Adaptive Architecture: Redesigning the Tabular Rasa

The resource-intensive cycle of demolition and construction seems endless, but architect Hugo Chan argues that through adaptive reuse we can imagine a more sustainable approach.

The Sammy Ofer Centre, London Business School designed by Sheppard Robson. Photograph by Hugo Chan, March 2018.

The post-war decades of architecture and urban development were shaped by one core ideology in Modernism – tabular rasa – out with the old and in with the new. Sleek, white and minimalist replaced rough, dark and complicated. Today, this mentality has trapped architecture within endless cycles of demolition and construction, under the false pretence that newer is by default better and as a result, the United Nations Environment and International Energy Agency attributes 39% of global carbon emissions to the construction industry.1 Faced with the imminent doom of climate calamity, there is a clear imperative to rethink how we should be approaching architecture and challenging this notion that each project necessarily begins with a clean slate.

Enter, stage left, the concept of adaptive reuse. In its broadest sense, adaptive reuse has been defined by architectural writer Douglas James as “any building work and intervention to change capacity, function or performance to adjust, reuse or upgrade a building to suit new conditions or requirements”.2 Although typically attributed to heritage conservation, adaptive reuse in architecture is an important approach which reinforces the principles of sustainable development and provides architects with the necessary paradigm shift needed to avert climate disaster. Elizabeth Leber of Beyer Blinder Belle points out that to demolish buildings “and start over again is a misuse of [embodied] energy” contained in all our buildings, providing the ecological basis for adaptive architecture.3

“The United Nations Environment and International Energy Agency attributes 39% of global carbon emissions to the construction industry.”

Adding to this discourse, Lee Bennett of Shepard Robson argues that “if one tries hard enough, most existing buildings…can be saved and adapted and are massively useful to the city. These buildings allow parts of the city to rest”.4 In taking this view, we can extend the idea of adaptability beyond ecologically sustainable credentials, adding a thread which gives the city its cultural diversity and maintains a historical continuity. Adaptive reuse, in this context, is therefore a fulcrum balancing the embedded cultural significance of buildings, against the imperatives of change and progress, enabling architects to transform the intent of an original designers’ vision into new spatial experiences as part of the inevitable, temporal evolution of our urban fabrics.

“Adaptive reuse is therefore a fulcrum balancing the embedded cultural significance of buildings, against the imperatives of change and progress, enabling architects to transform the intent of an original designers’ vision into new spatial experiences.”

Adaptive architecture encourages designers to think holistically about a project’s sustainable outcomes in terms of the triple bottom line approach – that projects are constantly juggling between the socio-cultural, environmental and economic factors along the path to success. The Sammy Ofer Centre of the London Business School (LBS) stands as an exemplary testament to the re-imagining of historic structures as they pass from one function to the next. Retaining the original council chambers and library, architectural practice Sheppard Robson connected these two buildings with a carefully considered steelwork lattice, bridging between the structural misalignment of existing constructions on two sides and creating a new entry atrium for the school. Existing shoring and piling deemed structurally sound were retained with a new series of lecture theatres inserted over and replacing previous 1960s infill additions.

New flexibility, with retractable walls and independent acoustic systems gives the main halls a dual purpose for the smaller council meeting as well as larger lecturing demands required by the LBS. By rigorously investigating existing structures, the apparent constraints of old heritage buildings are innovatively transformed into new opportunities for learning, paired with additional structures responding meaningfully and improving the flexibility of the site as a whole.

The Sammy Ofer Centre, London Business School by Sheppard Robson, photograph by Hugo Chan.

Adaptive thinking is not however, confined to transformation of historic structures and is equally important in considering how the leftover spaces can be put into better use for the public. The old Harkness Atrium in New York, once a disused and unloved alleyway which was scarcely more than an afterthought of the adjoining apartment ventures has been transformed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien Architects into the David Rubenstein Atrium, a publicly open informal space serving as the gateway into the Lincoln Center Cultural Complex. Simple protrusions such as a canopy into the street invites people into the cavernous space, lit by a series of deep ‘occuli,’ creating the illusion of natural light from the ceiling. As an informal setting, this lane has been enlivened by its social programme of free dancing events, performances and writers’ talks, demonstrating that even the most residual of spaces can in fact be successfully adapted into exciting opportunities for public engagement when architects think critically and work holistically.

The David Rubenstein Atrium, Lincoln Centre in New York, designed by Tod Williams and Billie Tsien Architects. Photograph by Hugo Chan, April 2018.

Flourishing in a climate resilient future hinges not only upon an ecologically sustainable paradigm, but also one which sustains our society and culture. Adaptive reuse in architecture as a cathedral thinking mindset clearly extends the notion of sustainability beyond its traditional confines of ecology and considers the long-term sustainability of our urban environments as being a triad of socio-cultural, environmental and economic issues. Simultaneously, adaptive architecture asks us to consider how pre-existing elements can be reconfigured to suit future needs and to challenge the widely held misconception that replacing old with new is always necessary. Our collective paradigm shift towards adaptive architectural thinking will enable us to reframe buildings not as isolated objects, but as living breathing systems, flexible structures which work with change, rather than against it, to forge a culturally and ecologically sustainable legacy for our shared future.

1. The International Energy Agency, ‘Global Status Report for Building and Construction 2019’.
2. Douglas James, Building Adaptation (London: Spon Press, 2006), 1.
3. Interview with the author, April 2018, New York City, USA.
4. Interview with the author, March 2018, London, United Kingdom.

Hugo Chan is a student in the Graduate Diploma of Environmental Law program at the University of Sydney and a sessional academic at with the School of Design, Architecture and Planning. Hugo is also Director & Architect (ARB 10803) of his own research-driven design practice, Studio HC. Hugo’s research interests lie in unpackaging adaptive reuse in architecture as fundamental to the cultural and ecological sustainment of urban contexts. This work is the outcome of his 2018/19 Byera Hadley Travelling Scholarship which resulted in a research report, Alternative Realities: Approaches to Adaptive Reuse in Architecture and a public lecture delivered as part of the 2018 Centenary Symposium on Cathedral Thinking here. The research project remains ongoing as a developing YouTube channel via the Alternative Realities Explainer Series.