing buildings for cultural uses often represent the most dynamic adaptive opportunities and are widely varied in their scale and character. One of the most imaginative of these is Lina Bo Bardi’s remarkable conversion of a former barrel factory in São Paulo into the SESC Pompéia culture and leisure center in 1977. Another is Carlo Scarpa’s now legendary combination of modernist, medieval, and creatively sculpted elements at the Museo di Castelvecchio, Verona. Entirely different from Scarpa, but equally engaging is Bruner/Cott & Associates’ MASS MoCA, formed from derelict industrial structures across a 7-ha site in North Adams, Massachusetts; and the Dia Beacon contemporary art museum within a former large-spanned cardboard box factory converted by Rice+Lipka on the banks of the Hudson River in Beacon, New York.

Adaptive reuse can also generate combinations of outcomes and, on occasion, significant financial returns. In the 1970s, for example, the PS1 scheme in an unfashionable part of New York turned a dour Romanesque former school building into the city’s most vibrant contemporary art museum - and triggered wider mixed use regeneration in the area around it. Today, MoMA PS1 is funded by corporations including Bloomberg Philanthropies, Allianz, and Volkswagen as part of their environmental and social governance (ESG) programs. Bloomberg alone spends some $3bn annually on ESG-related projects.

At an even larger scale than PS1, the transformation of London’s redundant Bankside power station into Tate Modern in 2000 had similar impacts, stimulating surrounding mixed-use regeneration. And at a supersized scale, the 2006 conversion of the Zeche Zollverein colliery at Essen into the Ruhr Museum, Red Dot Design Museum and associated cultural facilities confirmed that virtually any kind of building could be repurposed.

Beyond the cultural sector, Lacaton & Vassal’s considered and light-touch repair and renewal approach - such as their updating of slab-block apartment buildings in Bordeaux and Paris - shows how low cost, socially committed adaptive reuse interventions can renew the most ordinary of structures and directly benefit the lives of specific communities.

In summary, and as I trust is evidenced here, the creative outcomes for adaptive reuse are potentially endless, life-enhancing and environmentally sustainable.

 Colebrooke Place, Londra, UK, 1990

A simple first step into Repurposing

My practice’s approach to adaptive reuse projects always aims to incorporate designed interventions that address the building’s functionality in new ways. We always ask, how can these interventions be kept to a minimum and still maximize the functional and placemaking outcomes? Conversely, when is it appropriate to introduce new architectural elements that are complimentary to the original building to create new possibilities?

One of our earliest adaptive reuse projects, in the early 1990’s, involved the enhancement of a dilapidated industrial shed in Colebrooke Place in London, and falls into the Repurposing category, while epitomizing the less-is-more approach. The then new B1 building usage class in England allowed us to convert the original building into a workplace that prefigured our loose-fit adaptive reuse of larger derelict structures that followed in our later work. At Colebrooke Place a single intervention reconfigured the pre-existing internal volume by lifting the bottom chords of the roof trusses to create enough space to insert a mezzanine floor supported by elegantly cast concrete columns and a light weight suspended floor deck.

We also adopted the minimal intervention strategy with a quite different project at the Greenwich World Heritage Site, with our sensitive updating and reprogramming of the King Charles Building, constructed across the 17th and 18th centuries by Wren, Hawksmoor and Vanbrugh, the great triumvirate of English Baroque architecture. This work was essentially about discreetly adjusting the original historic fabric, inserting low energy services invisibly and making new connections between the different segments of the historic buildings to create an internal “circuit” of occupiable space for new teaching and practice rooms, along with performance spaces and support accommodation.

One of our most widely acclaimed repurposing projects is London’s Roundhouse, a former 19th century railway turntable building, which quickly became redundant shortly following its construction in 1846 as the techniques for repairing railway engines rapidly advanced. Following its extended use as a gin store and its brief but significant “meanwhile” use as a progressive cultural venue in the 1960’s and 70’s, it was transformed by us into one of the London’s most versatile and best-loved performance venues. We realized early on that this vast drum-shaped brick building could provide a remarkably dramatic and vibrant full-height performance space with minimum change beyond the addition of adaptable acoustic overlays and state-of-the-art theatrical technical systems for both standing, promenade audiences of 3,500, or 500 to 1,000 seated for more intimate theatrical performances.

So we took a Kahnian approach, wrapping a service layer containing a restaurant, bar, studio theater, main reception, offices and circulation, around two-thirds of the drum. And to encourage the Roundhouse’s direct relationship with the local community, we converted the drum’s radial undercroft segments into creative studios specifically for use by young, local musicians. When completed in 2006, this multiple award-winning project was described by one respected commentator as “one of the most radical experiments we have yet seen in cultural interaction, a venture that aims to set a model for a multicultural society”.

In Oxford, we are converting the disused, River Thames-facing 19th century Osney Power Station into the Saïd Business School’s new, self-contained learning complex for executive education with a variety of teaching spaces, above which sits a 120-bedroom residential layer. One of our central ideas here is to retain as much of the building’s robust, matter-of-fact Victorian fabric as
possible - most obviously by creating an agora in the full-height turbine hall at the heart of the building and wrapping varied teaching functions around it, very much in the spirit of a traditional college quadrangle.

