Karma Chameleons

Never have all things vintage, upcycled, recycled and reclaimed been so popular. Veronica Simpson explores the pleasures and pitfalls of creative reuse

The art of recycling buildings is nothing new. Quite apart from the widespread rebirth in the Nineties of 18th and 19th-century wharfside warehouses as yuppie apartments and offices, since the day that London's Tate Modern opened up its cavernous yet glamorous industrial-scale interior to modern art lovers in 2000, every fashionable European city wanted its own converted power station or factory turned art gallery; Berlin, Prague, Zurich, Ljubljana, Istanbul... they've all got them now.

Just as city centres, from Birmingham to Berlin, from Shanghai to Saudi Arabia's, rush to reinvent themselves with gleaming new, 'starchitect'-designed glass and steel temples to corporate culture, it is also true that vintage buildings converted into contemporary spaces for living, working and leisure have rarely had more cachet.

Central locations, great architectural scale offering volume and light, high-quality durable materials and craftsmanship that would be hard to replicate, these are just a few very good reasons for reusing existing urban buildings. Derwent, one of London's key property regenerators, predominantly refurbishes rather than builds new - more than 80 per cent of its buildings are refurbs. Quite apart from the cash savings - allegedly saving around 15 per cent on build costs - Derwent prides itself on being 'design led', hiring some of the UK's leading architecture practices to create premium commercial and residential buildings from former factories, offices and warehouses. Says Benjamin Lesser, development manager at Derwent London: 'Our first instinct is always to regenerate buildings rather than replace them.'

Early and late 20th-century properties are high on Derwent's shopping list - buildings from the Sixties and Seventies much less so. The key factor is scale and quality. Says Lesser: 'Victorian industrial buildings have more robust structures and greater storey heights, and for us it's that mix of great volumes and better fenestration - these old buildings have larger windows. They just add up to better spaces.' Better, that is, for attracting the creative and media businesses that like the added daylight and texture you get with 'pre-loved' structures. The company's recently completed the Angel Building, an Eighties office building stripped to the frame and overlaid with 24,000 sq m of high-spec office space by AHMM. It is now fully occupied by trendy eateries, tech-media companies and a major UK charity, with a Stirling Prize nomination to its credit.

To convert a drab Eighties office into a shinier, bigger, more seductive office is all very well, but creative reuse really hits the spot when the cultural capital of a building's past is retained while the building itself is transformed into something new and vital - often triggering ripple-out regenerative effects on whole neighbourhoods.

From smoke-belching power station to arts and community hub, there's a strong cultural resonance about that kind of reinvention, which helps to fuel investment and interest. Other vibrant examples include the current, huge-scale conversion of Eindhoven's sprawling former Philips factory site into a residential and creative enterprise community - a potent symbol of the city's new vision for itself at the cutting edge of design and innovation that, at the same time, honours its pioneering electronics and manufacturing past. Or take Berlin's Sammlung Boros, formerly a Second World War bunker and now a contemporary art centre - how piquant is that transformation, from bomb shelter to a place for celebrating art, humanity and diversity? Equally, there's a socio-cultural frisson to a conversion from church to bookstore - from a place venerating the learned few to one that facilitates knowledge for all (as Dutch architecture practice Merkx + Girod achieved in its 2006 project of the Selexyz bookstore in Maastricht, formerly a medieval Dominican church).

But reincarnation is a tricky business, as the Buddhists would no doubt tell us. I mean, would a towering symbol of Catalonian tradition and identity really want to come back to life as a shopping centre? Regardless of the inventiveness, care and creativity of Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners' conversion of Barcelona's Las Arenas bullring, there's perhaps a whiff of negative cultural equity about turning a distinctive stadium for the celebration of that most particular of Spanish sports (whatever you think of the ethics) into yet another gleaming leisure complex filled with generic shops. But at least it means that the unique Moorish brick fa├žade of this building could be retained, preserving that vital balance of ancient/ modern within in our fast-changing European cityscapes.

There can't be many articles on design that find it necessary to quote radio chat-show host Vanessa Feltz, but as one of the sharpest and most empathetic of presenters on BBC Radio London, she really tapped into the prevailing zeitgeist recently when protesting the ill-judged decision of a local authority to pour asphalt over the distinctive, centuries-old cobbled road surface of Brick Lane, one of East London's most atmospheric and charmingly dishevelled streets, with a vibrant, independent design and retail community.

Feltz commented: 'Anything in this day and age which makes something look particular rather than the general mess of homogeneity which has engulfed everything, is incredibly precious. Because so much of the country and the world looks exactly the same - like a giant extension of Lakeside Thurrock.'

