Category Archives: heritage

The Grinning Smithsons

As their greatest and most heroic project is about to bite the dust after decades of slow demolition by neglect, Alison and Peter Smithson’s remaining body of work increasingly looks like the Cheshire cat’s grin – exactly at the point when they seem to be vanishing they are also achieving a prominence they haven’t enjoyed in decades.

Irony just isn’t a strong enough word to describe the situation where two highly influential architects who devoted most of their lives to developing models for social housing will end up being represented by a school, a number of delightful but unrepresentative middle class houses, an office building and finally a shed.

But it’s a great shed, and it’s for sale. The whole project is near to, and reminiscent of, their own weekender, the refreshingly ascetic Upper Lawn Pavilion. It’s hard to imagine a more exciting prospect for adaptive reuse – beautiful (in a rustic brutalist way), spectacular pedigree, fashionably tiny – it’s got it all.

It’s in the garden of the Levitt house, pretty spectacular in its own right. We found it through one of our favourite (architectural) porn sites, materialicious.

And meanwhile Owen Hatherley of sit down man you’re a bloody tragedy has taken a holiday to visit the Smithson’s Hunstanton Secondary Modern School, an enlightening but bleak experience by all accounts.

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.

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.

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?

Architecture jocks

Respect for layering is a basic heritage principle.

Heritage places are the result of a layering of history, of use and change, and it is the values related to this layering which is important.
(Pearson & Marshall, 1995, Study of World Heritage Values Convict Places)

The principle is so fundamental that it is now a given that contemporary additions should be in a contemporary style, albeit sympathetic to the existing fabric in scale and treatment, rather than attempt to mimic the style of the original building.

On the other hand we doubt if anyone foresaw that layering in a different sense would become a plague on heritage buildings. First we had that heritage disaster, facadism.

facadism in london

Adaptive reuse it ain’t. It’s a blight around the world and can only be seen as a sort of architectural passive-aggressive contempt for heritage, a way for mediocre architects (and governments and planners and above all developers) to spit in the face of a public that preferred the building that was there already. It is revealing that, for all its ubiquity, facadism seems to have had only one serious book written about it and perhaps that’s an indicator of a secret shame within the architectural profession …. at least we hope so.

But there is another closely related form of physical layering, piling one building on top of another like a cake. Proposals date back decades and have almost invariably caused controversy.

But you do see cases where the results are good enough to be defensible,

Hearst Tower New York by Norman Foster
Milton CJ)

like Norman Foster’s Hearst Tower in New York. But mostly piles, as we like to call them, just look ungainly at the smallest scale, and at the largest scale the historic building is often reduced to a hollow decorative podium,

Hearst Tower New Yok lobby(Photo glemak)

its integrity compromised if not completely destroyed.

And then one day you see a pile that can only be described as beautiful.

Caixa Forum Madrid Herzog de Meuron
(Photo greta_y_doraimon)

We posted another similar Herzog and de Meuron project in Hamburg but this is a smaller example of the same approach applied to the headquarters of a private benevolent trust, the Caixa Forum, in Madrid. It has more than the usual adaptive reuse virtues. Of course it reuses an existing building and it is appropriate in scale to its surroundings, but by removing the foundations they have given it the appearance of levitating, a conceit that lifts it well out of the ordinary.

The Caixa Forum has adaptively reused other buildings

Caixa Forum Casa Ramona Barcelona

– its Barcelona gallery is in a rebuilt 1911 Art Nouveau Factory – but the Madrid building,

Caixa Madrid Patrick Blanc plant wall
(Photo davidarredondogarrido)

with the addition of the Patrick Blanc Mur Végétal, raises interesting questions about the way cultural memes present themselves within different art forms. Removing the foundations of the original building

Caixa Forum Madrid entrance

effectively turns both the new and the original buildings into samples and the architects into architectural DJs (or should that be AJs) rubbing stylistic snippets up against each to create a delightful cacophony. It seems to have taken a century or so for the cubist collage aesthetic to reach architecture, and along the way it passed through Brion Gysin and William Burroughscut-up writing technique and the music of John Cage to hip hop and finally it’s ended up in architecture. Why has it taken so long? (Yes, we know there an infinite number of unintentional historical examples.)

