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Alteration and Alterity: The Adaptive Reuse of Modern Architecture

WORDS BY Brent Allpress

“… there is not usually so much perfection in works composed of several parts and produced by different craftsmen as in the works of one man. Thus we see that buildings undertaken and completed by a single architect are usually more attractive and better planned than those which several have tried to patch up by adapting old walls built for different purposes… how difficult it is to make something perfect by working only on what others have produced.”1

There is a pathology in twentieth century architectural modernism. The liberative motivation of modernist architects to break from past constraints and free up structural and spatial hierarchies relied on a claim to autonomy that is traceable back to the importation of rationalist and reductive theoretical frameworks. This was literally enacted by modernist architects and planners through the Cartesian tabula rasa erasure of existing contexts and built fabric and the construction of new and mostly freestanding buildings. This ideology culminated in large scale programs of urban renewal demolition and new construction developments in post-war cities. Apart from a small number of notable exceptions, there were effectively no alterations, extensions or additions undertaken by major modernist architects internationally from the early twentieth century through until the late 1970s.

This has left an aporia in architectural discourse from this period around practices of alteration and addition and a dearth of precedent models to draw on. In the context of architectural education, any engagement with influential modernist precedent comes with this ideological baggage of assumptions and prescriptions around architectural autonomy.

I have been running recurring architectural design studios, initially at the University of Auckland and then subsequently at RMIT Architecture in Melbourne, that address this issue directly by confronting students with the task of designing alterations to modernist buildings that invite no intervention.

This offers a number of pedagogical opportunities. The pathology can be worked through and contended with at sites where it presents. Students select an iconic or characteristic modernist project from the period. They document the devices that set up the apparent autonomy of the project, while looking for opportunities to open the project up to interventions.

Melbourne Arts Centre Extension by RMIT student Nazila Seyed Javadi, Alter Studio, Upperpool Design, RMIT Master of Architecture, 2012.

Studio Leader: Brent Allpress

Plumbers & Gasfitters Union Building Alteration, by RMIT student Lance van Maanen, Alter Studio, Upperpool Design, RMIT Master of Architecture, 2012.

Studio Leader: Brent Allpress

The richness and complexity of the actual modernist built work is critically analysed in its specificity, as an instance within a body of work by the practice, or as a general type. The project is responded to and tested through a series of selective design propositions, redeemed and reinvigorated.

This approach fosters the horizontal integration of history and theory into the design stream by employing project based modes of architectural analysis of precedent to directly inform speculative design responses.

Scepticism is encouraged regarding existing reductive tectonic descriptions of modernist structural systems and elements as a technically determining set of prescriptions. Narrative theory as an external authorisation of architecture is also critiqued. The common hierarchy where a theoretical position is supposedly established first and then applied through practice is fundamentally a rationalist model co-opted by cultural theory.

Students are instead encouraged to develop designerly discourses and critical representational practices involving a reverse engineering of the existing work. Consideration is given to the generative practices of the architects, the material production and fabrication of the work, and to the qualitative and embodied experiential reception of the built outcomes at the time of completion and in its current state. When undertaking the analytical exercises, students focus on qualitative, performative and relational criteria. They selectively investigate what the architecture does, what relationships it enacts or forecloses across the scales, and how those relationships are framed and mediated.

Designing in response to an existing building, where the authority of the existing building has to be challenged to some extent by the authorship of the designer, problematises common default approaches to the design process that architecture students would otherwise employ when undertaking for green field sites. Too much narrative emphasis is often given to the perceived authority of the origins of processes. My general advice to students is that origins don’t legitimate outcomes, outcomes legitimate outcomes, but certain origins or processes may get you to outcomes that you couldn’t get to otherwise. When undertaking an alteration, proposed outcomes are very readily testable against existing conditions at a range of scales from the outset.

There is a nascent canon of modern alteration precedent that can be drawn on as models. A prehistory can be found in the disjunctive and additive compositions by Piranesi that he offered as a critical alternative to reductive rationalism. This informed the extensive body of built alterations by John Soane. Carlo Scarpa is the only mid-twentieth century architect to have produced a comparable body of work primarily consisting of additions.

