Monday, April 21, 2008


Radical adaptive re-use strategies in Asian mega-cities

The foundation of this project is to take a fresh look at the term “architectural heritage” in the context of the pressures facing Asia’s global mega-cities. This inquiry seeks out built artifacts that have been distressed by contemporary economics, and subsequently explores strategies for adapting the artifacts to new types of urbanity. The focus is on Istanbul, Bombay, Bangkok, and Tokyo; in each location sites are documented, and subsequently interventions are proposed to engage unexpected forms of heritage. In doing so, this inquiry seeks to de-couple heritage from preservation, focusing on the contemporaneous aspect of heritage, the transmissive and mutable nature of culture.

In the most commonly understood sense, architectural heritage is the saving of obsolete but culturally important and still salvageable buildings; heritage has become essentially interchangeable with preservation. Heritage is seen as the savior of the old against rapacious progress. Indeed, it has become a common theme to discuss heritage as a bulwark against the modernist movement. Even within contemporary architectural discussions, the role that heritage plays has rarely been addressed outside the seemingly antithetical coupling of history/progress. The meaning of heritage has, to a large degree, been forfeited by most architectural discourses to the preservation movement, in spite of (or perhaps because of) growing popular appeal and support. It is in this climate that I seek a deeper understanding of heritage. While heritage is often taken for granted to indicate a reactionary preservation movement, it is worth asking the question whether it can be sympathetic with current architectural discourse. Are heritage and (post)modernist thinking mutually exclusive?

Since the beginning of the twentieth century preservation in America has become an ascendant form of construction and a rallying point for grass-roots movements, particularly the anti-modernism backlash embodied by Jane Jacobs. Notably, it roughly traces its origins and subsequent growth to the same period as modernism. The threat that modernist thinking posed to historical buildings, especially those that embodied the Beaux-Arts ethos that modernism broke from, stimulated an increasingly vocal and effective lobby for the protection of old buildings. At first the preservation was limited to canonical works of architecture, but since then has steadily grown to include vernacular buildings and entire neighborhoods. The movement’s birth by fire is often traced to the demolition of Penn Station in New York City in 1964. Pennsylvania Railroad sought to tear down the 1910 McKim, Mead and White building and replace it with the progressive Madison Square Gardens complex designed by Charles Luckman Associates. The debate over losing a much loved icon in the city galvanized disparate groups into an effective lobby, even as the battle was lost. Since then, the pendulum has arguably swung to the direction of the preservationists, beginning with the notable victory in Greenwich Village against the Lower Manhattan Expressway in 1962 and again in 1968. Today it has become an expected phase of the design process to explore the various historical regulations and zoning overlays that apply to an existing building. And organizations like UNESCO and ICOMAS export the framework of preservation beyond national borders. Further, DOCOMOMO (DOcument and COnservation of buildings, sites, neighborhoods of the MOdern MOvement) has expanded commonly defined heritage to include popularly underappreciated forms of modernism, many of which eschewed history and displaced historic structures at their inception.

It is hard not to think of modernism when discussing preservation, since each movement is linked popularly against the other. They appear to be in a zero sum game where Penn Station is considered either a victory or a loss. This duality of new vs. old is found in numerous other forms: progressive vs. conservative, novel vs. traditional, and rational vs. vernacular, to name just a few. It is a convenient story that makes a more complex situation easily digestible: new and old are locked in an eternal battle for the hearts and minds of society. Modernism took the early lead and established itself in the institutions (i.e. Walter Gropius at Harvard), while preservationism grew out of a grass-roots constellation of advocates (i.e. Jane Jacobs at Greenwich Village). The modernists had their Waterloo against Jacobs, and since then the preservationists have ascended to the establishment while modernism’s totalizing vision has been widely discredited. Or so the story goes. In fact the present condition is less divided and has settled into an accepted framework for each strain of thinking. Each goes their own way, but when they must cross there is a predictable outcome: the old is preserved as a foil for the new, e.g. the Louvre in Paris. Naturally, there is a spectrum of approaches to the additions, from the subtle Sainbury Wing of the National Gallery in London by Venturi and Scott-Brown to the highly idiosyncratic Coop Himmelb(l)au rooftop addition at Falkestrasse. Nonetheless, it is orthodoxy to assume preserving the remains of the existing project as a contrast to the new intervention. What this presupposes is a stand-off between two camps. The old is kept old (at least on the outside) and the new is kept new. I guess we can all just get along.

