Responsible use and consumption of natural resources and the impacts of the building industry have been ongoing concerns in the field of architecture and urban planning. In the past, concepts such as clean slates, mass demolitions, and building brand new structures were widely accepted and encouraged. Nowadays, a transformation seems to be taking place, calling for new approaches such as recycling, adaptive reuse, and renovations, taking advantage of what is already there. This article explores a selection of projects and provides a glimpse into interventions by renowned architects in pre-existing buildings.
In 2021, the Pritzker Prize was awarded to the French office Lacaton & Vassal, an architectural duo whose work reflects the democratic spirit of architecture and their empathy for the built and natural environment. Lacaton & Vassal's projects begin with a deep study of the context and surroundings, proposing interventions that contemplate the many different levels of interaction, such as cultural, economic, spatial, and material, allowing the architects to adopt a careful and minimalistic approach.
This leads to an architecture that doesn't focus on aesthetics but seeks functionality and quality based on a small budget and a minimal material palette. An example of this is the Transformation of 530 housing units in Bordeaux. This project emphasizes the recovery of the building's structure, which was deeply compromised, while the rest of the projects seeks to enhance the main characteristics of the original design, changing windows and creating balconies, terraces, and winter gardens. This intervention changes the quality of the project without major demolition and waste.
However, not every design for pre-existing structures follows this subtle approach. Many great architects have chosen more radical solutions highlighting the intervention, such as in Payette and Renzo Piano Building Workshop's Harvard Art Museums Renovation and Expansion, where the contrast between the old and the new is brought out in the materials and the architectural language. The outcome is an architecture where both styles coexist, inside and outside, in perfect harmony.
In light of the great impact of material consumption and waste production on the environment, it is expected that more and more projects will focus on the adaptive reuse of pre-existing buildings. This means that many buildings are being used for different purposes, leading to a whole new issue: adapting the construction to its new functions. Therefore, adaptive reuse projects, either in historical or contemporary buildings, challenge us to think about how we want the new elements to relate to the old structures.
The La Samaritaine by SANAA + LAGNEAU Architectes + Francois Brugel Architectes Associes + SRA Architectes, for example, consists of the transformation of a traditional French department store into a mixed-use development with commercial, office, residential, and daycare facilities, making the intervention very clear, direct, yet seamlessly integrated. SANAA's architects went for a very contemporary curved glass outer facade that at the same time reflects the historical landscape of the surroundings, while the old and the new coexist in the interior.
Along the same lines, the Tai Kwun Centre for Heritage and Art by Herzog & de Meuron is a project that transforms a former 19th-century prison complex into a space for leisure and culture. The compound is defined and structured by two large courtyards, while two new volumes float tightly above the surrounding granite walls creating distinctive but carefully inserted elements within the fabric of existing buildings. The new volumes do not copy the historical conditions but instead, create a new relationship to the site by hovering just above the wall to create new public and circulation spaces below.
Sesc 24 de Maio, by Paulo Mendes da Rocha and MMBB Arquitetos, proposes a radical approach to the adaptive reuse of an old department store in Brazil. Different from SANAA in France, this pre-existing building did not have great architectural value, but it was located in a great spot in the city center. So, the project takes advantage only of the existing structure, with the challenge of adapting it to the requirements of the new functional program, a cultural facility including a swimming pool and a theater. The design also sought to change the logic of the old commercial building by better integrating and communicating within the urban fabric.
Arata Isozaki's Centro Cultural Caixa Forum Barcelona uses both approaches, balancing the old and the new elements while at the same time creating a contrast that highlights the intervention. Most of the project takes place underground, using local materials such as the stone walls of the courtyard, built below street level, blending the intervention with the historic building. Meanwhile, contemporary elements such as the steel structure over the entrance ramp to the basement, and the glass and steel door at the entrance of the building, stand out from the original language. This project manages to merge both approaches, finding a balance between an almost invisible large-scale intervention and an eye-catching object.
Finally, Eduardo Souto de Moura's Convento das Bernardas is a project that transforms an old convent into a housing complex through a subtle and delicate intervention on the existing building, using natural materials that relate to the old ruins. Despite being subtle, the intervention clearly separates the new elements from the ruins. As Souto de Moura describes his approach, "the 'picturesque' is a casualty and not the intention of the program."
The selected projects show how the great Pritzker Prize-winning architects have chosen to integrate their designs with pre-existing structures. Even if it uses only the structure or tries to minimize the intervention as much as possible, adaptive reuse projects mean adjusting to new purposes, understanding the site, the relationship with the surroundings and neighbors, the flows that already exist, and the ones you want to achieve, the materials, the volumes, and above all, choosing either to establish a contrast between the old and the new or to create a gentle and delicate intervention.
This article is part of the ArchDaily Topic: Adaptive Reuse. Every month we explore a topic in-depth through articles, interviews, news, and projects. Learn more about our monthly topics. As always, at ArchDaily we welcome the contributions of our readers; if you want to submit an article or project, contact us.