So, apart from capturing a particular strand of the current aesthetic opinion, what are the secrets of successful creative reuse? The retention of key historic elements, as well as the judicious placement of the new is obviously key. The aforementioned church-turned-bookstore is a fine example, given that the entire medieval structure is left intact, while metal shelving and staircases are simply inserted into the centre, for books and browsers. Pollard Thomas Edwards architects (PTEa) seems to make a habit of converting handsome old buildings for contemporary use, whether for housing or offices. In stripping back an old granary mill to its original bones, and removing the unnecessary embellishments from a proposed new addition, it has ended up with a project that is both elegant and honest, respectful of both past and present. PTEa executive director Teresa Borsuk says: 'We took a long time thinking about what to retain and reject. And luckily the client was willing to take risks. For example, there was lots of paint on some of the original brick walls, because at one point some of them had been internal. We went right around the old building [with the client] and said, "Look, this is acceptable. We'll clean what we can and then leave it." We said, "It's not going to look patchy. It will look wonderful." They took the risk. And it does.'

Why this passion for salvaged buildings should be so widespread now may say a great deal about an emergent anti-corporate sensibility, certainly in the West. A lovingly restored though pock-marked brick wall, some exposed and time-worn iron beams, original Victorian tiles that are crackled with age - these are an essentially humanising antidote to (as well as aesthetically compatible with) all things glass and steel and modern.

After all, ruined and ageing buildings have a powerful aesthetic in their own right, as evidenced by the appeal of the supremely fashionable and still quasi-derelict Wilton's Music Hall in London's East End, not to mention the emerging art and cultural space in Peckham set in a bombed-out and relatively untouched almshouse chapel.

And, let's face it, in an increasingly generic built environment, oddness can be enchanting. For example, the unusual hexagonal shape and residential location of Microsoft's new Turkish headquarters were dictated by the abandoned shopping mall it took over in a fashionable part of Istanbul.

In a city where good commercial space of any kind is a rarity, designer Jason Turner of Swanke Hayden Connell Architects (SHCA) is convinced Microsoft has ended up with a better, more dramatic building than it would have had if it had started from scratch on an out-of-town site.

Creative reuse should also be about celebrating and enhancing buildings that aren't particularly special, recognising the value of what's there and transforming them into something more relevant, useful and durable - because they are still serviceable, and because the life and needs of their occupants evolve and the building should evolve with them.

Henley Halebrown Rorrison (HHbR), for example, is taking an unlovely, brutalist concrete warehouse of the Sixties that had become a highly unsuitable, inaccessible home for Lambeth's disability services, and turning it into a larger, more spacious, accessible and flexible community resource, with a welcoming street presence.

Using buildings well, says HHbR partner Simon Henley, 'is not about handing over the job of maintenance to a company with a fleet of white vans... It's about educating people to maintain a level of interest in a building, beyond the point when it's no longer "new".

'It's about evolving spaces organically. They have a life. They're not fixed, not static. It's about what has been done to buildings and what can be done... It's about how you design buildings recognising that they should endure.'

From grain mill to 21st century workplace
Commissioned by developer/contractor Rooff to create a characterful but contemporary HQ, when Pollard Thomas Edwards Architects (PTEa) took on the project it had originally received planning consent as part of a wider riverside regeneration scheme by Danish architecture practice Schmidt Hammer Lassen (SHL). PTEa altered the original building plan to create a simpler and more honest dialogue between new and old elements, getting rid of a proposed huge glass atrium between the buildings, and connecting the main buildings with a simple metal bridge. Keeping the prismoidal outline of SHL's roof design for the new build element, as it complements the mill's gable roof, removed planned extraneous roof awnings and unnecessary detailing.

PTEa executive director Teresa Borsuk says: 'The new building has to respond to the tough, industrial character of the old mill. That's why in the new build we keep the concrete ceilings exposed.' This degree of honesty also prevails in the restored mill. All previous extensions, partitions and non-original structures were stripped out to give clarity to the original structure - including opening up formerly blocked windows. Says Borsuk: 'We've tried to leave the steel structures of the original building where we can, the brick walls where we can, and the original openings. Where there was timber we could reuse, we did. Where we are inserting something new, we make it quite clear.'

The metal main staircase in the old building, for example, stands proud of the walls - clearly a later insertion. The warm tones of bronze cladding panels for the new building complements the adjacent vintage brickwork perfectly - an utterly modern but sympathetic intervention, much like the building itself.

