Category Archives: activism

Reviving Newcastle

It can take a heroic effort to bring an ailing city district back to life but often all it takes to spark it off is one person or one small group. Marcus Westbury‘s efforts to revive Hunter Street, the ailing main street of the Australian industrial city of Newcastle (think rustbelt if you are not in Australia) have certainly been heroic. He is staging a “Renewing Newcastle” information night tomorrow night Wednesday 10th of September at 6:30pm. The venue is the Lock Up (next to the now derelict Post Office) at 90 Hunter Street Newcastle.

Vacant shopfronts in the Newcastle CBD should be opened up to community arts and not-for-profit groups, under control of a property trust that assists building owners with tax concessions.

The idea is simple enough, it’s worked before, but can it work here?

It was pretty amazing to watch the numbers rising on his facebook site when he sent out invitations so here’s hoping it will work. If you are anywhere near there make sure you attend.

Happy Fossil Fools Day!

It’s good to see an old meme meaningfully adaptively reused, but isn’t every day Fossil Fools Day? Well if you’re fool enough to think you’ll be saved from climate change by the Rapture or some other supernatural event like the US rejoining the planet any day soon then you could be in for a sad surprise, there ain’t nothing supernatural around here.

rapture longcat returns

All the signs have been there for a long time…

cat nativity
The Rev Anaglyph)

you should have investigated further. Now you’d better start being nice to cats and the rest of the planet’s creature or you’ll be meeting the Prince of Darkness….

Prince Of Darkness

With many thanks to the delightful Tetherd Cow

PS We’ve been having server and wordpress meltdowns over the last few days, apologies to everyone, we are slowly getting it under control we hope.

Fight climate change, not war

abu ghraib torture blogswarm

We are supporting the March 19 blogswarm marking the fifth anniversary of the start of the insane and unjust Iraq war.

From the beginning it was nothing more than an unjustified war of aggression by a group of countries, the US, UK and Australia, whose historical pretensions of moral superiority can now clearly be seen as false, disguises for greed and criminality. It has put the final nail in the coffin of the US economy and completely corrupted the already fragile US political system, probably beyond repair. Not only has it ruined countless lives, the money it has wasted would have gone a long way to solving the real crisis facing the world and that is climate change.

But it’s not worth arguing about anymore, it’s an appalling evil and most people want it to end. How many ways can it be said, the ship is sinking, the theatre is on fire, the ivory tower is collapsing and it is much, much later than you think. It’s time to kick out the criminals and charlatans that have taken control of politics and business and start dealing with the real problem, the looming climate disaster that makes every other problem an irrelevancy. The Europeans are now leading the way and it’s time for the rest of us to follow them.

Here are some links you should visit

March 19 blogswarm

no war no warming

5 years too many

winter soldier

And if you are in the US, get out on the streets today and join the protests!

We told you so

According to the great Gore Vidal, the sweetest words in the English language are “I told you so!” and here’s where we get to use them.

We’ve always argued that in most cases the best building is the building that is already there. In sustainability terms, at least, the reasons for adaptive reuse of existing buildings seem obvious. Even if the proposed new building is greener than green there will still be a considerable CO2 cost in the new materials, and since many modern building materials only have an expected life of around 25 years there is a considerable future CO2 expense as well. Long lasting but expensive traditional building techniques and materials rate better than cheap modern materials – in other words don’t let accountants design your building, it will cost the earth in the long run.

embodied energy graph

But we’ve never found figures to back our assertion. Well, now someone has proven it. In a report that has got a bit of coverage in the UK (here, here, and here) the Empty Homes Agency has done research to show that reusing existing buildings is greener than building new “green” buildings.

The report, compiled by the Empty Homes Agency with help from the Building and Social Housing Foundation, indicates that the embodied carbon – the carbon released as a direct result of building a new home – accounts for nearly three times as much as the building’s lifetime emissions.

The agency claims that building a new home emits more than four and a half times as much carbon dioxide per square metre as refurbishing an existing one. As much as 35 tonnes of carbon dioxide could be saved by bringing an existing home up to scratch – equivalent to driving a car from London to Sydney and back seven times. Over 50 years, this means that there is almost no difference in the average emissions of new and refurbished homes.

