The National Theater of Albania
Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons License/Pasztilla aka Attila Terbócs The National Theater of Albania

A recent spate of announcements about buildings that were just torn down (or are about to be) has me riled up. Why do we keep making this mistake? Do we really need to waste natural resources, fill garbage dumps, and construct something new just because we think an older structure is somehow ugly or doesn’t fit our current needs? When will we learn that adaptation and reuse is so much better?

The extravagant waste that is the ongoing demolition of the Los Angeles County County Museum (LACMA) buildings, to make room for a smaller, less functional, and socially and environmentally ill-conceived replacement, now has some competition, as I just discovered. A rationalist-era theater in Tirana, Albania, is being destroyed so a Bjarke Ingels Group design can take its place. At least that project looks more logical than Zumthor’s LACMA satire on oozing sprawl. Both are clear architectural misdeeds, however, because we’re losing historically important and wholly salvageable buildings.

Cesar Pelli's Bank of California in San Jose
Google Cesar Pelli's Bank of California in San Jose

Things get more complicated in the case of structures that, at first glance, might not seem worth saving. Take, for instance, Cesar Pelli’s Bank of California branch building in San Jose, Calif. As if often the case, it will be demolished to make way for bigger, if not necessarily better, buildings on the site. If ever an American building deserved the adjective "Brutalist," it is this bunker. Sitting among the high-rises of downtown, it holds its own through the sheer weight of its forms. A block of concrete with no windows at eye level, it presents an image of security worthy of Fort Knox. Light comes into the interior through clerestory windows at the base of a projecting lintel, which only increases that sense of looming security. Two vertical fins intersect the main volume and splay out onto the street (giving the building its nickname, the Sphinx), leaving just enough room for an entrance stair to squeeze itself into the structure between these two totemic symbols of protection.

What to do with such a building? It is difficult to imagine many uses beyond something like a dance, theater, or gallery venue–at least not without punching holes into the building, which would destroy its design logic. Could it be the home of voter registration records? Or an NSA outpost? What else needs such an expression of security? How does such a structure become part of an open and democratic society and welcome us inside?

The James R. Thompson Center, Chicago, by Helmut Jahn. 
Roman Boed/Flickr via Creative Commons license The James R. Thompson Center, Chicago, by Helmut Jahn. 

I am sure a purpose could be found, perhaps by playing with irony or surprise in function, or by designing additions. But the success of such an effort would depend on bringing more intense development to the site. Which brings us to the real reason why so many object buildings from the recent past are under threat: to be stand-alone forms, and to work as such, they need open space around them, and that space is now valuable. It is the same issue, for instance, that continues to threaten Helmut Jahn’s State of Illinois Building in Chicago. I would love to see a good designer figure out how to design buildings with, around, and maybe above these structures. The designs that both Michael Graves and Rem Koolhaas, Hon. FAIA did for the Whitney Museum, for instance, might serve as models.

The Mouse Bunker in Berlin

The issue is more freighted when it comes to the soon-to-be-demolished “Mouse Bunker” in Berlin. Here the new buildings aren't intended to bring more intense development to the site, but rather are meant to be more useful, as well as less wrought in their architecture and history. Designed by Gerd Hänska, the Mouse Bunker evokes military uses even more than the Pelli building. Its sloping facades, triangular windows peeking out of the concrete slopes, and the projecting air handling equipment that brings to mind guns make the structure look like a marooned submarine or aircraft carrier. What further complicates the case for rehabilitation is the fact that it was designed to accommodate animal testing. Do you preserve a place of slaughter and torture just because of its striking design? I would argue yes, especially if the redesigned building both comments on that history and provides a better future.

Finally, what should we do with buildings that aren't strong and memorable objects, but rather serviceable, and not particularly outstanding, pieces of architecture? That's the question raised by the 1960 Board of Education Building in Kansas City, Mo., which is slated to be replaced by a $50 million hotel. Designed by local architect Edward D. Tanner, it combines a rather squat rectangular tower of glass set in a grid of metal mullions with a base that presents concrete panels to one side and a more generous rhythm of tall strip windows to the other. A bowed entry element helps distinguish it as a public building, a gesture that's largely missing from the bank or the lab structure.

The Board of Education Building in Kansas City
Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons License/Bartokie The Board of Education Building in Kansas City

From my memory of the building (I saw it quite a few years ago), the composition is rather awkward in form, perhaps because it aimed to combine the expression and housing of a city bureaucracy with a sense of civic scale and import that give the more public base of the building a different language, scale, and even proportion. Yet that oddness is part of its appeal, and also makes it much easier to imagine a reuse of the structure. What’s more, the hotel that is set to replace the building is so atrocious in its design and appears to use the site so poorly that I cannot imagine any real justification for demolition.

All of this leads me to another conclusion: We should not tear down existing buildings if they can be reused, enhanced, or enlarged not only because it is a waste of resources, but also because what replaces them is almost inevitably worse (the BIG building in Tirana may be the only possible exception here). That is less an indictment of the skills of today’s architects than it is a comment on the realm within which architecture now operates, which has been greatly reduced by developers, regulators, and financiers, not to mention by the logic of a society based on value engineering and risk management.

The simplest solution is to go with what we already have and build on that. Architects just need to find other avenues or approaches in which to work. Building on the shoulders of giants (in some cases literally) is better than demolishing their offspring.

Aaron Betsky is a regularly featured columnist whose views and conclusions are not necessarily those of ARCHITECT magazine nor of the American Institute of Architects.