In a society that’s in constant and rapid change, there’s a tendency to pigeonhole everything around us into one of two categories: old and new. The same is true in architecture. We tend to call a building new if it uses new materials, new technologies, or some new compositional language, while, if a building is showing the signs of the passing of the years and its forms reflect outdated styles, we’ll probably call it old.
Over the past decades, it was common practice to distinguish alterations, which update an existing building, from new additions, involving the creation of architecture that’s added to an existing structure, featuring new forms and, often, with a futuristic character.
Today, however, this dichotomy is no longer “sustainable,” both because it’s a superficial way to look at an extremely complex issue, and because – as the ambiguity the word reminds us – it’s no longer an acceptable approach from the environmental perspective.
Transformation has therefore become an increasingly pressing need as we move into the future. It has clear advantages from the environmental viewpoint, preventing needless increases in the built footprint by optimizing what’s already available. But this involves a change of mentality as we reimagine the relationship between humans, nature, and society.
Transformation doesn’t mean cancelling what has been. On the contrary, part and parcel of it is a desire to preserve the essence of the past to hand it on to future generations in those forms and functions that are best suited for the inevitable changes in society. In this way, historic buildings aren’t doomed to life as tourist attractions but can be transformed into vital, active places.
Transformation is a design process that requires a great deal of thought and precision. An ability is needed to balance respect for existing structures with innovation, always aiming to achieve a synthesis that allows all the different elements to dialogue in harmony. This is why – as the title of this article suggests – transformation is an art that redefines spaces by making people and their current needs central to the design process.
A good example is Vittorio Grassi Architect & Partners’ restoration and renovation of the building at Via Principe Amedeo 5, Milan. This project required special care to ensure that the modernizations throughout the complex, in line with contemporary practice, weren’t at odds with the restoration of the antique façade on the main street.
The firm focused on retaining the existing historic architectural elements, restoring them to a level commensurate with the original importance of this 1871 building that served as the United States Embassy from 1879. Today, the building is undergoing a transformation to meet the needs of European real estate corporation Covivio, the property owner, which is converting it to offices, providing space for five hundred workstations over five levels with a total floorspace of 97 thousand square feet (9,000 m2).
Read the article: Principe Amedeo 5, contemporary offices in historical spaces
Retaining the historic façade was an integral part of a restyling project that adds value to the building, making it usable again by both customers and the community.
Compared to the past, nowadays our daily routines are changing fast, and not all existing buildings can continue to perform their original functions. This is why transformation demands the creativity and vision of architects.
A good example is Stone Nest Amphitheater, a project in which a team from 3andwich Design / He Wei Studio redesigned the geometries of an ancient, abandoned stone well in the Chinese city of Wujiatuan, transforming it into a community facility. An outdoor amphitheater used to host public meetings, and cultural and recreational events, the project resolved the issue of the lack of public spaces in the area.
Read the article: Stone Nest Amphitheater: a sustainable amphitheater carved from stone
It would be wrong to think that remodeling existing buildings means giving up the new. Likewise, it might seem that an approach that tries to create dialogue between old and new would involve so many constraints that free artistic expression would be out of the question. Not so. In their project for the renovation and extension of Antwerp’s Royal Museum of Fine Arts, Kees Kaan, Vincent Panhuysen, and Dikkie Scipio from KAAN Architecten brought contemporary charm to a 19th century beauty. In this case, the new is entirely contained within the existing structure of the museum. Since it’s not visible from outside, the project is a testament to the value and resilience of this historic building.
In the examples presented here – along with most remodeling and transformation projects – it’s obvious that the guiding principle is making people central to the design process. In fact, all remodeling projects need to revolve around the final use and, therefore, the habits of their intended users. Whether new designs will be enlarged, reduced, emphasized, or hidden all depends on how people use these new environments.
In today’s society, even more so in the wake of the long and difficult period we’ve experienced with the pandemic, we’ve never felt such an intense or widespread need for new, inclusive, and smart spaces – spaces in which it’s possible to stay connected to both nature and the Net, while also being able to recharge your phone. The spaces we imagine for the future must also be places for sharing, meeting, and exchange. Modern needs also require a new architectural vision of space. We finally need to ask ourselves if, going into the future, we’re going to be able to continue to accommodate new social trends without detracting from our historic heritage by finding a proper balance between existing buildings and new constructions.
We will talk about it during the Panel discussion "The Art of Transformation" at Perspetive Virtual Northern Europe event scheduled for May 18, 2021