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Out of Liechtenstein, that tiny principality wedged between Austria and Switzerland, comes one of the most rousing clarion calls for upcycling I have read. Upcycling, let us be clear, is not recycling. The former term, which, if we can believe Wikipedia, first appeared in 1994, refers to adding value through reuse, rather than finding residual value in used or leftover materials. It is a process that is by now well-established in music (recycled riffs), fashion (Virgil Abloh selling salvaged Polo shirts), and industrial design (the Campana Brothers making furniture out of rags or toys). It is not, however, that well-known in architecture.

Enter Daniel Stockhammer, an assistant professor at the Institute of Architecture and Planning at the University of Liechtenstein who heads the design studio Upcycling with Cornelia Faisst. In his new book, Upcycling: Reuse and Repurposing as a Design Principle in Architecture (Triest Verlag, 2020), Stockhammer makes the following argument:

“The preservation and qualitative reuse and repurposing of existing building stock means: –architectural relevance is gained through complexity and multiplicity of meaning (instead of through form) –Identity, longevity, and historical and social continuity are bolstered –Knowledge of building culture and construction is secured – The simplicity, durability, and sustainability of building construction, building materials, and technology are challenged and promoted. The exploration of reuse and upcycling perceives buildings as once again being part of processes of social change. For the designers of our built environment, treating architecture as project (and the intellectual property) of many generations entails a transformation from creator to contributor. It means rethinking traditional certainties (and single-layered ideas) of modern building and preservation of architecture and it means posing new questions: –How do we conceive designs if indeterminacy becomes an essential component of architecture? –Which design approaches and tools are suitable for dealing with irregularities, incompleteness, and deficiencies? –How can design processes themselves become a central objective of design disciplines and what roles should architects play? –What structures and materials are suitable for keeping the processes open to enable that future buildings and construction waste can (again) be reused and repurposed?”

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Triest Verlag/Patric Simon, Brainfire Design- und Kreativmanufaktur

Central to this idea is the process of “urban mining,” which involves scouring buildings about to be demolished to find the bits and pieces that can be reused. The masters of this kind of salvaging are the members of the Belgian collective Rotor, and in particular their RotorDC division (short for Deconstruction), which has made urban mining its specialty. They are particularly good at reusing office interiors that would seem the least likely to have value: the ones from the 1970s and 1980s, with their plethora of surfaces in beige-brown or anemic gray that only serve to highlight their fakeness, made with no particular responsiveness to the human body. My favorite project was one in which they turned rounded countertops from some bureaucratic institution into luxury residential kitchen surfaces.

The issue is, of course, that this kind of work can be very expensive, and the cost at which the rescued object is sold has to be high. RotorDC has a website selling salvaged doors, lighting fixtures, hooks, and other items that calls to mind an IKEA catalog, including the affordable prices. I suspect that the whole enterprise of locating, extracting, cleaning, and storing this material does not exactly make money. That could change if several trends converge. One is the taste for Midcentury Modern, which has started stretching to include buildings from the more recent past that are exactly the ones now being torn down. Another is the taste for shabby chic or ruin porn. Add to that the value we should place on sustainability, and we can hope that someday those salvaged items will command a similar market share as the copper pipes that are already upcycled from these buildings. If you look on social media and elsewhere, you can see that the yard-sale aesthetic is already creeping into the office environment and shabby-chic apartment decor.

Upcycling does not necessarily refer only to materials. Even if buildings cannot be saved, their imagery can be, as the Dutch artist Marjan Teeuwen demonstrates. She photographs about-to-be demolished buildings after rearranging their materials into quasi-monuments that pay homage to what is about to be lost. Configured to resemble the Cyclopian ruins of ancient civilizations, these piles of wood, hardboard, drywall, and plastic sheets take on a romantic beauty.

Triest Verlag
Triest Verlag

As Stockhammer and his co-editor, David Koralek, suggest in their book, the Eucharist is a form of upcycling (that observation comes from no less than a design guru than Alberto Alessi). But they also point to the long history of upcycling remnants of past civilizations to create idealized versions of those lost environments. Two of the authors who contributed essays to the collection focus on entire Alpine villages built in the 20th century out of salvaged material that evoke an organic whole that probably never existed, as well as on the work of Viollet-le-Duc, who famously made Notre Dame in Paris a perfected version of what its medieval builders might have intended it to be. You could also point to the Kok family, three generations of architects and photographers who reinvented Amsterdam’s Canal Zone in the late 19th and early 20th century out of fragments of that Golden Age.

We have long condemned such efforts as fakery, or perhaps as the over-enthusiastic work performed at the dawn of the era of historic preservation. Stockhammer, however, has another perspective:“Architecture as a unique event is a construct based on modern paradigms such as gaining distance from the old, inventing the new, originality, self-containedness and authorship. They promote principles of consumption and speculation in two directions: that of the fast pace of life and that of the conservation of an alleged original condition… Architecture as an investment, on the other hand, assumes the mechanisms of the art world: cult of authorship, fetishistic obsession with the original intention of the artist, and overprotection of the completed building from alteration. During the course of the 20th century, architecture became a one-dimensional process of a self-contained task.”

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Upcycling means not just finding value in old materials, building parts, or images, but also changing value itself. Finding aesthetic and economic merit in the combinations, defects, and recombinations of upcycling is as important as the actual reuse itself. A beautiful example is a recent art work by Victor Solomon, who applied the Japanese craft of kintsugi to a crumbling basketball court using gold paint to highlight, rather than mask, the concrete’s defects and repairs.

As Stockhammer says, we need to get beyond the fetishism of finished buildings and open ourselves up to the value hidden in the everyday—value that we can only unlock through creative reallocation, which might even entail destruction.

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.