A closer look at the term “heritage” is needed at this point. The accepted usage of the word in architectural discipline is problematic, and as noted above, has strong cultural meanings that reach far beyond its dictionary definition. Heritage etymologically connotes a thing that has been handed down to another generation, a gift of sorts. It is linked to “heir” and often implies a tradition, or something immaterial that is passed on to the current holders (especially in American English). This emphasis on “immaterial” is a compelling distinction, since it is suggests a potentially different reading between object and action. While immaterial heritage changes and progresses with each inheritance, inherited built artifacts remain static in their historic state (excepting modifications). In the broadest sense both built artifacts and traditions are heritage, but in a more focused reading, the link to the past becomes increasingly tenuous with the aged artifacts. I propose a definition of architectural heritage that emphasizes the contemporaneous, changing aspect of tradition, rather than the static, preserved focus. This paper will thus differentiate between “historic artifacts” (objects) and “heritage” (the immaterial). Building practices, uses, and philosophical underpinnings might qualify as this form of heritage, but perhaps the actual brick and mortar do not. With the separation of heritage and artifact, it becomes liberating to view existing historic buildings as limited resources, rather than living culture. They were certainly shaped by a heritage of building, but that heritage has morphed, as in Richard Dawkins’ concept of meme transfer, into an altogether different culture which will in turn morph in the future. Dawkins points to language as an example: “Geoffrey Chaucer could not hold a conversation with a modern Englishman, even though they are linked to each other by an unbroken chain of some twenty generations of Englishmen, each of whom could speak to his immediate neighbors...” This approach to heritage allows for willful new directions, rooted, of course, in the linkage to culture preceding it.

Alois Riegl is an early and prescient figure on the topic of progress and history in the building arts. His 1903 essay “The Modern Cult of Monuments: its Character and Origin” was translated by Kurt Forster in 1982 and has since become one of the key readings on cultural preservation. In it, he introduces the distinction between “intended” monuments and “unintended” monuments. While intended monuments attempt to overcome time by keeping memory of a thing physically present in the future, unintended monuments have lost their original use but have acquired a new value by a changed social outlook. It is an approach to history in which societies are aware of the irreplaceable nature of the past, thus structures that had no intention of representing an era are repositioned in a freshly minted and sympathetic history for the agent shaping it. Further, he adds the distinctions of age-value, historical-value, use-value, and art-value. Each comes from a different line of thought, and often conflict or overlap in single artifacts. Age-value is the presence of “oldness” in a thing, an indication of the passage of time; historical-value relates to the faithfulness to which a thing represents its original intention, which boils down to restoration; use-value is the contemporary performance of the thing, the practical issues of utility; and art-value is related to contemporary cultural appreciation and is strongly tied to its newness. Riegl asserts that we are living (as of 1903) in an era dominated by age-value. Later, Alan Colquhuon reaffirms that (as of 1982) we still emphasize age-value, albeit a different form:

“Although evidence of decay is no longer, as in Riegl’s day, the most crucial element in our sense of age-value, it would seem that it is still the ‘age’ of historical buildings that constitutes their value today.”

At the same time, built projects modeled on a nostalgic reading of the past are on the rise. These appear as a form of historical-value akin to nostalgia, but one in which all parties are aware of the fraudulent, or at least faux, nature of the historical artifact. The new constructions are clearly new, but espouse a timeless approach (“main street”) that indicates a return to a better time. They are critical of progressive aesthetics and yet still work within the current economic framework. This rise of simulated historical-value, or nostalgia-value, is also important for this inquiry since it points to some difficulties in applying Riegl’s thinking directly to today. While his definitions are indispensable for my study, I take an uneasy alliance with them in seeking out alternative forms of unintended monuments.

A basic tenet of this work is to treat historical artifacts as a finite resource which cannot be reproduced due to changed circumstances. Like petroleum they regenerate over time, but not at the rate at which they are used up. And like any finite resource, they pose specific challenges related to “best” use. It is a choice that must be made when confronted with the peculiarities of built heritage: what is the paramount employment of something that cannot be replaced? In many cases they are simply removed, slash and burn style, in order to make way for newer projects. On the other end of the spectrum, they are preserved as reminders of bygone times. This project takes the position that human pressures make it a point of practicality that certain historic works need to be mined for contemporary needs. Nigel Coates calls this the “flywheel” effect, in which historic artifacts provide stability for a changing city, and can later be updated and made more relevant to contemporary users. They are zones of permanence that allow for periodic regeneration, with an inherent energy that can never be recreated in purely new work. At the same time, they must be treated as finite resources that should be stretched for maximum value. We can start by taking advantage of the obvious age-value, but by applying more than what might be called a preservation approach. Strict preservation is polite and respectful of the original building, but also lacks the vitality that makes it relevant. Preservation is admirable on many levels, especially since it rescues so many structures from being lost forever. But it is also freezes the living heritage, breaking the continuous culture. Thus the interventions in this inquiry commit what might be considered preservation blasphemy in the hopes of a deeper excavation of the concept of heritage. Like any limited resource it should be treated with care, but at the same time be put to use in a more engaged manner than simple preservation.