So there, we told you so! Here is the summary and this is the full report.

empty houses liverpool
Plimsoll Street, Liverpool, UK (Photo from
community brother’s Liverpool housing flickr set )

One of the implications is that in a world desperate for a few instant solutions, a moratorium on demolitions, the restoration of empty buildings and the restriction of new building to greenfield sites must suddenly look appealing. It would be interesting to speculate on the effect this would have on the dynamics of the future metropolis – cityofsound, Geoff Manaugh, where are you?

Now the other thing we have been saying is that there will be a world wide ban on coal mining in under ten years – you must remember we live in an area completely economically dependent on coal mining yet the local government strategic plan for the next twenty years does not even mention climate change despite our attempts to raise the issue. Since the European Union, (the world’s biggest economy) is now threatening the US and China with trade sanctions if they don’t get moving on greenhouse emissions, the coal mining ban is looking increasingly possible. Perhaps we should make a long bet on it.

Don’t be brutal to Robin Hood Gardens

solar pavilion

Some suggest that Alison and Peter Smithson were the first examples of starchitecture, as Norman Blogster calls the “more PR than architecture” careers of stylists like Hadid and Liebeskind. But when our reader Kristian Seier challenged us to find something bad to say about the Upper Lawn Pavilion (later known as the Solar Pavilion), their holiday house built in the early 1960s, we realised we’d simply forgotten that it existed.

solar pavilion

Which is inexcusable because not only is it one of the most admirable of the 20th century’s many glass box houses, it is also a rare example of adaptive reuse by great modernist architects whose attitude we admire even when we find their large projects unlovable.

Writing about the restoration of the Solar Pavilion, Jane Withers in The Observer tells us:

The Smithsons bought the property in 1958, part of a group of farm buildings including a stone cottage that had been served with a demolition order. Instead of razing the existing building, the new two-storey pavilion is superimposed on parts of the old structure. The old stone doesn’t just give texture to the new building – it also makes us look at the past with fresh eyes, as old parts are found in surprising places. A massive chimney wall – once the end wall of the cottage – now cuts through the upper and lower living spaces. The outdoor terrace was once inside the old house, so that a cottage window is now set in the garden wall to playful and slightly surreal effect.
The remains of the original cottage not only provide a framework to anchor the new wood and glass structure, they also root the new building in the local history. It is a wonderful illustration of the Smithsons’ ‘as found’ theory, where instead of the earlier modernist pursuit of gleaming newness, the architects reuse and reinvent the existing….
The startling aspect of Solar Pavilion is its utter basicness.
A few years earlier, in 1956, for the seminal pop art exhibition This is Tomorrow at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, the Smithsons contributed Patio and Pavilion, a shed made of second-hand wood and a corrugated plastic roof. They intended it to be read as a symbolic habitat embracing what they considered basic human needs – a piece of ground, a view of the sky, privacy, the presence of nature. Solar Pavilion embodies such thinking about the fundamentals that nourish not just man’s physical but also spiritual needs.

“Reuse and reinvent the existing’? Doesn’t that sound like the perfect description of what we are on about?

solar pavilion
Ioana Marinescu)

During the restoration in 2003 Sergison Bates had to add a kitchen and heating – apparently man’s physical needs did not extend to heating, stoves (they cooked on a fire outside) or beds (they slept on mattresses on the floor upstairs), a lifestyle Allison Smithson described as “camping in the landscape”.

solar pavilion
Ioana Marinescu)

She documented their trips to the house in her solipsistic book AS in DS (ie Alison Smithson in her Citroen DS). Wendy, who hates camping, is horrified by this while I find it incredibly admirable, it appeals to some deep spiritual need of mine. Or maybe I’m just a jaded dilettante and so were they, but I don’t think so. The point is that unlike the starchitects they were never about style, they were about solutions to problems of living.

And that led to their theory of “streets in the air”, based on their opposition to modernist planning that carved cities up into quarantined functional areas.

