Queen to Alice: “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.” Fifty years ago, few of us expected that the hearts of American cities would start to beat again. Our downtowns had sustained a continuous decline. There was little protection for the familiar, the recognizably historic, or the texture of active streetscapes — let alone the residents of Boston’s West End. The sense of loss over the demolition of landmark structures such as Pennsylvania Station concentrated emotional reactions to broader changes in our cities and towns. A righteous opposition emerged, reinforced by the unpopularity of replacement buildings and the antiurban spatial economy of our automobile culture. Few people now realize how federal incentives to modernize the appearance of main street retail frontages dramatically affected American towns under the New Deal — or how unopposed those changes were.
The historic preservation movement focused further through the lens of the Bicentennial in 1976, as the Colonial Revival had done in 1876. Federal, state, and local laws and bylaws created a new framework to manage the rate and nature of change. Nationally, our minds had changed. Old buildings became less vulnerable to thoughtless demolition. Preservation architecture became a professional specialty. The general public is now more receptive to contemporary architecture, in part because it has improved in so many ways.
Architecture’s artistic aspirations have long drawn it into the same stylistic teleology as art history, which is about objects — not places. Looking back across the years, I would argue that the adaptive reuse of existing buildings (often with transformative new additions) is among the most powerful placemaking forces of our time. Historic architectural form can anchor radical retrofits for contemporary circulation, energy management, and spatial fluidity in ways that coincide with less-felt disruption to familiar landscapes. Adaptive reuse can engage the designer’s imagination at the point where a received architecture and possibilities for entirely new design converge. Sensitivity to the original building’s character is not eclecticism. Contemporary response need not be historicist. Schools of architecture are finally recognizing this, and studio projects are helping to erode the reductive opposition that once existed between new design and historic preservation.
Adaptive reuse has emerged as architecture’s true Postmodernism, capable of embracing many interwoven strands of life in the built environment. The Brutalist emphasis on materiality may have informed young practioners’ approaches to building reuse alongside heightened appreciation of historic buildings. Adaptive reuse has shown that it can be transformative. It can be unconfined stylistically and offer a variety of highly textured ways to weave new developments into urban settings. Federal and state tax credits for historic preservation in real estate development almost always favor large-scale adaptive reuse projects — and deserve continuing political and public support.
Architecture 2030, the nonprofit that Edward Mazria established in response to the climate-change crisis, recognizes the vastness of our existing construction with clear goals for its adaptation to conserve energy over the coming decades. Patrick Keiller, the English filmmaker and observer of the built environment (The View from the Train: Cities & Other Landscapes) is succinct: “There seem to be two kinds of space. There is new space… and old space. Most of the old space is residential and looks more or less dilapidated. The new space is occupied by large corporations of one sort or another, and is not urban in the conventional sense.”
Adaptive reuse has the potential to create architectural richness across this divide while addressing physical and emotional deficiencies simultaneously. Multidimensional, transformative, recognized by the profession on a project-by-project basis, yes — but seldom seen for the national force it has become.