A few weeks into my first year of college in St. Andrews, Scotland, I told a new acquaintance that I was studying history. He smiled archly and said: “Naturally you’ve come here to study history. America doesn’t have any history.”
This conversation happened yards from a ruined 12th-century cathedral, on a street where no building was less than 250 years old. Every stone seemed to lend silent authority to his point—which made it hard for me to argue, being 18, awkward, and foreign. Eventually I switched majors, but not before hearing the same pronouncement a few more times.
If America has a long history of anything, it’s of acute self-consciousness at our relative youth as a country (see the works of James, Henry). The result is a certain zealousness in our approach to historic preservation. Lacking an abundance of old, distinguished buildings, we cling to the few we have and try to consecrate them.
This explains why touring Mt. Vernon is a more religious experience than going to church. Here are the relics: George Washington’s bedstead, sword, and dentures. Here is the original, inviolate view, protected from the philistines who would dare live or build on the opposite bank of the river. The mission statement of the Mt. Vernon Ladies Association, which maintains the property, likens progress to desecration and implores, “Let one spot in this grand country of ours be saved from change.”
But the preservation movement itself is changing, and no longer stands athwart history yelling, “Stop.” The misguided school of re-creation that gave us Colonial Williamsburg may be headed for extinction. Several years ago, during the restoration of James Madison’s home, Montpelier, the decision to tear down the “inauthentic” 20th-century rooms sparked controversy—a sign of progress in a movement where originalism holds such sway. The time-capsule approach of demolishing the additions, said eminent preservation scholar Daniel Bluestone, cut the house off from the full sweep of its history. “Do you take your preservation in layers?” has become the central question, Bluestone observed.
Increasingly, we do, and we prefer it with a twist rather than straight. Adaptive reuse has beguiled us. Fifteen years ago, we shopped in converted historic buildings when we were on vacation; then we got used to working in them; now we’re clamoring to live in them. Since its inception in 1976, the federal historic tax credit has spurred more than $60 billion in private investment in 38,000 properties. Last year, a full 40 percent of projects claiming the credit were being repurposed from their original uses.
The recent outcry over plans to tear down midcentury landmarks, such as the Houston Astrodome and Prentice Women’s Hospital in Chicago, highlights our troubling blind spot for important buildings in their middle age—too old to be au courant and in perfect working order, too young to be seen as properly historic, either by the public or by the guardians of the National Register of Historic Places. Nevertheless, the preservation movement has made extraordinary gains since the fall of Penn Station and has succeeded in changing public sentiment. The market now, by and large, recognizes that a historic structure, even a non-landmark, is worth more than a cleared site. This was the key battle, and the preservationists won it.
Given this victory, and the rise of adaptive reuse, it’s strange that we still talk about these projects in such flat, limited terms. Addition, expansion, renovation: Can’t we do better? A large, ever-growing body of work deserves a real critical taxonomy, and that is what Françoise Astorg Bollack, AIA, assays in Old Buildings, New Forms. Bollack, an architect based in New York, gathers 28 exemplary projects of recent vintage and classifies them by type, as insertions, parasites, wraps, juxtapositions, and weavings. Much of the best work is happening in Europe, where the sheer number of old buildings forestalls any preciousness about them, and where debates like the one over Montpelier played out back in the Victorian era.
Bollack’s point is not to establish an ironclad system—she readily admits that some projects straddle categories—but to have a framework for understanding the ideas behind these buildings and the traditions to which they belong. The interplay of new and old varies greatly from a totalizing wrap (Enric Miralles’s Santa Caterina Market in Barcelona, blanketed by a roof of colorful tiles) to an opportunistic parasite (the glass ribbon grafted onto a fire and police station in Berlin by Sauerbruch Hutton). Even within the same category, differences emerge: One parasite-building surrounds and hides its host, while another, the 100-square-foot Rucksack House, perches lightly on the side of any host-building from which it’s slung.
Bollack believes that all of these approaches are legitimate, so long as the end result is both beautiful and useful. Old Buildings, New Forms is about “the creative possibilities of preservation,” she writes, a topic that needs to be understood by the public at large, but especially by “review commissions, patrons, and preservationists, who are often made uncomfortable by [this architecture] and … oscillate between total approval and total rejection.”
The best projects in the book would be hard to reject on any grounds. Mass MoCA by Bruner/Cott Architects and Planners, Bernard Khoury’s La Centrale Restaurant in Beirut, and Berlin’s Neues Museum by David Chipperfield Architects spin thrilling architecture out of their complex negotiations with the past. Other projects raise unsettling questions. Does the massive roof that Bernard Tschumi, FAIA, designed over a historic leisure-park complex in Le Fresnoy, France, protect the old structures or trivialize them? Or both?
In her essays, Bollack uses muscular language that emphasizes the agency of the designer, who might thread, stitch, weave, knit, or patch new material to the old. She also squares up to the ambiguities of the architecture. Le Fresnoy turns the original buildings into objects under an umbrella, and was driven by political branding as much as by the programmatic need for more space, she admits. Will Alsop Architect’s Sharp Center for Design, hoisted 85 feet above a Toronto street on giant chopsticks, is “impossible to describe in the usual architectural and urban design terms,” Bollack writes. “One would expect such a huge, levitating box to be threatening and oppressive. It is not. One would expect such an obviously out-of-scale, non-contextual design to be, literally, a blockbuster. It is not.”
Smaller, less familiar projects are also here and are fun to discover. Della Valle + Bernheimer hitched a zinc pod (Empty Nest) to a suburban Massachusetts house like an Airstream trailer to an SUV. In a German forest, FNP Architekten inserted a plywood box into a ruined pigsty, creating a folly that scrambles definitions of temporary and permanent, liner and shell.
Bollack locates the common source of all these design strategies in the 1950s and ’60s, when conceptual art sparked an interest in found objects and conditions, collages and juxtapositions, and when Jane Jacobs and Robert Venturi prompted a rethink of strict modernist consistency and an appreciation for the diversity of historical styles and the vernacular. “Conceptual art … provides the richest inspiration for the recent architectural designs that are the subject of this book,” Bollack writes. She quotes Sol LeWitt: “The idea becomes the machine that makes the art.”
In support of her argument, the architects included here cite Venturi, Gordon Matta Clark, and Eva Hesse as influences. But reading this work as scaled-up conceptual art seems overdetermined. One architect describes his approach as “reverse archaeology,” and surely the influence of that field is just as important for designers who recover fragments, shore up ruins, and make palimpsests legible.
In Bollack’s opinion, new-old architecture is where design innovation is happening, as opposed to the merely new, which has gone stale with vacuous form-making. Limitations liberate. The judges of this year’s Stirling Prize would no doubt agree, having given top honors to Astley Castle, a dilapidated 16th-century English manor house brilliantly restored for the Landmark Trust. The prize jury commented that the winning firm, London-based Witherford Watson Mann Architects, “has dealt with Astley’s ruins with intelligence and practicality, while adding to them with a contemporary architecture that is rich, visually beautiful and tactile.” Lest the Brits get too smug, I will point out that Old Buildings, New Forms includes 11 projects in the United States and none in Britain (though I do wish Bollack had included Rick Mather’s gorgeous reworking of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford). The American projects show considerable sophistication, plumbing layers of time, bridging its gaps, and exploiting its ruptures. Not bad for a country with no history.