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Feature article

An Exploration of Adaptive Reuse

WORDS BY Julie Firkin

Many of the most fascinating examples of adaptive reuse around the world involve renovation of giants of the industrial era from defunct shells into significant public buildings and parks. Buildings that were once symbolic of technical achievement and economic growth can be seen as blights on the landscape when they are no longer useful, but in the post-industrial era we can take delight in seeing the powerful sculptural qualities of outdated industrial buildings and sites redeemed, no longer eyesores, but reminders of an era when society had the utmost faith in progress.

While there are numerous small scale adaptive reuse projects in Victoria worthy of praise, there could be more large public buildings or precincts which support the ongoing interpretation and understanding of their pre-existing heritage structures while also accommodating new functions. Many noteworthy modern and recent buildings in Victoria which have fallen into disuse are at risk of being lost. More could be made of opportunities for adaptive reuse of our industrial heritage with our rich history of mining, manufacturing and agriculture in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Alongside appreciating our built history, environmental sustainability, urban regeneration and social and economic benefits are particularly convincing arguments for adaptive reuse.

The individual contributions to this issue fall into three broad categories. The first deals with adaptive reuse at the level of the individual building. The second looks at repurposing at the scale of an entire city, shifting focus from the single building to the built environment as a whole, including the infrastructure and spaces that surround buildings. The third investigates measures for retrofitting to obtain environmental benefits. In each case, these themes are broached at a conceptual level and are illustrated with specific case studies.

Questions of what constitutes historic value are raised in many of the articles. The heritage value of buildings belonging to a recognised architectural style makes them popular candidates for adaptive reuse. Elements less likely to be considered are those which serve to give character to places but which may not be considered architecturally significant in their own right. These elements may serve as memorable landmarks, or to frame successful human scaled spaces. Recently constructed buildings, including those from the modern era, may be seen as less historic and more contemporary. Even those of architectural significance are also often overlooked as worthwhile candidates for reuse.

The question of whether reuse can successfully be achieved on a large scale also recurs. Major strategic projects can face difficulties when attempting to accommodate adaptive reuse. Built fabric of historic significance is often dwarfed by the sheer volume of new buildings from large, profit-driven projects. A number of individual projects over a longer time period often bring about more successful outcomes than the sweeping changes made in one major development. Government policies which facilitate adaptive reuse initiatives over the long term can support these incremental changes, which when looked at collectively, can positively affect entire regions.

The benefits of adaptive reuse in order to continue the life of buildings with historic or aesthetic value are recognised, but tension exists between the desire to preserve historic buildings and the need to change buildings to make them relevant to the way we live now. There is nonetheless a substantial body of support for adaptive reuse of buildings and spaces in Victoria, and the many and varied advantages of this approach are illustrated by the contributors to this Issue.

Helen Lardner focuses on the adaptive reuse of industrial buildings in Victoria with reference to overseas and interstate examples. She identifies issues which may be contributing to the scarcity of recent compelling adaptive reuse projects in Victoria and proposes some buildings and sites which offer great potential for future projects.

The Victorian Chapter Heritage Committee highlights the need for conservation of our modern industrial buildings. It discusses some tactics for dealing with common challenges associated with adapting existing buildings.

Brent Allpress regularly leads design studios in which students are tasked with adapting a modern building for contemporary use. His article explores the theoretical underpinnings of modernism which are often at odds with the multiple and conflicting demands of designing for adaptive reuse.

Anne-Marie Treweeke describes Lovell Chen’s repurposing of part of the former Collingwood TAFE to create a fitting new home for Circus Oz that will be able to be adapted to its future needs. Care was taken to preserve the character of the original grouping of buildings and to promote neighbourly relations with other occupiers of the old TAFE site.

Rob Adams discusses repurposing at the scale of the city. He calls in to question the commonly held categorisations of building, infrastructure and nature, conceiving of combined solutions to help cool the city and to improve the liveability of our urban environments. His proposition is to allow existing land, buildings and facilities to be used in more ways more often.

Martina Johnson’s contribution identifies the rich potential for adaptive reuse at Fishermans Bend while recognising the economic pressures that can lead developers to demolish historic elements and build from scratch. She describes role of government agencies in developing strategic plans and acting as an advocate for reuse by providing advice for developers.

Breathe Architecture discuss the ever changing state of the city in which buildings can become disused and must be adapted in order to survive. In this context, some of their opportunistic architectural solutions include pop up and temporary uses.

Sara Wilkinson’s research sets out a clear case for the benefits of retrofitting green roofs. There is a dearth of local examples that have been designed by architects who tend to prefer to specify new, purpose built green roofs. Instead of relying on case studies from overseas, we can learn from the experience of dedicated individuals such as Brod Street and Phil Edwards, who can attest first hand to the transformation the environmentally sustainable design initiatives such as green roofs can effect.