What is adaptive reuse and why is it important? (2024)

What happens to old buildings when they are no longer used for their intended purpose? Many are left in disrepair or left to deteriorate; others are torn down. But when a building is torn down, history is often lost with it. One alternative to this loss is adaptive reuse. Adaptive reuse in architecture is the practice of taking antique or underused buildings and putting them to new uses. This practice preserves the life of buildings, has less impact on the environment, and adds to the history of the location.

Adaptive reuse of architecture is not a new idea. The ancient Romans often employed it both for economic and ideological reasons. They reused buildings because materials were costly to make and to transport. The process of deconstructing buildings to reuse their materials became an industry in Rome that had to be legally regulated. They also reused monuments, or spolia (meaning “spoils” or “loot”), from other nation-states as a sign of their dominance or as a token of assimilating new cultures. For example, in Rome, there are many obelisks taken from Egypt as a reminder of the Roman victory over that culture, such as the Flaminio Obelisk in the Piazza del Popolo.

In turn, early Christians reused Roman buildings, partly as a sign of their cultural triumph over the Roman pagan religion when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, and partly for economic reasons. One famous example of reuse is the Roman Pantheon which the Christians transformed from a pagan temple into a Christian church, the Basilica of St. Mary and the Martyrs, leaving the building intact except for the removal of the pagan statues.

Later in the 15th and 16th centuries, during the Italian Renaissance, the practice of reusing buildings and spolia continued with the goal of reviving the greatness of Rome that existed in the classical world. One of the biggest adaptive reuse projects undertaken before the 20th century was the adaptation of the Roman baths of Diocletian. Pope Pius IV commissioned Michelangelo to renovate these baths into a church. Michelangelo mostly preserved the original structure of the Baths, while only adding a few walls on the interior to enclose the boundaries of the church. Michelangelo kept the front of the church in its original crumbling state instead of adding a new façade as a reference to the origin of the building. This gesture points to his desire to respect the history of the building and to only enhance it as was necessary for its new function.

Up until the 1960’s there were perhaps no adaptive reuse projects as large-scale and grand as Michelangelo’s, but at this time there began to be a move to see the potential benefit of adaptive reuse architecture. After the World Wars destroyed many cities in Europe, people saw a need to preserve their heritage, especially though their historic buildings. Initially starting as an independent group called International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) which then was adapted into the more international United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), groups joined to make architectural heritage a more global concern. The Venice Charter published in 1964 set out guidelines and principles for conservation of buildings and historical monuments. They agreed that buildings should be made use of for new useful functions as long as the buildings decoration or layout was not altered. This article paved the way for a new wave of adaptive reuse projects as a way to keep historic buildings functional.

In addition to the historical value of adaptive reuse, there is also a massive environmental benefit fueling the practice. Every year, approximately 1 billion square feet of buildings are demolished and replaced with new construction in the United States. The Brookings Institution projects that some 82 billion square feet of existing space will be demolished and replaced between 2005 and 2030 – roughly one-quarter of today’s existing building stock. Constructing a building requires an investment of time, money, and materials. Refitting an old building to a new purpose does not require as many materials as constructing a building from scratch. Even if the new building is more efficient than the older one it can take between 10-80 years of use for the new building to overcome the negative impact the construction had on the environment.

Today, adaptive reuse is common. For example, all across New England there are mills and factories from the industrial revolution that have been abandoned. There is now a movement to reuse these historic brick buildings for new purposes such as affordable housing, which is a great use because most of these factories are in cities that now need more housing. The old factory buildings are also being turned into office buildings, artists’ studios, or even shopping centers. Some famous examples of reuse are the new glass domed roof on Tammany Hall in NYC and the Tate Modern Museum in London –an art museum housed in a former power station. The power station had to be gutted of all its machinery and fitted with a steel framework of seven floors for the galleries. More locally, in Hartford, CT the former Fuller Brush Company factory on Main Street is being turned into an apartment complex, called Bristle & Main.

Canning has also taken part in the movement toward reusable architecture. One notable project that Canning has worked on is in the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, New York. They renovated the college dining hall, Farquharson Hall, which was originally built as a chapel in a Renaissance revival style in 1907. Over the past century the hall needed a renovation.

Canning worked to preserve and highlight the ecclesial history of the space that had been buried beneath paint from previous owners and to incorporate the new identity of the Culinary Institute. They worked to restore the flaking faux mosaic decoration on the ceiling and vaulting. They incorporated portraits of the institute’s founders and crest and new mosaics of food preparation in the same style as the existing eucharistic images. They also added a ceiling mural of the sky and clouds giving the illusion the building is open air. Additionally, all of the remaining areas were painted to look like stone. The hall is now used as a venue for events as well as the campus dining hall. The hall is now a unique incorporation of a new beautiful functional space while preserving the history of the space.

What is adaptive reuse and why is it important? (5)

Culinary Institute of America, Farquharson Hall

Canning also played a part in an adaptive reuse project through their restoration of the ceiling of the Neo-Renaissance style Rotunda entrance-way to the Steinway Hall in New York. The first floors of the building, built in 1925, used to be a showroom and performance hall for Steinway Pianos and are now designated as an interior landmark. The first floors of the building are now used as the base for the newly built residential skyscraper. Canning was able to conserve the grand ceiling painting featuring musical allegories featuring scenes of mythological Greek deities which had been covered over by layers of shellac. The paintings had become so dark with dirt and age the scene was barely visible. Canning also worked to repair water damage the building suffered causing the murals to flake. The rotunda now restored to its original splendor serves as a public space and the entryway to the residential building built above it. The Steinway Building features an important aspect of adaptive reuse in allowing for the simultaneous preservation of history, facilitated by Canning’s work, and construction of additions to the building to meet modern needs.

What is adaptive reuse and why is it important? (6)

Rotunda of the Steinway Hall

Adaptive reuse highlights the unique history of each area through the preservation of buildings. For Rome, the history of both the Empire and the influence of Christianity can be shown through the ancient buildings that were converted to churches. In New England, the brick factories all along the rivers are a testament to the industry that took place in past centuries which can now be reused as housing. Constructing new buildings from scratch can be costly and can obscure the history of the place. By contrast, adaptive reuse shows that to repurpose may be better than to build

What is adaptive reuse and why is it important? (2024)
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