The life cycle of buildings can be compared to the evolution of species. In both biological and urban systems rigidity means vulnerability. Without the ability to deform or reform, these systems risk irrelevance and over time, obsolescence. Urban plasticity is reliant on architecture’s ability to accommodate the pressures of our current urban environment; a task that architects have developed strategies to achieve.
Adaptive reuse like evolutionary adaption is a strategy for plasticity. The method allows existing building stock to maintain relevance to cities and functionality to occupants. In Melbourne, adaptive reuse is a popular approach across a range of scales and budgets. From the restoration and retrofit of the 137 year old Melbourne GPO Building to low budget extensions on single family homes, all of these undertakings have a collective goal: fitness. As the Darwinian theory famously contends, fitness is a requirement for survival, and in the case of buildings, purpose.
Like the case of the peppered moth and industrial melanism, evolution in buildings occurs with environmental variations. When conditions change, some qualities become advantageous and others inapplicable. In our project River Studios, a warehouse that sat derelict for twenty years was converted into a studio space for 75 artists. Having operated as textile manufacturing facility the space became redundant when economic changes in textile production superseded the warehouse’s functionality. Latent architectural features such as large windows and robust materiality became advantages in the structure’s evolution from manufacturing facility to artist studio. The strategy of adaptive reuse reshaped the original function of the building, allowing it to avoid demolition by regaining fitness for purpose.
Adaptive reuse features in our own work and the work of our colleagues because it is frequently the most fit solution. As Sioux Clarke of Multiplicity explains, she feels her job as an architect is to act as a custodian of the city. Part of this custodianship means fleshing out the skeletal architecture of the city, or adapting the bones of our buildings into functional spaces.
As space shortages, rising land values, and sought after amenity make Melbourne an increasingly competitive city to build in, urban plasticity will be imperative to maintaining usability. Like in the natural world, this heighted competition has triggered other forms of adaptation, and the result of these pressures contributes significantly to the diversity of Melbourne’s urban fabric. One of the most successful of these trends is the now pervasive ‘pop-up’ typology. Ephemeral and flighty, pop-ups add a sense of seasonality and opportunism to the built environment. An example of this is our project Lulamae Pop-Up Boutique, which exaggerated this quality of impermanence by using 100% recycled cardboard for its construction, which was flat-packed and reprocessed at the installation’s end of life.
Resulting largely from efforts to work around council regulations or expensive property leases, pop-ups have become a sort of architectural mutation with a functional advantage: temporality. Affordable and noncommittal for both the city and the owner, this typology provides an interface that may have been unachievable through formal tenancies and property ownership. 3000 Acres’ partnership with private landowners and developers like Neometro is an example of this mutualism. By utilising dormant development sites around the city, the initiative transforms empty land into community gardens.
In addition to benefiting local residents, this relationship allows landowners to have their sites temporarily occupied for productive purposes, deterring vandalism and negating the need for security. By capitalising on this relationship, pop-up shops, gardens, markets, and short term leases have added a finer, more transitional layer to our built environment, making adaptation faster through flexibility.
This flexibility will continue to be tested as elections, economic shifts, government resources, and environmental concerns fluctuate. With architects as translators between global conditions and the built environment, our urban fabric is continually being upgraded, demolished, preserved, distorted and evolved to maintain its fitness. A dynamic system, the city is resilient. The city is adaptive.
The city is plastic.