There are key one-off modernist alterations such as Gunnar Asplund’s Goteborg Town Hall extension, and explorations of alterability and extendibility by Archigram and the Metabolists. Otherwise, it is relatively slim pickings until the late 1970s when Frank Gehry’s house alterations became a prominent built exemplar for the contemporary avant garde. The recent re-engagement by the architectural discipline with additions as a practice has been a significant shift from the tenets of modernism that is still under theorised and somewhat marginal to the profession and building industry.

Melbourne architectural practice culture is however distinguished by strong lineages of late twentieth century alteration practices. This diverse spectrum of works includes situated and mediating modernist interventions by Peter Elliot and Kirsten Thompson, syncretic and disjunctive additions and alterations by Edmond and Corrigan, Lyons and Ashton Raggatt McDougall, and opportunistic redevelopments by Six Degrees and Fender Katsiledes.

Melbourne architect Robyn Boyd was one of the few key mid-twentieth century modernist protagonists who undertook alterations as a conceptual proposition in projects such as 333 Lygon Street and the Batman Motor Inn, employing large scale gestures such as the masking façade and the big roof respectively to reframe the spatial and chromatic qualities of modest existing conditions.

As an initial task, students in my design studios undertake diagrammatic analysis and documentation of this local and international precedent producing a comparative resource of alteration practices.

There are significant current architectural and infrastructural concerns regarding the economic and cultural value of modernist buildings that are usefully addressed through the alteration studio model. Due to the age of buildings constructed prior to the 1980s, there is a pressing need for the renewal of fabric and the adaptation of uses, while considering the often under protected heritage status of modernist structures.

The term ‘modern’ comes from the Latin ‘modo’ meaning ‘just now.’  The moderns had a bias towards the present as a future project. Modernity as a condition supersedes itself through built in obsolescence. The modern ‘now of the new’ as an historical condition that has passed its use-by date presents a paradox. In heritage terms we are dealing with histories of the future.

In order to enact a project of adaptive reuse of a modernist building, the predetermining functional biases of modern planning have to be reworked. Prescriptive program needs to allow for different events, for other eventualities. The common brief for the alteration studio has generally been to design an architectural design research facility with associated public program, which keeps the focus on architectural considerations.

Tussling with the apparent autonomy of modernist buildings presents difficult design challenges for students. To alter is to make other, to open architecture up to alterity, to otherness and difference. Alterations can bring a project or precinct in relation to conditions outside its own terms of reference, to externality, to shifting situations.

The imposition of another architecture against an existing condition transforms architectural qualities and values through the experience of new relations between the original and new fabric. This requires a curatorial sensibility that I describe as counter-composition, designing with and against existing conditions.

As an exploratory exercise I ask students to consider what role ornament plays in their chosen modernist project. This runs against the grain of modernist’s own accounts of their work as ornament was supposedly abandoned, excised through the Cartesian method that reduced architecture down to that which was essential. This is the same logic that negates the supplementary addition.

Leaving aside conventional stylistic categories and focusing on performative accounts of what ornament does can give a different reading of modernist composition. In pre-Renaissance accounts, the role of ornament was to mediate transitions in state from conditions of tension to conditions of resolution. In a counter-compositional alteration schema, ornament can be reframed in terms of mediating and curating junctions and disjunctions between the strata of differentiated spatial systems and scales of relations.

Where it is relevant, students are also encouraged to consider the shifts that have occurred from the standardised efficiencies of a modernist work to emerging nonstandard production. This provides the opportunity to situate those practices against each other and make judgments about the values associated with them as compositional and fabrication economies.

I have more recently extended the alteration studio model as a framework for final year Major Project supervision at RMIT, with a focus on interventions across urban precincts. Jessica Chidester’s project “(re)activating pivotal moments” reintroduces more intimate urban scales and a mixed diversity of activities into the Mission to Seafarers and the North Wharf Shed 5 site. An array of alterations and additions creates disjunctions and new connections across and beyond the site that acts as a promenade hinge between Docklands and the city grid. Her project won the national 2014 Australian Institute of Architects COLORBOND® Steel Student Biennale Prize and was commended by the jury for “integrating and not obliterating the existing grain of the city.” 2 This project demonstrates the potential for considering adaptive re-use as a scalable practice with urban implications, offering an alternative re-development model.