As younger members of CIAM (Congrès Internationaux d’Architecture Moderne) and, by 1956, as founding members of Team 10, they were at the heart of the debate on the future course of modern architecture, demonstrating a broad concern in the social environment and advocating for buildings that were specific to their location and purpose. Rather than the CIAM understanding that cities should be zoned into specific areas for living, working, leisure, and transport, the Smithsons argued in favor of mixed use within the same area. They conceived mid-rise housing as ‘streets in the air’ to encourage sentiments of belonging and neighborliness, rather than isolated slab-like towers. They believed these goals could be achieved at differing levels of human association: house, street, district and city. (Harvard University Library Smithson Archive)

Unfortunately, when they tried to put it into practice the result was Robin Hood Gardens.

robin hood gardens

Doomed from the start by a bad location, poor construction and dysfunctional welfare tenants, the streets in the air only facilitated criminal activity. The project turned into a high profile disaster and their careers crashed.

robin hood gardens

But looking back on it, the theory still seems sound.

And now Robin Hood Gardens is threatened with demolition. If it goes, their only remaining major projects will be Hunstanton School and the Economist Plaza.

Robin Hood Gardens looks shabby but so do Zaha Hadid’s buildings already,

robin hood gardens

that’s what happens to buildings if you don’t maintain them.

Since Erno Goldfinger’s equally dysfunctional Trellick Tower has now become a fairly desirable residence could a similar outcome be possible with Robin Hood Gardens? The current residents love it even if it is noisy, run down

robin hood gardens

and generally intimidating in its grimness. It’s a potentially divisive question even in this household on the other side of the world, Wendy says knock it down, I say no. And since I’m writing this and she’s not, I’ll commend BD’s on-line petition to you where you can sign up with your fellow luminaries to petition for its listing and preservation.

And just remember this quote, at CIAM’s 1953 Congress the Smithsons wrote:

“Belonging’ is a basic emotional need – its associations are of the simplest order. From ‘belonging’ – identity – comes the enriching sense of neighbourliness. The short narrow street of the slum succeeds where spacious redevelopment frequently fails.”


Maya Lin is an architect with an extraordinary ability to find the symbolic form that will reconcile all the conflicting elements of a public design brief. Most famously she did this in the Washington Vietnam memorial,

the wall vietnam memorial washington

that deep black scar in the earth that paralled the scar the war left in the American soul, its rising and descending wall graphing the US death toll. The Wall’s perfection was only underlined by the nearby Three Soldiers memorial and flag

three soldiers vietnam memorial
Jeff Kubina)

demanded by dissenters, its sentimental and anachronistic socialist realism unintentionally symbolising little more than the unresolved delusions and confusion of identity felt by many of the veterans of a futile war that should never have happened.

Maya Lin came to mind when we were writing about Herzog & de Meuron’s levitating Caixa Forum building because she also had built a levitating building, the adaptively reused cantilever barn

cantilever barn haley farm
yellow crayons)

that houses the Langston Hughes Library at Haley Farm.

langston hughes library haley farm

The barn contains a 5000-volume reference library on civil rights and children’s advocacy and a small book store.

Lin commented

“The idea was to maintain the integrity and character of the old barn yet introduce a new inner layer. The integration of old and new allowed me to leave exposed and untouched the main body of the building yet build the library within the existing structure.”

But elsewhere on the site is a much more extraordinary building by Lin. Hans Hollein made a splash, so to speak, early in his career

hans hollein aircraft carrier in landscape

with his image of an Aircraft Carrier City in Landscape. Maya Lin’s ship shape object in the landscape, while smaller, carries a greater symbolic burden than any aircraft carrier.

haley farm chapel

The Children’s Defense Fund, that owns Haley Farm and uses it as a training centre, is the type of organisation that puzzles and disturbs non-americans. Why is it necessary? Why doesn’t the government do it? And above all, why the insidious christian propaganda that permeates its publicity? It’s all as creepy as anything that ever came out of, say, Iran.

haley farm chapel

Perhaps most scary of all is the fact that it can build an indoctrination centre chapel of such potent symbolism.

Noah’s Ark is deep in the subconscious of all children brought up in even the most feeble christian tradition,

noahs ark bouncing castle
(Photo Timothy E Baldwin)

all those cute animals rescued by humans, and at this point in history, as we face the deluge brought on by our vanities, it has a peculiarly ambiguous and guilt laden resonance. The story of Noah’s Ark is probably the only part of christian mythology where there is any trace of human connection to the other life on this planet, the only hint that our actions have consequences for the other creatures we share it with.

haley farm= chapel
yellow crayons)

Can we hope that the symbolism of this building will somehow be adaptively reused to engender this sense of responsibility for all life in children that will in fifty years be facing a genuine apocalypse?

