A Provocative Headline And A Real Issue

The first thing that came to mind when I read “A New Idea in Architecture? No New Buildings” by Thomas de Monchaux was that writers for periodicals, whether published on paper or the web, don’t usually choose their own headlines, so Mr. de Monchaux might not be responsible for the somewhat misleading title. He is not proposing never again constructing a new building, but rather examining whether the focus on new green technologies in design and construction has blinded the AEC community to the inherently green practice of reuse. It’s worth a read, both for his statement of the issues involved and for his examples.

The reason why “No New Buildings” is provocative and, arguably, silly, is that it’s an impossible goal. The population in a given location may grow, buildings may be damaged beyond repair, needs may change. There are any number of reasons why new buildings will always be needed. The question is whether we need as many as we build. It often seems as if demolition and reconstruction – wiping the slate clean – is the default and the idea of reusing an existing building is a distant second choice.

Most of the buildings in SoHo, like the ones pictured above, are around 140 years old. In that time they’ve gone from intensely-worked factories and sweatshops, to nearly-unpeopled warehouses, to artists’ studios, to high-end residences and shops. What they haven’t been is useless. Someone always found a purpose for their interior space, even though frankly a lot of it is less than ideal: too far from the front and back windows, too high up steep wooden stairs. Just because existing buildings don’t look like the ones we’d build today doesn’t mean they’re wrong or bad. Almost any building can be reused if the will is there.

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