ArchitectureBoston

After Life

Posted in Vol 13 No 1 by bsaab on February 19, 2010

The former Villa Italia mall in Lakewood, Colorado (recently redeveloped as Belmar, a mixeduse district). Photo courtesy Continuum Partners.

Designing what comes next

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Suddenly everyone wants to recycle the mall (even if no one wants to preserve it).

When F. Scott Fitzgerald famously declared that “there are no second acts in American life,” it may still have been largely true — at least with regard to the built environment. The remark is attributed to notes Fitzgerald made while working on his unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon, in the 1930s. And at that time, the United States was still plowing westward. There was enough frontier spirit left to keep Americans from dwelling too much on the past, when there was still so much of the country left to be settled.

After the long deprivations of World War II, and with so many people coming home and into the housing market, Americans wanted new and more expansive living situations. An explosion of suburban development began to satisfy this desire for modern, clean, new housing. It wasn’t a time for reusing the old.

But attitudes about reuse have changed. There is still a lot of land, but we have settled a great deal more of it. And the sense of endless abundance that once animated this country has surely come to an end. A recent article by John B. Judis in The New Republic, referring to the deluge of economic, political, and environmental difficulties facing our most populous state, asks “Is California Finished?” There may be no question which points more succinctly to the changes since Fitzgerald’s time than that one. The role that California has played in the American imagination cannot be overstated. If we no longer see a mythical California — a place where we can all reinvent ourselves — at the end of the highway, then perhaps we have to start thinking more about how to improve where we are.

So Americans have begun to think about fixing what we have. For 50 years at least, we have been coming to the realization that there is much of value in our existing built world, even if it isn’t perfectly aligned with current needs. We are learning to salvage, restore, and reinvent our buildings, neighborhoods, and historic sites.

But the scale of our reuse is changing. We no longer seek to salvage only unique historic buildings and neighborhoods, but also to retrofit suburban landscapes, malls, industrial sites, and other less obvious choices. There are new kinds of engines driving these decisions. What were once questions of cultural patrimony, as in the failed attempt to save the old Penn Station in New York, are now about environmental and economic issues.

A flurry of books in recent years has helped to shape, clarify, and occasionally question this changing attitude about reuse. Anthony Flint’s This Land and Robert Bruegmann’s Sprawl each had different takes on the consequences of our everbroadening metropolitan areas. Sustainable Urbanism (Douglas Farr) and Suburban Transformations (Paul Lukez) addressed in greater, and more actionable, detail, how we might alter our existing suburban building stock and settlement patterns. Farr’s book links policy and case studies, while Lukez’s provides a collection of formal operations on specific buildings and community types.

Addressing one part of this phenomenon is a recent book, Retrofitting Suburbia, by Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson. It is a comprehensive effort at defining the problems facing our suburban landscape, and proposing specific strategies for solving them.

Dunham-Jones is a longtime member of the faculty at the College of Architecture at Georgia Tech, and Williamson is on the faculty at the School of Architecture at the City College of New York. They owe some of the clarity and straightforwardness of their approach to the Congress for the New Urbanism (CNU), which has been encouraging architects, planners, developers, and public officials to work together to change the way American cities and suburbs are built for more than 20 years.

CNU has represented the single most comprehensive critical approach to influencing the character of our built environment of any architectural movement since World War II. By bringing together so many different participants in the development world, it has created a complete system for making suburbs more compact and urban — regardless of what one thinks of the results.

But what makes Retrofitting Suburbia particularly important is that it addresses the issues with which the New Urbanists have been least successful. Most New Urbanist projects have been either all-new suburban developments on so-called greenfield (completely undeveloped) sites or overly simple (and not very responsive) insertions into existing cities. But as Dunham-Jones and Williamson point out, the biggest challenge we face is how to make our existing suburbs more connected, dense, and heterogeneous. And that requires specific tactics.

In addressing this large task, the authors begin by defining urban versus suburban conditions. They also make clear why adapting these existing communities is so important. But this book is entirely about how to change them, not whether we ought to. And this allows it to become a very useful manual of techniques.

Retrofitting Suburbia addresses fine-grain issues like adding detached accessory dwelling units (DADU) on the one hand, and thinking about how we change scale across an entire metropolitan area, on the other. The authors make use of the CNU “transect,” a diagrammatic section cut through a hypothetical city from the dense downtown to mid-rise multifamily neighborhoods, bedroom communities, suburban centers, and on to agricultural land. They take on the myriad challenges to altering the entrenched patterns and habits that shape our world and turn their attention to everything from the large retail giants, to transit-oriented development, new live/work prototypes, and, especially, retrofitting shopping malls as denser, mixed-use developments and “new downtowns.”

