Stop Demolishing Useful Buildings: a Manifesto for an Architecture of Transformation

I’m a walking nightmare, an arsenal of doom
I kill conversation as I walk into the room
I’m a three line whip
I’m the sort of thing they ban
I’m a walking disaster
I’m a demolition man

(Demolition Man, by Sting)

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Demolition in progress in Barcelona’s historic centre

Why is the demolition of old buildings and their replacement by new ones still widely seen as a sign of “progress”? Why is transforming an existing structure considered somehow “less architectural” than demolishing it and building anew?

Demolishing perfectly sound, useful structures harms both the environment as well as our collective memory. In this age of human-induced climate change, existing buildings should be maintained and transformed through adaptive reuse whenever possible, regardless of whether they are listed as heritage or not. But there is also the issue of collective memory that is permanently lost whenever buildings are demolished that could otherwise be refurbished: their replacement by new buildings usually leads to a much more sterile and soulless environment, especially when this is done on a massive scale.

This is not about preserving a status quo for reasons of nostalgia. Far from it. There are plenty of structurally unsound buildings everywhere for creating new building sites, to say nothing of the abundance of empty lots in many cities. This is rather about not always discarding things that are still perfectly useful, and instead making better, more creative and intelligent use of the many things we already have. It has been shown that upgrading an existing building is generally greener than tearing it down and replacing it with new construction, even if it performs better, because of the embodied energy of old buildings.

Examples abound the world over of perfectly sound structures that have been demolished only to be replaced by other constructions that leave a great deal to be desired. In Barcelona, an elevated traffic circle less than three decades old (Glòries) was demolished some years ago to be replaced by an expensive tunnel beneath a new park. The structure of the circular viaduct could have been transformed into a giant pergola for this park, or even left as a ruin. There was absolutely no need to demolish it. Or better yet, it could have been transformed into a circular market hall, a stadium, or a fucking nuclear particle accelerator with a public running track on top for all I care. As my students from the University of Calgary demonstrated some years ago with their alternative masterplan for the Glòries site, keeping and using this viaduct was entirely viable. But now that it’s gone, this option no longer exists.

In Vietnam, entire parts of Hanoi’s very intricate and finely scaled vernacular city fabric are being demolished to make way for huge, stand-alone high-rise apartment blocks; much like in China. Existing urban tissue is being cleared lock, stock and barrel in order to create a tabula rasa when a more surgical planning approach could also be taken in which only the unsound buildings are demolished and replaced, keeping the existing street network in place along with old buildings that are upgradeable. Of course, surgical urbanism is less expedient and profitable, and not as desired by an upwardly mobile consumerist class that wants to conspicuously display its new wealth. But cities belong to everyone, not just the rich.

There are many examples of architects actively persuading developers not to demolish buildings so that they can be transformed instead. The Bois le Prêtre tower refurbishment in Paris by architects Lacaton & Vassal, and the deFlat Kleiburg slab refurbishment outside Amsterdam by NL Architects and XVW architectuur (the latter is the winner of the 2017 EU Mies prize) are two notable examples. Yet the transformation of buildings is unfortunately still perceived by many city councils, clients, architects, and some citizens as somehow “lesser” than building anew. Many starchitects believe that demolition is preferable to transformation because the latter kills any possibility of building “great” architecture. But why should the notion of an “architectural masterpiece” necessarily entail building from the ground up? The Tate Modern in London by Herzog & de Meuron or the renovation of the Neues Museum in Berlin by David Chipperfield are among the best works of contemporary architecture around, period. After everything Frank Gehry has built throughout his long career, his own house in Santa Mónica remains his most radical work to this day precisely because it involved transformation. Clinging to the modernist idea that a tabula rasa is somehow the ideal precondition for architecture is unfortunate. A building is never a “pure” work of art. It’s time to demolish and bury the tabula rasa in the dustbin of ideology once and for all.

Let’s stop massively demolishing perfectly sound buildings only because they don’t conform to the latest globally fashionable image of “progress”. It’s bad for the planet, it’s bad for the human soul, and it’s especially bad for architecture.

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A tabula rasa for new housing construction in Hanoi, Vietnam.

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New housing construction in Hanoi, Vietnam.

About Rafael Gomez-Moriana

I am an architect, writer and educator. rafagomo.com chronicles my architectural making, writing, teaching and curating activity, while criticalista.com is an archive of my writings as well as a platform for venting personal rants and observations. I studied architecture at the University of Waterloo (Canada) and at the Berlage Institute (the Netherlands). I direct the University of Calgary’s architecture term-abroad program in Barcelona, and have previously taught in the Metropolis Masters Program in Architecture and Urban Culture, CIEE Architecture and Design program, as well as at Carleton University and the University of Manitoba.

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