Recently, Wilfred Wang made a plea for architectural additions to be included in the scope of contemporary architectural discourse. He points to both academia and the profession’s preference for “fetishizing the sole authorship of de novo buildings.” He asserts that the accumulated history of several architects working on a building over eras might be more enriching, and certainly more pertinent to the majority of construction in the world. He highlights architects who “engage with history understood as a continuous phenomenon,” who are complementary to the architecture of the past, but also relevant to the contemporary scene. Wang highlights the “messy reality” of agglomerated architecture that is more challenging, but perhaps rewarding, to design and critique than the “idealized purity” of stand alone work. Along these lines, one of the more enjoyable aspects of this inquiry has been the “messiness” of the interventions: each is in its own way a hybrid of numerous forms, ideas, uses, and eras. To quote a sympathetic proclamation by Robert Venturi, these projects embrace the “vestigial as well as innovating, inconsistent and equivocal rather than direct and clear.” There is an inherent ambiguity when examining old architecture from a contemporary milieu, ambiguity which makes for unexpected richness when pushed in new directions. The historical works studied here are similarly open to competing interpretations. By adding new forms to each project, the “original” built work is given another layer of meaning, but at the same time the new work is given richness that only historically unique objects can lend. In a sense it is adding new heritage, re-attaching living culture to a built artifact. The ambition is to produce work that appears radical, but builds on a legacy of living customs.


Built artifacts could be grouped into five basic forms, often as a blend of some or all: 1) Survivor: the building essentially functions in the same way that it did when it was conceived. Its formal language is still relevant and any additions are in the same vein as the original. 2) Shrine: The artifact has become a museum unto itself, with the cultural history of the original the subject of the display. 3) Vessel: The shell of the building is intact, but the programmatic functions are different, necessitating an overhaul of the non-exterior aspects of the building. 4) Memorial: There is no physical trace of the event or building that is memorialized, but instead a reminder of the episode in the form of a building or sculpture. 5) Palimpsest: The original object has become destabilized and subsumed into alternate architectures and urban conditions, leaving only traces of the original artifact.

The final category, the palimpsest, is the most intriguing for this study. This is where the original artifact leaves hints and adumbrations of its former glory, but has been eroded, pillaged, and otherwise distressed by the outside pressures of urban progress. Often, what was once an intact building is forgotten, covered by newer layers of the city, stolen from their site by museums around the world, and eroded to the point of incomprehension. The erosion is not only physical, but importantly, mental. There is a loss of collective memory for some reason or another, a blank spot covered over with newer memories of that space. Heritage that was associated with the artifact has become tenuous at best; physically or mentally, the heritage has become lost to the larger contemporary context, replaced with remnants of an artifact. What is perhaps most interesting is positioning these palimpsests as potential imagined projections in the contemporary condition; visions of what the original thing was/is/could be. In opposition to literal and neatly packaged forms of historical artifacts, palimpsests allow for a certain fuzzyness, a range of interpretations that can be mined for coexistence in the contemporary condition. Palimpsests cast a visionary overlay on top of the quotidian existence of the city, a simultaneous timeless existence that folds into the everyday world around us. They provide territory for explorations that can revive and protect the unique and irreplaceable aspects of local heritage, as well as creating architectural hybrids for the current rapidly globalizing economy.


Much current preservation practice has been occurring in the United States and Europe, where cities have long stopped growing at rapid rates. While the U.S. was the paradigmatic urban environment in the 20th century, as New York, Los Angelos, Chicago, and Houston all grew into some of the largest and most researched cities, the early 21st century has belonged to Asia. The pressure on these newer global cities to modernize rapidly has lead to a fertile terrain for studying architectural heritage, as antiquities strain to find a place in the ascendant economies of a post-colonial world. On one hand they are vital to nationalism in the weakening occidental hegemony, but on the other are seen as impeding progress toward becoming truly global players. The flag for Cambodia is an appropriate synecdoche for this tension. The flag itself is a symbol of the modern world order, with its conformity to a uniform code of aesthetics, yet the image prominently emblazoned on the blue and red stripes is a stylized Angkor Wat, a building that embodies the 12th century height of the Khmer Empire.