It’s true that many of the best-case examples shown in the 16-page color portfolio at the book’s center include some of the faux-historical, cartoonishly-detailed stucco buildings that have come to stand as the reason so many architects are wary of New Urbanism. But the truth is that these critics must learn to distinguish between the scales of planning, urban design, and architecture. If we learn nothing more than that from this serious, detailed study of how to reuse our suburbs, it will be a great leap forward. It is the changing of long-fixed patterns of planning and development that is the real change proposed in Retrofitting Suburbia, and not really a question of building taste, which will inevitably evolve.

Another recent entry in the genre of reuse publishing is Julia Christensen’s Big Box Reuse. Here the focus is on the now vast expanse of giant retail box stores spread across suburban and rural America. Though many of these structures are still in use, many of these very large, low buildings have already outlived their original economic usefulness, and Christensen is looking at the ways in which they have been re-purposed.

But it is a very different kind of approach. Instead of looking at functioning malls as engines for new kinds of market-driven development, Christensen is more interested in the sociology, or even the relative authenticity, of the new uses. Big Box Reuse documents how big-box stores have been razed to accommodate a new courthouse, reused as an indoor raceway, adapted as schools, chapels, libraries, flea markets, and even a Museum of Spam.

The implication in this selection is that these new uses are more organic and more locally relevant. That may be. Certainly there is value in large buildings with plenty of parking in our car-dominated suburbs and rural areas. And there are needs in our less affluent rural communities that can be met in these older big-box stores. But the fit is often less than ideal from an architectural standpoint, and the uses that end up in these big boxes are ones that often would do much better somewhere else.

Using a big-box store as a library (with significant natural light demands) or a church or a day-care center makes obvious economic sense. We are reusing an asset — and that is better than not doing so — but some of these uses make much more sense than others. One senses the author is making a kind of architectural fetish out of this kind of building.

Big-box stores have a very finite economic and functional life. They are not built for the ages, and while it may make sense to temporarily reuse some of them — and some of these reinventions can be very clever (the indoor race track, for example, makes a lot of sense because there are few other building footprints that could accommodate such a use). It doesn’t seem like a rational plan for dealing with our suburban and rural landscapes moving forward.

The idea that all buildings should be saved and reused out of a moral sense that things ought not be wasted may prove not to be the best course.

Perhaps while we learn to adaptively reuse large swaths of our built environment, improving quality and efficiency along the way, it may also make sense to determine that some building types are by their very nature transitory, and that we can plan for them to be replaced as needed. It may actually be more environmentally reasonable to do so. The idea that all buildings should be saved and reused out of a moral sense that things ought not be wasted may prove not to be the best course. We have the choice of either building on existing shopping malls and creating denser, more vital, mixed-use communities from them, or razing them and being more conscientious about the patterns of development that replace them. But saving cheap, throw-away structures and treating them as heritage material doesn’t make a lot of sense.

Margaret Crawford, in Everyday Urbanism, has very intelligently focused our attention on the urban landscape of everyday uses. And she has identified a number of ways which buildings, streetscapes, and spaces have been reused by new constituencies. But these lessons can also be misread. Describing organic changes in use is not the same thing as prescribing new patterns. In Boston, for example, we have many single-story neighborhood automotive uses (garages, repair shops, machine shops) where cars have long been accommodated. These uses have often been rendered obsolete by market forces, like the arrival of regional chain repair shops. But these existing automotive buildings, usually masonry structures, could serve as the parking base for new denser multifamily housing. This kind of reuse may lack the cultural The idea that all buildings should be saved and reused out of a moral sense that things ought not be wasted may prove not to be the best course. specificity of some of the examples in Everyday Urbanism, but it is a more prescriptive approach to dealing with a real problem facing our area: how to provide the new parking demanded by neighborhoods and consumers without adding to the amount of blacktop already in place.

At the end of the day, reuse will succeed because it makes economic sense. The locations, large windows, and dimensions of early 20th-century municipal schools made them tempting targets for reuse as residential condominiums. Developers are again calling on architects to help them identify the next phase of easy transformations from one use to another, more profitable one. Not all buildings will meet those exacting criteria. Some will be saved for cultural reasons, but others won’t. And that’s probably a good thing.

The second acts that we see occurring in our cities, suburbs, and rural communities are not all the same. Infrastructure has always been the greatest challenge, both to build and to maintain; reusing and building upon this asset should be a priority. But individual buildings represent more complex decisions. In the growing vogue for reusing everyday structures, we must distinguish between those structures whose future life holds real promise, and those whose promise is really nothing but a mirage.

Caption: The former Villa Italia mall in Lakewood, Colorado (recently redeveloped as Belmar, a mixed-use district). Photo courtesy Continuum Partners.

One Response

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  1. Letters « ArchitectureBoston said, on November 30, 2010 at 9:44 am

    […] Thrush’s interesting article ["After Life: Designing What Comes Next," Spring 2010] concludes by suggesting the sensible notion that not all buildings deserve to […]


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