This need to conserve fabric was also a necessity in our Msheireb Museums projects in Doha, Qatar. Here, we renovated, modernized, and carefully extended four adjacent historic courtyard houses into new museums at the heart of the massively ambitious 31 ha, 100 building and 750,000 sq. m Msheireb Downtown Doha development, the world’s first sustainable downtown regeneration project.

Programmatically, these historic houses have been transformed by us into museums covering sensitive and significant subjects including international people-trafficking in one of the museums and mapping the growth and development of the state of Qatar from its earliest times in others. The fabric and structure of the existing buildings had suffered varying degrees of damage, and were repaired using traditional techniques, while the new elements were, in general, restrained to preserve and enhance the historic architecture with selective interventions, as with the addition of large sub-surface gallery spaces and distinct new above-grade elements such as our Cor-Ten-clad video chambers which project into adjoining courtyards within one of the museum environments.

Our largest repurposing projects - the Stanislavsky and Bolshevik transformations from historic factories - were cultural-led mixed use regeneration projects in Moscow, each exceeding
50,000 sq. m in floor area. On the Stanislavsky Factory project, we adapted and reused a mixture of 19th and 20th century industrial buildings, inserted new apartment buildings, created an hotel in what had been an old and very decrepit apartment block, and renovated the legendary, but redundant, Stanislavsky Theatre. A key element of this project was the creation of a type of connective public realm that was entirely new to Moscow, which has since been adopted elsewhere, by the Mayor, in more recent developments in the city.

Close by, at the massive Bolshevik Factory site - whose heritage value spans the pre- and post-revolutionary periods - we were confronted with 17 buildings of various ages and styles. Our adaptive redevelopment made use of original and new structures to create start-up offices, glass-canopied all-weather internal streets, retail spaces, apartments, 1.5 ha of public gardens, and the new Museum of Russian Impressionism - the latter in the form of galleries partly cantilevered from the drum of a former industrial silo on the site. Like the Stanislavsky project, this scheme has become a benchmark for other large-scale regenerative schemes of industrial sites in Moscow and beyond.

 Riverview High School, Paul Rudolph, Sarasota, Florida, USA, 1958

Repair and Renewal, beginning with Wright

In our Repair and Renewal work, the original purpose of the buildings generally remains the same, and our task is to improve their functionality, and environmental character, while retaining as much of the original building fabric as possible.

Our first major project of this type, which we began in the late 1990s, was the repair, restoration and reprogramming of Frank Lloyd Wright’s final built work, the semi-redundant and at-risk 1958 Polk County Science Building at Florida Southern College - the largest single-site collection of the master-architect’s work anywhere. Following our preparation of a campus masterplan and phased renovation strategy, the first step at Polk was to repair the external envelope and make the building watertight using enhanced repair techniques for Wright’s concrete block assembly which constituted the principal construction element for all exterior and interior walls. The building’s internal layout was then adjusted to accommodate updated pedagogical requirements, refreshed laboratories and internal connective bridges, with new services inserted which juxtaposed with the key features of Wright’s architecture.

Several years later, our competition-winning scheme to save the near-by demolition-threatened Riverview High School designed by Paul Rudolph in 1958 and located west of Florida Southern College had a less successful outcome, and was based on a straightforward programmatic shift rather than major physical interventions: the school was an early exemplar of low-energy, prefabricated steel construction and socially inclusive design and it would have been an act of vandalism to disturb Rudolph’s prescient architecture. Tragically, despite a concerted campaign by the World Monuments Fund and leading international architects, and my personal approach to the Governor of Florida, our proposed renovation project was halted at the 11th hour and the school was subsequently and tragically demolished, replacing Rudolph’s exemplar with a very sub-standard and environmentally unsustainable group of new campus buildings.

My experience of helping to save Wright’s Science Building established principles which we subsequently utilized in our repair and renewal of what is arguably the most important example of 1930s Streamline Moderne architecture in Britain: the De La Warr Pavilion at Bexhill-on-Sea, designed by Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff, which incorporated the first welded steel frame structure in Britain. Like Wright’s FSC campus, the De La Warr Pavilion was a building at risk, despite its significance as representing an innovative new kind of low-cost construction and its unique Modernist cultural-led seaside architecture.

Precise restoration using enhanced techniques for the repair of the original building’s fabric and the repair of its beautifully sinuous fixtures and fittings were of critical importance. So, too, was the challenging insertion of new building services. Other interventions included the remodeling of the auditorium, and the creation of a new art gallery, restaurant, and two new wings to house rehearsal and performance facilities in order to expand its functional program and appeal.

