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Teaching the Subtle and Difficult Art of Adaptive Reuse

A recent essay on Common Edge has raised the issue of why architects are so afraid of confronting the need for adaptive reuse as a primary design strategy for the current century and beyond. As someone who taught groundbreaking studios on the subject at Columbia and elsewhere (and was discouraged from doing so), I can shed some light on the subject. Indeed, my 1992 essay, “Architecture for a Contingent Environment,” documented some of that student work in one of the first issues of the Journal of Architectural Education to feature historic preservation as a theme.

The grand narrative of architectural achievement following the Modernist movement has consistently praised “new and innovative” work at the expense of normative, competent design. When Rem Koolhaas singled out “fake history” in his attacks on historic preservation 10 years ago, he clearly showed not only his ignorance, but, more important, his seething contempt for any design practice that did not result in a complete remaking of the urban landscape, just as the authors of the 1933 CIAM declaration on historic urban quarters did. “Old quarters” were seen as squalid, dirty, unhealthy places whose charm was nostalgic rather than enriching. The Dutch Master had his head buried in the past, where anything historic was associated with the ancien régime.

As Vincent Scully and Stewart Brand have pointed out, historic preservation has fostered more urban revitalization and sustainable growth than any other strategy, and was the only popular architectural movement of the last century to garner support from virtually all citizens—contrary to Koolhaas’s false accusations of elitism. Part of the problem with architects embracing it was their own view of “design” as an elite artistic practice. Anyone working with a reverence and understanding of historic buildings and places was seen as a mere repairer, a tinkerer, a technical nerd. Frank Sanchis, one of the pioneering Columbia trained architects in conservation and preservation, once admitted that he went into the field “because I wasn’t strong in design, and knew I could succeed. Preservation isn’t about innovative design.” How wrong he was, despite the sad commentary on the state of the profession in the 1960s.

By their second or third year, architectural students falsely believe that they can’t be “creative” if they are designing additions or renovations to old buildings. Only when they leave school do they think otherwise…


That negative view of working with, not against, historic contexts has persisted in all but a few architectural programs. Several years ago, when I suggested to Deborah Berke, the incoming dean at Yale, that I offer a studio on adaptive reuse to her advanced students, she demurred. “Students won’t sign up for that,” she said, echoing a comment I also heard from her predecessor, Robert Stern. By their second or third year, architectural students falsely believe that they can’t be “creative” if they are designing additions or renovations to old buildings. Only when they leave school do they think otherwise, and wish they had some experience with “legacy” building technologies (to use a software term that would apply).

So, where does this leave professors and practitioners who want to teach students the subtle, difficult art of working with historic buildings? There are certainly books on the topic of additions, but they are often little help. Paul Byard’s awful, historically blinkered tome has only perpetuated myths about making new pieces fit their time, but not their place. Stuart Cohen, now an emeritus professor in Chicago, wrote one of the most intelligent essays, “On Adding On,” in the 1980s, but it isn’t consulted as often as Rudolfo Machado’s weaker piece cited by Amir Kripper. Few students in Ivy League programs have any idea that a literature exists on successful renovations and additions, because their professors are not interested in the subject. Much good writing by Beaux Arts–trained architects was published in the early 20th century. Edwin Lutyens was a master of adaptive reuse, as many of his clients owned venerable houses and castles that needed upgrading.

Only programs at Notre Dame, Miami, Colorado, and Georgia Tech offer the kind of history-based training that might prepare young architects for these future challenges. They teach the classical language of architecture, something that James Marston Fitch recognized as essential to a preservationist’s education when he founded the Columbia program in the 1960s. I taught the fundamentals course in classical treatises and design at Columbia, and was followed by John Stubbs, who now teaches at Tulane. It has now vanished from the curriculum. 

Virtually all buildings constructed before 1920 were designed by architects, builders, or owners trained in this rich tradition. Anyone who walks into a historic building, hoping to document and understand it, must first understand the grammar that produced it, notwithstanding its traditional materials and construction methods. Architecture schools eschewing courses on American architecture, traditional architecture in non-Western contexts, and historical construction won’t be able to train competent practitioners, which makes those with existing preservation programs more useful than those that do not when it comes to this climate related challenge. Tulane, Cornell, and USC have these complementary programs, but Rice, Harvard, and Princeton do not. Recently Harvard, often ranked at the top, began to offer a Koolhaas influenced “alternative” curriculum in preserving old buildings, with little enthusiasm and few faculty.

I know from conversations with colleagues throughout the country that their efforts to introduce adaptive reuse and building conservation into studios at both the undergraduate and graduate levels have met with resistance from administrators. This has to change if our profession hopes to address some of the most urgent and socially critical issues facing the planet today. Perhaps, as I often tell students, an entire generation of entitled “boomers” will have to die before changes can occur. I hope not, since I am one of them.

Featured image via Assets America. 



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