Supporter's Column: Stephen Bates

Approaches to retrofit, transformation and restoration have historically reflected wider ideological attitudes and been informed by both architectural and cultural contexts.

Adapting reuse


The term ‘adaptive reuse’, which emerged in the 1970s as a real estate shorthand to indicate the modification of an existing structure to achieve maximal use and economic returns, has found its way into the language of architecture in recent years. Despite the lack of any theoretical underpinning, this broad-brush strategy has become the mantra of developers, institutions, and the media in response to the climate emergency. But while it advocates optimising what we have, it does not provide a coherent framework we can operate in. Like so many statements of intent within the environmental debate, it oversimplifies issues, and its assumptions need to be rigorously examined if they are to be applied effectively.


Historically, approaches to reuse, transformation and restoration have reflected wider ideological attitudes. In the 1850s John Ruskin advocated ‘conservative restoration’: ideologically opposed to reconstruction, he believed that ‘protection’ was a better strategy. Ruskin defended the aesthetics of ruins, the patina of weathering and collapse and saw restoration as a destructive force that effaces the sublime effects of time. Eugène Viollet le Duc’s championed ‘creative restoration’ as a way of re-establishing a building’s finished state - whether it had ever actually existed. The addition of new layers was allowed, as long as they were an expression of their own time rather than a mimicking of the past. The post-war interest in ‘reconstruction’ was an explicit attempt to rebuild what had been destroyed in the devastation of war, often re-imagining the original buildings as idealised monuments fixed in time. Hans Döllgast’s 'interpretive reconstruction’ proposed a subtler approach. Munich’s Alte Pinakothek exemplifies Döllgast’s attempt to make the history of the building visible: the gaps in the ruins are filled in with a stripped-down form of construction that maintains the structure and proportions of the original, using bricks from the rubble of destroyed buildings. The result combines the history of the building and the scars of its devastation in an uplifting narrative of rebirth.

In 1964 The Venice Charter attempted to bring a modernist order to restoration, positing a clear distinction between what was repaired and what formerly existed, in an attempt to provide an international framework for the conservation and restoration of historic buildings. Rossi’s ideas of ‘Old New’ in the early 1970s challenged Modernism’s invitation to sever links with the past, defending the strength of collective memory and of a sense of belonging by working with types and known forms. Rossi’s anti-modernist position was developed further in the 1980s by Miroslav Šik and other advocates of Analogue Architecture at ETH, who embraced the poetry of the everyday and ideas of continuity over reconstruction, celebrating and building upon what is already there, in all its imperfection.


Each of these approaches emerged from a specific socio-political context and attempted to articulate a framework for action. Usually presented as a worthier alternative to a previous position, some offered poetic answers, others empirical truths but all put forward mutually exclusive approaches to the need to re-structure the existing and give it cultural meaning.


Today we work in a more intuitive and inclusive way, where all of the above are relevant and useful, combining and mixing new and old and allowing them to blur into one another. Continuity is important again – a recognition of the many layers of history and construction. The new and the old, the nearly new and the nearly old, the very old, and even the not very good are regarded as broadly equivalent. This is a subjective attitude which expresses an openness to the complexities of the project, and a broadening of the idea of authenticity – a recognition that there is more to a building than its material components, that it is part of a narrative, and has a place in the cultural memory of those who inhabit the city.


In John Hejduk’s words: ‘The house never forgets the sound of its original occupants’…


This article was written by Stephen Bates of Sergison Bates Architects.