Despite public perception, most experienced architects I've talked with don't prefer the proverbial “blank slate” commission. Blank check, yes. But a true blank slate, to those who know the satisfaction of conquering complicated programs and dense existing conditions, is too daunting and, oddly, too dull. We as humans are relational creatures. We thrive on association, inspiration, integration. Architecture is most interesting to us when it responds and reacts to what's around it. Certainly, a blank-slate job can end in something handsome, but the result is often a little hollow?a beautiful, rootless thing.
Nowhere are the relationships and associations richer than in an adaptive reuse project. The existing conditions are front and center, undeniable. And they're more complex than a straightforward residential remodeling job. Transforming a store or a fire station into a live/work building, for instance, introduces a different palette of materials, spatial relationships, and neighborhood context than your average suburban redo. The questions inherent in conversion from one purpose to another can produce unusual and often intriguing answers. There is so much to consider and resolve. And architects are at their best when they solve problems.
This issue of the magazine looks at unique solutions in adaptive reuse that have yielded singular, compelling work. It's easy to get lost in the buildings themselves and to forget all the effort that went into launching the projects in the first place. Half the hurdle is getting the site and securing the approvals necessary to convert the building to its new role. Impediments to change are everywhere—local residents, building departments, zoning laws.
Saving these older buildings—and as many of the materials they contain as possible—is obviously the green thing to do. That's virtuous in itself, but I'm also hoping that the renewed interest in sustainability and the pressures brought to bear by the gasoline crisis will motivate more jurisdictions to scrutinize their Byzantine zoning laws. We need denser solutions to housing—ones that may not include a parking space for every resident; or a quarter acre for each single-family dwelling; or street access for every unit. Saving an old building is indeed green. But mixing a residential unit with a retail unit, a commercial unit, and access to public transportation is even greener.
Architects really need to position themselves on the front lines of the push for these more liberal zoning laws. Because, as creative problem solvers, they are among the few who can envision a happy outcome in spinning more out of less. Most civilians have a knee-jerk reaction against the idea of more people and purposes in a smaller space. At least, that is, in America. When we travel abroad, we flock to places where we can sleep, eat, and sightsee within walking distance. Even with the template for successful change right before us, we don't connect the dots. Instead, we retreat to our suburban houses, our driving commutes, and our car-centric shopping malls, cleaving to the status quo. The days of such blissful disconnection are numbered, and rightfully so.
Europe knows something about adaptive reuse. Older, denser, and poorer in resources, it's mastered lessons we're beginning to learn now. We no longer have the luxury of thoughtless sprawl, even on this big continent. And that, as Martha Stewart would say, is a good thing.
Comments? E-mail: S. Claire Conroy at email@example.com.