Panic NOW!

The subtext of this blog is sustainability and when we started two years ago it was still possible to maintain the illusion the planet could be saved and even fairly trivial actions like adaptive reuse could contribute to making things right. Of course we don’t believe that any more. There will be no fairy tale happy ending and we (ie us sentient beings of every species) have been doomed by humanity’s extraordinarily imaginative and energetic exercise of greed.

In case this sounds a bit extreme we would point to the response of the newly elected Australian Government (supposedly our climate change saviours) to this week’s preliminary report by its climate change advisor, right wing economist Ross Garnaut. He was meant to greenwash the coal industry and justify inaction but instead he announced that 90% emission cuts were necessary by 2050 (admittedly with lots of market religion provisos). Suddenly the Government was fleeing from him in terror, incapable of facing the endemic corporate corruption that blocks real climate change action.

And then we would point to this graph from gristmill where Joseph Romm talks about the nonsense of “consensus” on climate change.

arctic melt graph

As he pointedly observes, science deals in observable facts, not consensus. The graph illustrates the difference between the IPCC report’s consensus on melting arctic ice and the observable reality from satellites.

Romm says

I do believe in science. And I do believe in real-world observations. Perhaps the central question of our time is whether those who don’t will stop those who do from saving the planet.

And that is why Garnaut and the Australian Government and most other governments are wrong. By the time they all concede that we must do what must be done rather than what is comfortable or easily affordable it will all be too late. In fact it is becoming pretty obvious that it is too late already.

Abjects in the landscape

The problem of redundant nuclear power stations can’t easily be swept under the carpet, you need something bigger than that, like a small mountain perhaps? Magnox nuclear power station

If this dinosaur technology gets revived cleaning up after it will become a chronic problem so it’s interesting to consider a 1994 project to adaptively reuse the Trawsfynydd Magnox nuclear power station in Wales. Built in the late 1950s and designed, amazingly, by Sir Basil Spence of Coventry Cathedral fame, Trawsfynydd had the usual controversial history. It was claimed at the time that it would blend into the landscape and if you believed that then we have some Nigerian friends you may like to meet, they want to give you millions of dollars. Echoing Soane, Spence more realistically quipped “Will it make a beautiful ruin?” .

Landscape reuse aficionado David Barrie (with whom we feel a natural affinity) created the project to explore solutions to the Trawsfynydd decommissioning, a process predicted to take over 100 years.

Arup Partners proposal for Trawsfynydd

We liked the sweep-it-under-a-mountain solution,

site architects Trawsfynydd proposal

and the paint-watercolours-that-make-it-look-like-a-romantic-ruined-castle solution has a lot going for it as well. In fact they are all pretty interesting, even the Michelin-man-fat-suit solution.

Personally, we would propose a more brutal sort of Picturesque solution, use random explosive charges to collapse half of both buildings leaving giant shattered stumps, sprinkle them with something that softly fluoresces in the moonlight (this may be unnecessary) then add some ivy to finish it off. In other words, adaptive reuse as a monstrous landscape garden folly. Perhaps a few oversize Welsh gnomes by Ron Mueck would help.

Check it out on David Barrie’s blog, in fact read the whole blog, it’s worth the effort. (Note to David Barrie: the content is great, but the white on black theme…? IMHO)

Breathe easy

Appropedia is a wiki that has been slowly bubbling along collecting a range of material around appropriate technologies. At times it feels a bit hokey, a bit neo hippy, but that’s what the open source software movement was like ten years ago and look at it now. We predict a great future for it. As Victor Papanek fans from way back there is even something nostalgic about it at times.

plastic bottle asthma spacer

And their highlighted project right now is an adaptively reused 500cc PET plastic bottle used as a spacer for asthma medications. How appropriate!

The return of the dispossessed

(Photo Sean Hemmerle)

You will have noticed that we’ve been updating our links since new year. While trawling our bookmarks we noticed a thread of links about apocalypse that we discussed in our last post but also about attempts to adapt to catastrophes/war/dystopias, providing visions of a future that is all too possible.