People who live in glass houses shouldn’t live near fireworks factories

We’ve received some interesting suggestions from readers recently (send more, more, more)


and one of the most interesting was this house of adaptively reused windows in the alternative community Christiania in Copenhagen, sent by Kristian Seier who says

the glass house and its many neighbours are seriously under threat these years, but the wild, everyday poetry of this building has rarely, if ever, been achieved by any professional, Danish architect, and it should be listed rather than razed.

His commentary says it for us, a sad reflection on lost ideals and the critical importance of understanding layering if we are to understand history:

le corbusier famously claimed that all architecture could communicate was ideas. and the original ideas of christiania are well put by the best buildings out there: an open community of equals; a deep distrust, no, dismissal of authorities – including architects; a deep trust in the creative potential of ordinary people when left to govern their own lives. modesty. individualism. sustainability.

today, there is a strong political will to tear the houses down. they are illegal, follow no building code, have no permits. the old copenhagen defense line on which they are situated must be cleared to protect the city’s cultural heritage.

but these buildings are cultural heritage too. and while the 20th century has left us all with a distrust of utopian and idealist thinking, tearing them down will be acting in a dangerous denial of history.

Some commenters compared this building to the Hexenhaus of Alison and Peter Smithson,


their most only endearing construction but we feel that’s a purely formalist and superficial comparison. It reminds us more of the work of the Russian architect and artist Alexander Brodsky whose Paper Architecture satirised the “all plans and no buildings” path to architectural celebrity.

vodka pavilion

We hope one day to emulate his Vodka Ceremony Pavilion with a Beer Drinking Pavilion in our garden (although since last Saturday night we have been considering an Exploding Fireworks Factory Viewing Pavilion complete with artfully broken windows reminiscent of those now found on one side of our house).

Floating in a tin can

(Photo fitaloon)
You’ve made your gazillions and now you need somewhere to get away from it all, a place that’s safe and secure, secluded but not too far from civilisation? You like messing around in boats? Of course you own your own helicopter? Then have we got the place for a swashbuckler like you!

As The Independent says

This is no ordinary island. It is a floating fortress, built in the 1860s to defend Portsmouth from the French during the Napoleonic wars. And it’s for sale.

Their grasp of history might be a bit wonky but they know good real estate when they see it. It’s No Man’s Land Fort and it looks like a giant floating tin can because it is. It’s an adaptively reused floating sea fort off Portsmouth harbour in the UK. Built in 1867 and decommissioned about a century later it’s now converted into a 21 bedroom (with en-suites) residence. A snap at 4 million pounds although we suspect maintenance could be a bit pricey.

Spiralling out of control

A quick addendum to our last post. You can be sure that archaeological sites all over Iraq are in danger. The Art Newspaper has just reported this, a police barracks being built on a site next to Samarra’s famous spiral minaret.

Alastair Northedge, Professeur d’Art et d’Archeologie Islamiques, Universite de Paris I (Pantheon-Sorbonne) comments

From the angle of the photo, it is possible to calculate that the complex is being built at E 396388 N 3785995 (UTM Zone 38 North) or Lat. 34.209760° Long. 43.875325°, to the west of the Malwiya (Spiral Minaret), and behind the Spiral Cafe. While the point itself may not have more than Abbasid houses under the ground, it is adjacent to the palace of Sur Isa, the remains of which can be seen in the photo. While the initial construction might or might not touch the palace, accompanying activities will certainly spread over it.

Sur Isa can be identified with the palace of al-Burj, built by the Abbasid Caliph al-Mutawakkil, probably in 852-3 (Northedge, Historical Topography of Samarra, pp 125-127, 240). The palace is said to have cost 33 million dirhams, and was luxurious. Details are given by al-Shabushti, Kitab al-Diyarat.

Samarra was declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO at the end of June. The barracks could easily have been built elsewhere, off the archaeological site.

