Before we erect buildings we should pause to wonder about their future. If reuse isn’t likely, we should (by policy) have a plan for the careful deconstruction of the building into components that can be recycled.
Each week I find myself in an airplane bound for a new consulting or lecturing experience—I almost always find the suspended state brings a creative thought stream. The resulting note cards or paragraphs plugged in my laptop often evolve into ideas that sort themselves into workshops, articles, or conversations. This article began at 30,000 feet between Atlanta and Washington, D.C. The day’s Art Newspaper featured a story about the evolution of Palazzo Grassi in Venice. Back in the last decade I was invited to attend the awarding of the Pritzker Prize to Aldo Rossi at this same palazzo. The U.S. delegation arrived three days ahead; this gave us an opportunity to check out local cafés, galleries, and town squares. The Palazzo Grassi had been modernized quite dramatically by architect Gae Aulenti and seemed a perfect balance of past/present. I recall studying the details and wondering about the future life of the palazzo. How would this space ultimately succeed? Could it regain its central role in the city’s life?
The answer to that question now seems to be yes. Last month, the Palazzo Grassi was sold to the city of Venice for about $31 million. The building will be used for art and architecture exhibitions appealing to tourists and collectors. This notable evolution of historic and contemporary architecture will go through yet another flexible use scenario and very likely become even more vibrant as it again meets the needs of Venice and its evolving culture.
There are other exemplars in most cities, but just as important are the many more pedestrian instances including the adaptive reuse of warehouses into offices, restaurants, homes, and successful mixed-use retail.
This set me to thinking of flexibility in our nation’s contemporary architecture. Consider for a moment Radio City Music Hall not long ago updated by Hugh Hardy. Last August the stage of the Music Hall was successfully used as a basketball arena when the Republican National Convention displaced that professional women’s sport from their normal home in Madison Square Garden. Who could have imagined it? The architect did.
But most present architecture does not lend itself to such grand flexibility. For instance, the hundreds of deserted big box former Wal-Mart stores that litter our countryside come to mind. They blight our communities without much hope of alternative use any time soon.
On the unconscious level, this phenomenon reflects profligate capitalism at its worst, and a disregard for anything beyond a one-shot, short-term solution.
Before we erect buildings we should pause to wonder about their future. If reuse isn’t likely, we should (by policy) have a plan for the careful deconstruction of the building into components that can be recycled. Until we think this way, the architecture profession will be unintentionally contributing to our growing dilemma—the uglification of America.
—James P. Cramer