The De La Warr project also prepared us for the challenges of our newly complete transformation of the celebrated Burrell Collection museum in Glasgow, designed by Gasson, Meunier and Andresen and completed in 1983. Along with the Hayward Gallery and the Sainsbury Centre, the Burrell is regarded as one of the most important late-Modernist cultural buildings in Britain, and we knew that anything beyond straightforward renovation of the Burrell’s failing fabric and life expired building services would be highly controversial. But we also knew that the long-term slump in the Burrell’s visitor numbers could not be reversed without a rethink about how to make the building more accessible, and curatorially sophisticated.

The design process balanced the need to preserve the essential character and form of the architecture and its materials, while greatly improving its relationship to the parkland around it and revitalizing visitors’ experiences of one of the world’s greatest private collections of 14th and 15th century art. We achieved this with four main interventions: repairing the building’s envelope in a way that precisely matched the original materials and details, but with a greatly improved envelope performance and upcycling of existing materials wherever we could; providing an enhanced landscaped approach within its parkland setting serving a new reception sequence; opening up the center of the building with a multi-level connective hub volume; and creating substantially more exhibition space with thematic displays, served by enhanced, low energy systems.

Sometimes, buildings have an almost mythological aura and their renovation and adaptation must be handled with the greatest care and respect. This was certainly true of the 19th century Iron Market at Port-au-Prince, Haiti, which collapsed during the devasting 2010 earthquake. Here we led a multi-disciplinary team to resurrect the much-loved iron structure, which was originally destined to be a trainshed before being shipped in prefabricated sections from France to Haiti where it was rebuilt as a covered market.

Across more than a century, the Iron Market had became the commercial and social heart of the city, and its near-destruction was a tragedy for the people and the cityscape of Port-au-Prince. This demanded a reconstruction (completed exactly one year after the earthquake) that retained the classic structure and its decorative elements, with additional interventions that improved the building’s seismic capacity, ventilation and building services. This was not simply a top-down project. We involved 750 people who had been displaced from working in the market, trained them in construction methods so they could contribute to rebuilding it, after which they returned to their market activities following the building’s resurrection.

Stazione di King’s Cross, Londra, UK John McAslan + Partners con Arup, 2012 © Hufton + Crow

Turning Old into New in London and Sydney

There is a fine line and inevitable overlaps between Repurposing, Repair and Renewal, and Old into New building adaptations. While the former generally leads to revived buildings whose forms and features are broadly similar to the originals (although in our Msheireb projects, these included significant interventions), Old into New projects, on the other hand, often allow much greater degrees of formal manipulation, especially if the building’s essential function is to be retained and extended to accommodate considerable increase in usage and capacity.

This is certainly the case in my practice’s two largest and most challenging projects to date - the £500m modernization and extension of King’s Cross station, London, in 2012, and the on-going transformation of the historic Central Station in Sydney, Australia, which, combined with King’s Cross (when Central is fully operational in 2024), will jointly accommodate more than 250 million rail and metro passengers a year.

The “old”, congested King’s Cross had been marred by depressing ad hoc additions over 150 years of use - notably, its 1960s entrance sequence which created poor user conditions while concealing the station’s double barrel-vaulted façade and trainshed beyond. Operationally, the connection between the national and suburban platforms, and the London Underground platforms beneath, were equally poor.

Our scheme, which included the removal of later accretions and repairs to the Victorian fabric and operational modernizations, featured one particularly dramatic intervention that represented the centerpiece of the entire project - namely the insertion of the new western concourse which creates a vast congregation space for the station, while effectively reinstating the original 19th century western entrance. The new concourse’s vaulted roof, engineered by Arup, is a series of curving parabolic steel beams that fan outwards from the station’s original Victorian west façade. This completely decompresses the arrival and departure process and creates a visually and spatially inspiring welcome plaza, in what is now Europe’s largest single-span railway structure. Another important change saw the creation of a large piazza in front of the station, fully exposing the architecture of the main façade for the first time in over a century.

Our interventions at Sydney Central Station, developed for Sydney Metro as part of the city’s $25bn Metro project due for completion in 2024, are conceptually comparable to King’s Cross - most notably in the formation of our dramatic new concourse volume for orientation and circulation. This dramatic new heart space for Central has a massive oversailing, top-lit canopy which connects the existing mainline rail and suburban platforms, with the new deep Metro infrastructure beneath, designed by Sydney’s Woods Bagot, our architect collaborators on this major project, completing this landmark transformative project.

Sydney Central Metro Upgrade, Sydney, Australia, in corso

Final thoughts

Our diverse portfolio of adaptive reuse projects, which retain, adapt and extend what exists, along with the reference projects included here are, I believe, proof of a single idea. Buildings, whether grand or modest, are like chrysalises. They have the potential to be transformed into something newly productive, newly engaging and newly individual - but without abandoning their architectural genetics or original contributions.

There is, I believe, a unique duty of care in adaptive reuse projects - a duty to enrich the urban condition, a duty to mitigate environmental impacts, and a duty to rediscover and re-present the qualities and atmospheres of existing structures, spaces, and materials. It is these continuous and cross-connected learning curves in adaptive reuse projects that makes them so uniquely enriching in improving the lives of people and places.

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