Beirut seems to be the test bed of cataclysmic adaptation. The most interesting Beirut link, because of its clear personal tone, is the unbuilt architecture blog, the source of this image

which did the blog rounds recently.

After destruction through war or any other inhumane deployment of technology, capital and energy, we are left with sites, minds and societies unbuilt. Leveled to the ground. Making room for denial, doubt and a divided society. Understandable but unacceptable. This condition needs those who dare to envision perspectives beyond the ruins…

Bullet holes adaptively reused as art or lighting? or their public space project?

Unbuilt do their public space project in Beirut’s dysfunctional public spaces but the lack of public space is common throughout the developed world, a physical reflection of the atomised social pathology. First world cities increasingly consist of private spaces pretending to be public where you are welcome only if you have money to spend,

(Photo helixblue)

places like Boca Raton, Florida where the only genuinely public spaces are the roads.

ArtAfterCrisis, ” a weblog reporting on the role of art in crisis areas” also visits Beirut. Author Chis Keulemans describes his mission to document creative adaptation

I am interested in the ability of artists and intellectuals to reinvent society after the peace has been signed or the dictator has been toppled. How does their work reflect the horrors of the past? How do they reclaim public space in their cities? Do they contribute to or criticize the new collective identity of their society? How do they communicate with the world outside?

Talking about Hassan Choubassi’s map

of the (fictional) Beirut Metro he says

Riëtte, my girlfriend and photographer, spent hours with Choubassi visiting several of the most prominent stops on his fictional Metro Map: places that were crossroads on the demarcation line between the Christian East and the Muslim West parts of town during the civil war of 1975 to 1990.

How do these places look today, and what were the stories behind them?

Adaptive reuse is the only possible way to live in a war torn city.

In the book Traces of Life (2003), the result of a research [Tony Chakar] did with colleague Naji Assi and their students of architecture into the maze of a poor laborer’s neighborhood called Rouwaysset, he describes how densely populated slums like these create their own urban space. ‘The relationship of a building in Rouwaysset with the surrounding buildings and spaces is a relationshiop of mutual and continually renewed violence – a violence that both defines the shape of these buildings and spaces and is defined by them.’

What strikes me is the use of the word violence. Building places for people to live, eat and make babies in is not usually associated with violence. And he is not talking about the violence that may come with the razing down of whole neighborhoods to create spaces of power (like in Ceausescu’s Bucharest) or commerce (like the Jakarta shopping malls), he uses the word to describe the day-to-day push and shove of new additions to existing infrastructure, the perpetual festering of concrete, glass and iron that goes on so stubbornly in Beirut, that it makes it seductive – here more than in many other cities – to compare it to a living organism. Layer upon layer, it grows into a never-ending palimpsest of histories.

Finally, there is a section about Beirut in Worldview,

a web-based project of the Architectural League of New York that invites architects from around the world to present reports on what is new and interesting in architecture and urbanism in their cities, with a particular focus on cities and regions that are not adequately reported on by the mainstream architectural press.

Elie Haddad edits the section on Beirut and he comments

Some historians have attributed the destruction of the city to a latent hatred for what Beirut had come to represent for many of those living on its margins, i.e. an exclusive concentration of economic and political powers that reduced the rest of the population to a condition of subservience. In one post-war documentary, a militiaman candidly recounted the feeling of satisfaction that he and his comrades felt as they entered one of the grand hotels, heretofore a symbol of those in power, and violently took their sweet revenge on the place and all that it symbolized.

Therein lies the warning that cities like Beirut pose, that the exploited and dispossessed will have their revenge. The most immediate and effective solution to global warming would be the immediate and complete destruction of western industrial consumerist society. The disastrous consequences of consumerist greed are now being visited unfairly on the vast majority of the planet’s population who never received any of its benefits. Who could blame them for the most violent retaliation, especially as the destruction of our industrial economies would put an immediate end to the source of all emissions?

(Photo Abdallah Kahil)

Anyone who believes that would be impossible has not learned the lessons of Vietnam, Afghanistan and now Iraq, that a low tech society can always ultimately defeat a high tech military. And a low tech society will be best adapted to survive the next few centuries of chaos.