Category Archives: blog

Charles Darwin was here

It’s the 150th anniversary of the first public exposition, to the Linnean Society, of Charles Darwin’s theory of the evolution of species by natural selection, or at least it was on July 1 and we are just running late as usual (we’ve been working on a couple of large projects that we’ll talk about later).

It’s an important anniversary for us because this blog is an investigation of a less biological version of the theory, an accumulation of examples of technological memes in the process of evolving.

But there is another more immediate reason for its importance, the unlikely fact that Darwin’s first thoughts on the subject occurred only a few hundred metres from where I’m writing this blog in Wallerawang, a small town west of Sydney.

charles darwin in wallerawang

It’s one of those hard-to-believe facts, that something so earth shattering could have originated in what is now an ugly and ruinous industrial gothick landscape, a completely insignificant place to most people although it delights us because of its almost post-apocalyptic weirdness.

Darwin visited Australia in 1836 during the voyage of the Beagle. His only inland trip was to Bathurst, 50 kilometres west of here. On the way he stopped here for several days to make observations of the local fauna, particularly the platypus, our local icon that can still be found living its secretive life in nearby creeks. How could there be a better symbol for adaptive reuse than the platypus,

we are platypus
Snorgtees We are platypus t-shirt

the animal made from leftover parts, we love em.

Anyway it was here on the 19th January 1836 that he wrote in his diary about his observations of ant-lions:

…I had been lying on a sunny bank & was reflecting on the strange character of the animals of this country compared to the rest of the World. An unbeliever in everything beyond his own reason might exclaim, “Surely two distinct Creators must have been at work; their object is the same & certainly the end in each case is complete”.

This comment is considered the first indication of the line of thought that soon led to the theory of evolution.

darwin first tree of life diagram
Darwin’s first tree of life diagram from his 1837 notebook

Of course ironies abound. The site of the sheep station where he stayed is now submerged beneath the waters of a dam that supplies a nearby coal fired power station – so we are now manufacturing the end of species here – and the lake is delightfully named Lake Wallace, although not after Darwin’s great rival, the fascinating and under-rated socialist Alfred Russell Wallace.

lake wallace wallerawang

And we have convinced the local council to rename the shabby adjacent park and erect a monument to the event (although the local National Trust branch had to pay for the plaque which was promptly stolen by the local scrap metal thieves and is currently awaiting a replacement).

charles darwin park wallerawang

So one thing only has not changed, the character of the animals, particularly the humans, remains strange to this day.

Our gallery is open for business

We’ve just posted the first two projects on our new feature Gallery page. We’ll be posting photos and links there of some of the many admirable loft/barn/factory/warehouse/etc conversions that we find but can’t write about at length.

The first two are

  • a garage converted into a tiny house in Portland Oregon
  • an 1879 apartment adaptively reused as an architect’s studio in Barcelona.

There will be more every week. If you have a favourite project that you think should be featured, send us links and info using this form.

Well I’ll be a seagull!

Thanks to our reader Jeroen Harkes we now know that the “Redneck Mansion” is actually a set for the outdoor Theater het Amsterdam Bos. It seems so obvious in retrospect. It was designed by Catherina Scholten for the 2005 production of Anton Chekhov‘s Ivanov, his early play about a disillusioned young intellectual – surprise surprise – not unlike Chekhov himself – surprise surprise – who ultimately commits suicide – surprise surprise. But a great set and yet another example, if any was needed, of the creativity of Dutch design in recent times. And as Jeroen Harkes points out you can hardly say that something three years old is racing through the net. What was really racing was the use of the image as a pretext for vilifying the poor and the joke is now on everyone who was sneering when they saw it tagged as a “redneck mansion” (said with our most po faced look of disapproval, we are just sick of hearing about wealth as a measure of anything other than greed or good luck).

ope air theatre amsterdam ivanov by chekhov

There are more images of it on flickr now we know what we are looking for and we even found the source of the original, it’s by Elmer Kroese.

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)

Renovation madness

As you may have noticed, we’ve been doing a bit of renovation.

home renovation mess

We may have been slow with the posts last year due to unavoidable circumstances but we were thinking hard. Let’s be blunt about it, this blog started off as an amusing diversion, turned a bit obsessive then got partly derailed by physical frailty. Nonetheless its readership has continued to creep up way beyond anything we had expected so we were faced with a dilemma, just keep spluttering along or get a bit more serious about it.

Getting serious partly means “monetising” as they say in the trade. “Monetising” is of course a bit of a joke, our optimistic hope is that we’ll make enough to buy each of us at least one cafe latte per month, but putting in the Amazon bookshop allows us to select a range of interesting and relevant books. We spend a lot of our time dredging through Amazon and other book stores so it was a logical move. The real joke is that Amazon, in its technical brilliance, is unable to pay anyone outside the US in anything other than credits – no EFTs for them – so if we make any money we”ll have to spend it on books. Talk about working for the company store!

More importantly, getting serious means expanding our scope a bit and turning this blog into a real adaptive reuse resource as well as a site for our self indulgent commentary. Of course we’ll continue with the current thread of commentary but we’d like to start another thread showcasing the more conventional but often exemplary conversions and renovations that we have tended to ignore simply because there are so many of them. Since every architecture firm on the planet now claims to be expert in adaptive reuse we have no doubt that you are all champing at the bit to send us info on your latest project. If we can slowly build up a gallery of projects we hope that we can create a resource base that will help advance adaptive reuse as a universal strategy. You can email us at and soon we will have a special send-us-your-ideas contact form when we manage to fix up the nightmare that is emails and PHP and WordPress. (Yes our beautiful contact us form doesn’t work, your message will go nowhere until further notice, cforms is the greatest WordPress plugin ever but the whole thing still doesn’t play.)   You can now contact us via our special send-us-your-ideas form or our contact-us form on the menu above.

We’ve also moved links so we have room to do more with them, and we’ve done a bit of redecorating, increased the type size for tired, computer wrecked eyes (have you noticed that “serious” blogs use smaller type, it’s like the snobbery about tabloid and broadsheet newspapers) and as a result we now have a cleaner simpler page, despite the added advertising. For those who are into that sort of thing we’re using a Sandbox theme called Essay (thanks Ian Stewart, great design) but we’ve hacked it about so much we’ve destroyed its essential integrity which was its 28px grid. If you want to see it in a purer form have a look at one of our other blogs where we have used it with only slight modifications.

We’ll introduce a few more changes in coming months. Meanwhile, we’d love to hear your comments, suggestions and ideas.