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living design history

A client asked us why we would propose to keep a mediocre old building on a new project. After all, we are proposing a much larger building, with significantly newer technology. A quick thought occurs: it is not worth saving. Mediocrity should be removed, such that creative energies can flow freely. Tearing down multistory buildings is a violent act, yet it is rarely questioned in our pursuit of the next great thing.

The wood and masonry framed structure in the above image is mediocre. It is one of millions in Asia where buildings host lively street life and residential activity above. It is surrounded by the latest design effort: 50 story buildings and high-end retail malls. Maintaining such an artifact presents an opportunity to engage with the human endeavour. An endeavour of 50 years ago or 5000 years ago, regardless, working with a mediocre artifact is an opportunity to connect.

Old buildings, when they can be incorporated into modern life, give people the opportunity to see things differently. A cost benefit analysis can answer questions of cost, sustainability, practicality and income, but this is just stuff, just data, just about the thing. Culturally, we are interested about what it says about living. What does it do to the lives that we lead.

Jane Jacobs was a Romanticist, and although some of her thoughts had as many defects if implemented as her critiques, she did some great things. Her Romantic preference for keeping old buildings was recently summarized by The Philosophers Mail:

3. There should be a mix of old and new buildings

Because old buildings have already paid off the costs of construction, their rent is lower. This allows poorer people and companies to have places to live and work, rather than forcing them out as in a neighbourhood-wide renovation. A few newer buildings can then be permitted in order to draw in wealthier people and businesses. Jacobs believed that each neighbourhood should have both, preventing areas from simply being “rich” or “poor,” and encouraging people of very different backgrounds to live together.

After 80 years of modernism, and modernist's disastrous City Planning, we know that some buildings look really bad after the newness has washed off. Maintenance: the old building in the image above has been artfully crafted, cared for and maintained. Retaining old buildings allows people to connect with history, if they so choose.

Continuity of community life... sure it's different when new technology changes life, but people need time to evaluate the change, to evaluate if new is better than old, or if new is simple cheaper than old, or if old actually is better because it accommodates new life better. People are adaptable... and we navigate in rather complex seas.

Understanding the past, is one great way to move forward. It helps people to avoid repeating our past. Restoring old buildings can lead to repeating the past. Eliminating old buildings can lead to wasteful expenditures on chasing short-term newness... where the next is always superficially better than the previous thing.

Buildings, because they shape our potential perspectives, have the ability to guide our thoughts, to inform our lives. Retaining some old buildings, when understood through care-taking and well-crafted maintenance, provide people moving about our society an opportunity to contextualize the vagaries of the here and now. It is not the thing, the building, but the living: how we interact with opportunities presented.

blogging ideas along the way