Brant Foundation in New York
Aaron Betsky Brant Foundation in New York

Loft renovations are the new normal for urban growth. We used to think of such projects as attempts to shoehorn something new into a space designed for a different use. At first, the loft, the most generic of all modern spaces, was transformed from a site for manufacturing, printing, weaving, cutting, or sewing into a place to make art, with a cot in the corner for the artist. Then it became a place for lawyers and other moneyed professionals to live, with the existing brick walls and copper pipes glowing with a patina beneath spotlights and next to new stucco walls. The galleries covered all but the loft’s skylights and whitewashed the floors. Then stores took residence, and the Urban Outfitters look was born. Eventually, developers even built faux lofts: brand new structures whose appearance, proportion, and lack of amenities not only evoked the romance of (artistic) production and thus creativity, but also were cheaper to outfit than standard apartments.

National Sawdust in Brooklyn
Felton Davis/Flickr via Creative Commons license National Sawdust in Brooklyn

In Los Angeles, architects gave lofts a (literal) twist during the 1990s, warping the spaces and inserting elements of “dead tech.” They became more and more daring in their assertions and insertions, highlighting some aspects of the existing buildings and adding new flourishes of their own. Most recently, firms such as Assemble in England and Rotor and De Vylder Vinck Taillieu in Belgium have designed lofts as the largest assembly in a kit of parts that uses found and upcycled materials in their designs for community facilities, social housing, and public spaces.

Last month I took a trip to New York with my graduate studio class at the School of Architecture at Taliesin, who have as their task the adaptive reuse of one particularly high-class—but also difficult—version of the loft building: Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1919 A.D. German Warehouse in Richland Center, Wisc. My students needed some inspiration, and I got to experience the state of the art of this half-century old tradition.

The Brant Foundation
Aaron Betsky The Brant Foundation
Brant Foundation
Michelle Yeeles Brant Foundation

Brant Foundation

On the one hand, loft conversions of the more traditional kind have reached a sophistication that, when designed by the likes of Richard Gluckman, FAIA, highlights the most essential aspects of simple, but also quietly heroic, buildings. At the new Brant Foundation New York space, designed by Gluckman in a former power station in the Lower East Side, restored walls hold their own against the floating white plaster planes the architect lifts ever so slightly off the floor and that end just below the ceiling. Fragments of the structure’s former life, ranging from hoists to pipes, give the past a sculptural presence. Gluckman turns the trope of loft renovations, the skylight, into a poetic moment by topping it with 600 gallons of water, letting a perfectly proportioned rectangle of light dance with fluid reflections on the new oak floors.

In contrast, the young architect Peter Zuspan of Bureau V has turned a small industrial building in Williamsburg into the home of National Sawdust, a performance and recording space (the organization took its name from the building’s long-time tenant). From the outside, not much new is visible–which is par for the course in loft renovations—but when you enter, you are twisted out of the world of blocks and grids outside as you weave your way past black-tile walls that zigzag and cant over you. The performance space, which takes up most of the building, is the inside of geode: a web of white planes broken down with laser-cut patterns floating over diagonal black lines. Your sense of having entered another world is made even more intense because you actually have: the room floats in four inches of new concrete on springs that isolate it completely from the noise outside.

National Sawdust
Michelle Yeeles National Sawdust
National Sawdust
Michelle Yeeles National Sawdust

These projects, though, are outliers. What was most remarkable to me was the manner in which the loft strategy now pervades large offices (and in particular those of architects), gyms, WeWork spaces, and stores. From Chelsea Market to the newly opened TimeOut Stores in Dumbo, the loft has become the preferred space for middle class shopping, eating, and drinking. Especially in the retail environments, the preferred mode is the fetishizing of the old–which stands to reason, given that the existing structures are now part of a machine for converting humble goods, be they meat or plastic glasses, into high-value merchandise. The sewer pipe turned into a fountain, the artfully crumbling façade preserved in its supposed decay with layers of epoxy, and the seemingly random cut through the brick wall, let alone the found pieces of equipment displayed on the walls outside the places where new goods are on view—all make it clear that the loft has become the very emblem of a culture that sees the artful reuse of existing melodies, images, and styles, as well as buildings and materials, as the highest form of achievement.

Chelsea Market
Kristina D.C. Hoeppner/Flickr via Creative Commons license Chelsea Market

The spread of the loft at such a scale– I could have toured similar projects in Chicago, Los Angeles, or any other major city around the world—suggests not so much the end of the idea of progress and invention as it does its involution into the progressive (in both senses of the word) mining of the past and the fetishization of material reality in a time of etherealization. All that is solid melts into air, as Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels predicted in the 1848 Communist Manifesto, but some of us cling to the romance of the real in our lofty homes, stores, and offices.

Brooklyn Navy Yard

Kings County Distillery at Brooklyn Navy Yard

In fact, lofts have become more than just solitary buildings. They also provide a new kind of urbanism. Already for the better part of a decade large industrial complexes in Europe (the Zollverein in Essen, Germany) and Asia (798 Factory in Beijing) have been reinvented as communities that combine offices, galleries, concert halls, museums, stores, and places of work woven together with landscapes that value blown-in weeds and industrial fragments more than geometric planters or curving paths. Now that strategy of urban lofting is reaching the United States in projects such as the Brooklyn Navy Yard, a vast effort to turn a former naval base into a “creative hub” in the middle of New York City. Still closed to the general public, its scale and reach promise to offer an alternative not only to the grids and boxes that make up most of the city, but also to its towering skyscrapers and its fine-grained neighborhoods.

Brooklyn Army Terminal
Aaron Betsky Brooklyn Army Terminal
Brooklyn Army Terminal
Michelle Yeeles Brooklyn Army Terminal

At the end of our day of touring these spaces, the architect Claire Weisz, FAIA, of XYZ Architects accompanied us on the ferry (itself a re-instated form of urban connection), past mile after mile of waterfront that has been or is being renovated, to the very edge–at least for now—of all this activity: The Brooklyn Army Terminal in Sunset Park. Almost three million square feet of warehouses, designed by Cass Gilbert during the First World War as a military supply base for soldiers heading overseas, is now largely empty and awaiting new uses. Weisz has already designed a small beachhead there in the form of the new ferry terminal, and walking past the concrete hulks and into their giant atriums made us realize that a whole new urban reality was about to arise there. If a recession doesn’t stop the spread of gentrification through all of New York, soon the Brooklyn Army Terminal will be the most heroic monument both to the and military might this country once wielded, and to its transformation to a world of artisanal coffee that will help you wake up and smell the old turning into the new turning into the framework of the old surrounding the ephemeral present.

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.