From concrete warehouse to disability and community centre
336 Brixton Road is unlovely Sixties concrete warehouse that was converted into a computer centre and given to the London Borough of Lambeth in the Eighties. HHbR won an international RIBA competition to modernise the centre and bring it up to modern DDA standards. A new inclined forecourt will be created on Brixton Road, leading up to a new entrance portico and down to semi-basement car parking. A gigantic platform lift will bring visitors up to the public foyer, reception and bar, leading on to three conference rooms and two halls, one of which will seat 150 and be equipped for theatre use. The labyrinthine office interiors on floors 1-4 will be opened up, with the columns and soffits of the concrete frame exposed, allowing light to penetrate deep into the space. Window and door-frames in the original concrete and white brick walls will be updated with a mix of bronze anodised aluminium and Douglas fir timber. A lightweight, steel frame two-storey extension on the roof will add more office space, to be clad in larch panels with copper copings.

From almshouse chapel to art space
At the heart of London's largest complex of 19th-century almshouses - now Grade II listed cottages owned by Southwark Council - is a once-derelict chapel, newly reborn as an art gallery and performance space. Asylum was set up in 2010 as a not-for-profit organisation by two local artists, Dido Hallett and Jo Dennis.

The chapel, dating back to around 1827, had been badly bomb-damaged in the Second World War; all that remained were the exterior walls, an exquisite set of stained-glass windows and a collection of carved stone funerary monuments. Made watertight in the Sixties with a rudimentary asbestos-cement roof, it had been used for storage by Southwark, but remained largely unoccupied until Dennis and Hallett's inspiration to revive it.

Southwark Council had already replaced the electrics and put in a new loo, says Dennis. Southwark also paid for an asbestos survey, declaring the roof stable. The artists then stripped out all the temporary partitions and a crumbling mezzanine floor, hired a trapeze artist to secure a set of dangerously low-hanging strip lights, scrubbed the concrete floor and cleaned as much of the dust from its elegantly faded walls as they could without removing the remnants of Regency pale-blue paint, nor the scorch marks left from its bombing.

Its deliciously semi-ruined state is very much part of the appeal, and Dennis, who had previously worked in advertising and design, knew that it could attract additional revenue as a set for film, TV and photoshoots. So far, it's been used fairly regularly for theatre and art events, as well as film: Derren Brown has manifested some spooky theatrics in the space, and the BBC has filmed two series of Deadly Arts here for its children's channel - giving the effervescent Dennis a new career as a children's TV presenter in the process.

From dot.com offices to medical centre
In possibly the first instance of its kind, an expansion programme at Stanford University Hospital and Clinics, in California, saw the hospital's board decide to convert four former dot.com boom office buildings in Redwood City to outpatient premises rather than build new, bespoke facilities on its own sprawling campus in Palo Alto. Architecture practice Stantec, Anshen + Allen utilised the best aspects of these entirely glazed, four-storey, steel and concrete buildings - their provision of daylight - while ensuring appropriate levels of privacy and heat control.

A new porte cochere, connective walkways and a triple-height main lobby help to create a sense of arrival, announce a concise entry sequence and establish a positive, reassuring impression for patients. Daylight and views are maximised in patient spaces to assist orientation and organise distinct patient flows. Clinic entries and waiting areas are organised along a single-loaded concourse on the exterior glazed walls, and provide views to the healing gardens at the centre of the scheme; adjacent work areas are screened from public view. Transoms and clerestory windows draw abundant natural light from the perimeter into the workspaces and diagnostic imaging areas at the building's core.

Several measures were necessary to make the site appropriate for clinical use, including upgrading energy performance through sunshading louvres and a high-efficiency direct/indirect evaporative plant with heat recovery.

From abandoned mall to Microsoft HQ
An abandoned shopping centre scheme located in Levent, one of Istanbul's most popular districts, has been transformed into a dynamic, 8,546 sq m headquarters for Microsoft Turkey.

Starting with just a concrete shell, Swanke Hayden Connell Architects (SHCA) worked with Microsoft and the site's landlord to complete the largely glazed hexagonal building, then SHCA

set to work creating interiors that would allow for greater connectivity, transparency and the latest in high-tech work practices.

Capitalising on the scheme's massive floor-plates SHCA punched through interior walls to create clear sightlines across the central atrium. The atrium perimeter forms the main circulation route, lined with glazed meeting rooms, beyond which are largely open-plan workspaces. The look and feel is playful industrial: exposed services; white walls punctuated by bright slabs of colour; glass wall-crawler lifts; and a handful of distinctively styled break-out spaces on the atrium walkways. SHCA's palette was largely influenced by the colour and stylings of Microsoft's website. 'We wanted it to feel techie rather than corporate,' says design director Jason Turner. The basement features a staff cafe next to external meeting rooms, which are ideal for product and technological demonstrations. The top (fifth) floor also features a roof garden and bright, day-lit meeting rooms for corporate presentations and events.

Image Source:Tim Crocker

This article was first published in fx Magazine.

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