Book Review: At the Intersection of Old and New

Old Buildings, New Forms: New Directions in Architectural Transformations. Françoise Astorg Bollack. The Monacelli Press, $50.

A New York architect who specializes in the restoration and reinvention of historic buildings has written the best book to date on adaptive re-use. What marks it off from earlier surveys is the critical intelligence of her writing and the freshness of her choices. “An old building is not an obstacle but rather a foundation for continued action,” she writes, and every paragraph conveys her passion for enhancing the beauty and utility of found structures, ranging from a ruined pigsty to the noblest monuments. In each, an architect who shares her skill has devised an appropriate strategy for creative intervention. And each building is explored in detail, with an image from Google Earth to show its surroundings, plans and drawings, and close-ups of finishes and details.

Bollack groups her 28 European and American choices in five categories: Insertions, Parasites, Wraps, Juxtapositions, and Weavings. The themes overlap, but they allow readers to compare similar strategies over a wide range of scales, from a single room strapped like a backpack to the side of a building, to the sprawling mills that have been transformed into MASS MoCA. She quotes Carlo Scarpa, who dismissed historical imitations as “humbugs,” along with the blinkered bureaucracies that mandate such fakery. She includes a bold intervention by her own firm: a bright red addition to a historic barn on the Daniel Chester French estate in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. For her, there is no excuse for literal-minded contextualism, and she scorns the contemporary fad for putting glass roofs over courtyards, thus robbing “walls, roofs, and doors of their architectural function.” Foster’s intervention at the British Museum, though spectacular in itself, embalms the former reading room and sanitizes majestic facades.

Fifty years ago, a monument as grand as New York’s Penn Station could be demolished with only a few scattered protests; now the pendulum has swung to the opposite extreme, and too many buildings of mediocre quality are preserved  in aspic (though not a recent gem like the American Folk Art Museum, senselessly destroyed by MoMA). Bollack traces the growing appreciation for the legacy of the past to artists’ appropriation of industrial spaces and found materials in the 1960s and 1970s. There’s a strong desire to nurture historic roots, however humble, and sustainability reinforces the case for recycling. “For me it always feels wrong to demolish a building,” declares German architect Matthias Sauerbruch. “It is like killing an animal… an existing building embodies cultural energy and it’s wasteful not to use it.” Beyond the aesthetic and moral arguments for repurposing and transforming buildings, is the intense delight to be experienced in all of the spaces shown here, and the lessons they impart to architects and planners.

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