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Honoring Historical Architecture In A Changing City

September 8, 2013

Lately I find myself continually referencing an article from The Urbanist magazine (published by SPUR*) called “Adapt, Transform, Reuse”.  It outlines how a city can modernize to accommodate an evolving population, while still honoring and preserving historical architecture and aesthetics.

“New buildings can help reinforce older urban forms and old buildings can be re-imagined to serve new uses. It is the juxtaposition of old and new that gives cities their interesting corners, their urban surprises, their texture.

Adaptive Reuse: The Ferry Building

Adaptive Reuse: The Ferry Building

Imagine a city where time has stopped — no new buildings are allowed to be built, and the ones that do exist must retain their original use. Such a city would lose its vitality due to lack of change.

Imagine another city where no old buildings or forms are retained— everything is torn down and built new. This second city would also lack vitality but for another reason — because it has no history, no soul.”

In an era of keeping costs to the bare minimum and profits to the absolute maximum, developers notoriously cut corners with simple, cookie-cutter, ugly design and uber-cheap materials.  This makes for really ugly, soul-less cities and communities.

So, clearly, there is an opportunity and need to create beautiful integrations of old and new.  The question is simply (haha) how much old and how much new.  “People have passionate feelings about their environment, sometimes expressed as a love for the buildings or landscapes that currently surround them, other times as a desire for change.”  You will be hard-pressed to find design solutions that make everyone happy.

Nonetheless, assuming there is compromise from both historians and modernists, The Urbanist article outlines key ways that we can bring new life to old buildings to accommodate the ever-changing city:

Adaptive Reuse — when old buildings are repurposed for a use that they were not originally designed to serve.
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Example: the SF Ferry Building on the waterfront turned into foodie mecca marketplace.
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Incorporation: Original African Hall within the rebuilt California Academy of Sciences

Incorporation: Original African Hall within the rebuilt California Academy of Sciences

Incorporation — when elements of old buildings are incorporated into new buildings.This category includes spolia (when bits and pieces of buildings are preserved), facadism (when the facade of a historic structure is retained but the rest of the building is replaced) and encapsulation (when a historic building is kept in its original location but surrounded on all sides with newer, bigger construction).
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Example: the original, beloved African hall from the original California Academy of Sciences building incorporated into the 2008 modern, LEED-certified museum reconstruction all around it.
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Juxtaposition — when something new responds to, but does not mimic the old. The contrast between old and new defines and amplifies the qualities of both.  This can be seen in additions to existing buildings, in infill construction within a historic context and in the relationship of new buildings to older urban forms such as alleys or piers.
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Examples: The Contemporary Jewish Museum cubic addition and inside remodel.  And, Mint Plaza’s modern plaza among historic architecture.
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Juxtaposition: Contemporary Jewish Museum

Juxtaposition: Contemporary Jewish Museum

Juxtaposition: Mint Plaza

Juxtaposition: Mint Plaza

So, there you have it: Honoring historical architecture and design 101.  Yep, old and new can co-exist.  Modern hip design can accentuate historical city-soulful design, and vice-versa.  I’ve heard that The Urbanist‘s publisher SPUR* has done a great job at helping advise developers and the city planning commission to ensure we keep these principles in mind.  I’m so grateful San Francisco has such a kick-ass organization doing great work.

SPUR actually just opened a San Jose brick-and-mortar headquarters as well.  Oh, if only they had done that in the 1970s, I bet we wouldn’t have the atrocity of ugliness and paved-over prime farmland that is Silicon Valley.  Better late than never!

And, if we could get suburbia (aka the land of Maxi-Malls) to adopt these principles as well…

For details and more examples on the methods above, read the complete “Adapt, Transform, Reuse” article from The Urbanist.

SF Planning & Urban Research Association.

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