Built artifacts such as Angkor Wat are at the heart of present day tensions between the authentic/local and the modern/global. They are integral to the history that makes a place unique socially and physically, but also create challenges to the contemporary functions of society. They play an important role in the growing international economy, but are often obsolete remnants with little relevance to the everyday lives of citizens. Because of the obvious historical and social merits of these sites, not to mention the persistent tug of nostalgia and patriotism, they occupy a unique position vis-à-vis the pressures of progress confronting rapidly modernizing cities.


In this document, each city is given a short background in order to help position the projects in terms of the inquiry. Research is then undertaken in three areas: documentation, analysis, and speculation. Documentation consists of locating and recording the most relevant examples of palimpsests for this project. The analysis stage takes that data and develops critical observations about the history, current use and strategic strengths of each site. Finally, the speculative stage presents scenarios for how new forms of heritage can be “injected” into the artifact to make it more relevant to contemporary dynamics. The speculations are highly site specific and should result in provocative outcomes. They are intended to be polemical and critical, generating new discussions around the topics of preservation, progress, modernism, and of course heritage. The goal is to explore the liminal zone between local and international; history and progress. New lines of heritage should inspire architecture that protects the authentic, embraces progress, and leverages more than would be possible with simple either/or scenarios.

The first project in Istanbul, “Harbor Walls: Theodosius Jumps,” questions basic assumptions about preservation by presenting a case of dissolving history. It attempts to provide an outlet for the sad reality of irrelevant artifacts. “Hippodrome: Trellis Maximus” seeks to revisit the idea of mass spectacle in an age of international tourism, but with a gentle and practical approach to a colossal structure. In Bombay, “Movie Theater: Cricket Courtyard” attempts to resuscitate a private, but highly civic function. The role of a gathering place is re-examined in light of new communal mythmaking activities. Bangkok is the site of “Ghost Towers: Accelerated Ruins,” which tries to find a resource in the painful reminders of a difficult era. “Canals: Elevated Voyage” brings together environmental treatment and reconfigured urban space to rescue an abused, but vital piece of the urban ecology. In Tokyo, “Nihonbashi: Urban Veil,” the tendency toward urban historicization leads to both skepticism and inspiration. By turning a much used piece of the city into an exhibit, questions about the role of historical artifacts are raised while addressing pragmatic needs for preservation.

What follows is not a solution. It is an inquiry into strategies. My inspirations are diverse, ranging from Carlo Scarpa to Rachel Whiteread, Gordon Matta-Clark to Eugene-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc, to name a few. This inquiry is, as Rafael Moneo states, “closer to reflection and critical discourse than any desire to elaborate a systematic theory.” My own proposals for the subject at hand tend to be contradictory and uneasy, expressing “anxiety” rather than clarity. Thus it is a reluctant manifesto. Ultimately, I am uncomfortable with the current dichotomy of heritage/(post)modernism since we all simultaneously inhabit both worlds. Rather than present more dogma, I hope to bring up questions that lead to enriching design. Repositioning a widely accepted definition of heritage presents, I think, fruitful grounds for exploring some of the compelling contradictions expressed above. Further, more radical approaches to adaptive re-use will be needed as our cities continue to swell. Pure architectures will be fewer, and perhaps less relevant in a world of mounting environmental problems. The trick is to learn from the scene, but project an improved situation. Sometimes that might mean obliteration, but more likely it means incrementally working with aging artifacts. For my inquiry the explorations are intended to be both essential and confrontational.


I wish to thank the Boston Society of Architects, the administrators of the Rotch Scholarship. In particular, Peter Wiederspahn has acted as my critic and mentor throughout. Robert Miklos provided me with fresh insights into the role of heritage in contemporary architecture. Several others were also central to my thoughts on this project: Eduard Seckler, Mona Serageldin, Sibel Bozdogan, Marcel Smets, Pelin Tan, Marco Cenzatti, Rina Chandran, Murat Musullu, Sittichai Chantakrau, Greg Baldwin Anja Nelle, Zack Hinchliffe, Orhan Esen, Julian Beinart, Bradley Shanks, and Richard Sommer, to name only a few. Of course, Mom and Dad for everything. Most importantly my wife, Elaine Kearney, is the best partner-in-crime a guy could ever have.

Next stop: Istanbul