The report was based on info from the blog of Jeff Emmanuel, a reporter with US Special Forces. Since it’s Halloween here’s something really deathly freaky and scary – his opinions.

Memento mori

You can always rely on the military to make a right mess of a place. Sometimes it’s incidental, sometimes it’s intentional and often its downright consciously genocidal. The US military in Iraq have probably been responsible for all three categories of mayhem.

Unfortunately, their appalling adaptive reuse of the archaeological site of Babylon

(Photo labanex)

as a military base pales in comparison to their destruction of the historic city of Fallujah which can only be described as a war crime.

(Photo labanex)

In fairness, it must be said that Sadam Hussein’s treatment of the Babylon site was little better,

(Photo labanex)

replacing original ruins with his mickey mouse “restoration” – dictators have a tendency to ignore the ICOMOS Burra Charter principle “do as much as necessary to care for the place and to make it usable, but otherwise change it as little as possible so that its cultural significance is retained”

But militaries also build on an enormous scale, and they always have throughout history. We tend to forget that the Great Wall of China was a military installation

Part of Pendennis Castle, Falmouth, UK. (Photo bluemoose)

as were most of Europe’s numerous castles. The Maginot Line, inexplicably restored by the French after WW2, is still partly in working condition – if that can be said of something that never worked. What could it be adaptively reused as? A very large wine cellar perhaps? As one of history’s most expensive and laughable failures it could be regarded as the prototype for the US attempts at developing a missile shield.

Yet strangely enough, in one of those contradictions that confound observers, the US military is among the world’s best practitioners of building deconstruction, the skill of careful demolition to ensure the maximum reuse of the buildings materials.

And of course entire military bases can be adaptively reused although usually they are simply removed and the land turned over to housing.

An extraordinary exception is the Chinati Foundation in the remote west Texas town of Marfa. Although there are times when it seems every declining community in the world fantasises about a destination museum led revival, the Chinati Foundation is undoubtedly one of the most unlikely success stories.

Cats love art. (Photo Mr Frosted)

Minimalist sculptor Don Judd purchased the redundant army camp, Fort D.A. Russell, in 1979 and began converting its buildings into a museum for minimal and installation art.

(Photo informedmindstravel)

(Photo trixie skips)

(Photo salut aimee)

Despite its remoteness and Judd’s death before the completion of the project, it has survived and prospered partly because of Judd’s sympathetic approach to the the long term display of works

(Photo Mr Frosted)

and an ascetic built and natural environment

(Photo informedmindstravel)

that provides little distraction to the careful contemplation of the art works.

(Photo jabzoog)

It would be hard to imagine a destination museum that contradicts the Bilbao model so completely. Architects must look at it and weep in the same way that artists weep with rage when confronted with the unsympathetic monstrosities that self indulgent superstar architects inflict on them.

On the other hand Marfa now has a Prada store nearby

(Photo jabzoog)

to ensure that the isolation doesn’t make art world black packers feel too cut off from conspicuous consumption.

But museum conversions can’t solve every problem. Some military installations remains so threatening that even after half a century of abandonment they cannot be digested by their surroundings.

(Photo dblackadder)

The Vienna flakturm (flak towers) are a case in point. Built by the Nazis during the Second World War as platforms for the flak guns defending Vienna from air attack, they have proved too strong to demolish. If the destruction of the most symbolic built culture is an essential military tool in the process of subjugation, so too is the building of new symbolic buildings. Hitler intended the flaksturm to be reused as war memorials after he had achieved world domination and in some sense that is how they remain, sullenly resisting most attempts at adaptive reuse.

(Photo scope II)

One has even been converted into an aquarium

(Photo timbrighton)

with a surrounding plaza,

(Photo pokpok313)

a climbing school on one wall and a Lawrence Weiner art installation on the top

(Photo watz)

and yet its essential brutalism remains.

(Photo jvhemert)

Others stand like grotesquely overscaled follies in parks where they can now only be regarded as memento mori, the Roman Et In Arcadia Ego writ very large.

(Photo weisserstier)