Old Buildings, New Buildings

“I don’t know whether we should be designating heritage buildings.” — Frank O. Gehry

Why is preserving old buildings only ever a question of heritage? Shouldn’t we be maintaining and re-using whatever buildings can be salvaged for environmental reasons at this point? It is known that construction is one of the biggest causes of human CO2 emissions, up there with industry, agriculture, and transportation. There is also growing alarm about sand depletion, the main cause of which is construction. To say nothing of land depletion, sprawl, and the mind-numbing boringness of the vast majority of new buildings — including many “interesting” ones.

If construction is a major environmental problem, then how about over-construction? In Spain alone, it is estimated that 818 000 dwellings built during the boom are sitting empty and looking for a buyer. It should be obvious by now that most new construction is undertaken for purposes of financial speculation–not satisfying any real need.

Re-purposing old buildings that are sitting empty, of which there is no shortage, instead of building anew, which in many cases merely leads to more buildings sitting empty, seems to make increasing sense. But since when does architecture have anything to do with making sense? Well, perhaps the time has come. Better late than never.

As architects, our duty is first and foremost to improve our habitat, or so we like to think. In some cases, this is indeed best done with new construction, but in most cases now, this is best done by not building anew, and instead preserving and adaptively re-using old buildings.  In more ways than one, the city of the future will be the city of the past, and architecture will have more and more to do with intervening creatively within existing structures, and less and less to do with building new ones.

Let’s not forget, while we’re on the subject of old buildings, that Frank Gehry’s greatest contribution to architecture is still that little suburban house in Santa Monica that he so lovingly and beautifully renovated in the late 1970s. That old house wasn’t preserved back then for reasons of heritage. Well, now there are even more reasons for preserving old buildings that have nothing to do with heritage.


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