An important topic of discussion throughout the modern architectural epoch was the question of the form following the function. The term coined by Louis Sullivan has been embraced or refuted over the years, with modernist architecture being the etiology of shape-embodied designs and having opened a new realm of technical stylistic possibilities. Is a building supposed to be designed in its shape to fit the one purpose it was commanded for? Or should it be inherently more polyvalent and can then adapt to many other programmatic futures? But what determines the so-called polyvalence?
Today we witness recurring instances of building transformations - where one program is morphed into an existing structure. Sometimes, only the facade or a remnant will be kept to convey some sort of emotion, a semblance of rooting or a sense of monumentality. What it shows really is the incredible possibilities of transformations despite the architect’s initial intent; and that because of their adaptability and resourcefulness, the people, users or inhabitants are the ones that solidify the building’s reality and future. Hence, it seems that any form could follow any function? So how does this influence the design process, with reversibility and future polyvalence in mind?
The process in itself inherently implies some assumptions and firm choices based on current ongoing realities. But the slower pace of the construction timeline is in a constant catch-up race with shifting ideas and paradigms. Does this mean that the design can follow only one function to its full extent and we should then rely on future users to modify their practices? Or should we opt for an impartial design that supposedly fits any program?
Materials, maintenance, climate exposure, and mostly socio-economical location influence a building’s longevity. These factors generate attractiveness, or lack thereof, and thus make the construction admissible for use or reconversion, as shown by the interchangeability between offices and housing in Haussmannian buildings in Paris. The spatiotemporal context is the first determinant of an estate’s lifespan. But it does fluctuate over time, for instance, in the case of Detroit, being greatly swayed by the eco-political trends. After culminating with the Ford industries, it reached a low point, with the city drained of its population and many buildings left vacant and neglected. However, in recent years, some inhabitants started turning the vacant structures into urban farms, hoping to overturn the economic and ecological situation. Even though the building sector is, to this day, industrial, meant to generate more revenue and follows a trend of demolishing and brand new constructions, many emerging practices revolve around the reemployment of elements or buildings and advocate for a palimpsest approach. The ongoing war in Ukraine has amplified these practices. Global inflation has also impacted the rates of primary resources and materials, making it more expensive to erect brand-new structures.
Despite the primal grasp that socio-economical value has over a construction’s durability, people’s ingenuity, resourcefulness and creativity are powerful tools. When faced with constraints, they peak, fuelling our thinking processes and shifting our frameworks. We can then differentiate the symbolisms embodied in a building from its physical structure to modify the practice completely. Transformation implies changes that do depend on the extent of the gap between the former and the upcoming programs: this is how we now see churches turned into event centres or clubs, factories turned into houses (Riccardo Boffil’s La Factoria) or museums (Tate Modern), housing becoming offices, train tracks as art fairs or promenades, and so forth… It follows the precedent set up in our past practices when the transformation was common, especially if confronted with a state of urgency, we have been able to completely overturn our practices and vision of a space or place to orient it to a whole new use: in the past, the roman arena of Arles was turned into a fortified city.
Does reversibility span on a spectrum/graph, and is influenced by the design, from which the impact on reversibility is influenced and regulated by socio-economic attractiveness? We see many options on how to design for longevity. Is it through a very symbolic shape with goals to impact the surroundings? Is it for it to be demountable? It is hard to determine what could be in several decades, especially with the rapid pace of social and technological evolutions. As previously mentioned, longevity and reversibility are essential questions that have resurfaced at the forefront of the stage of the architecture and construction sphere as we face growing challenges regarding urban sprawls, density and resource management. Many offices and architects focus their work on such topics: RAAAF unfolded the issues of vacant housing with Vacant NL, and Alejandro Aravena used the waste from the previous exhibition for the display at the 2016 Venice Biennale.
With these topics arise other questions revolving around the sense of collective memory, restoration, transformation, and heritage management. It is a vast topic that won’t be expanded on here, but one interesting observation is how today we tend to reveal the many stratifications in one building, let the different ages clash. One important new factor that will challenge this sector is the possibility of numerical restoration. With this technology, we can simultaneously transform an existing building and its use, while restoring its former state and practices digitally. It can also be applied for ruins or demolished monuments and can then be displayed at exhibitions.
''Sometimes, the buildings are, however, still vacant.''
And they might be, or not, in a dense or populated landscape. They deteriorate. Even then, however, they can showcase a form of passive longevity. Their lives play out as backdrops for artistic productions, our eyes and our individual and collective memories. They embody and convey monumentality in their physical presence and stand as remnants or witnesses of other times, for instance, the many brutalist concrete constructions that are dispersed in the eastern European landscape. That is one of the lines of approach of RAAAF offices in Amsterdam, as they focus on showing and claiming the reversibility of spaces: the Deltawerk: the construction no longer in use, is now a monumental sculpture and acts as a remnant of the Dutch past in the landscape. When designing or envisioning a construction, some might seek a perpetual impact, both physical and intangible, while some might design and use the resources with the intent of having the construction erode and disappear, for example, the Marte Marte offices’ rammed earth alpine constructions are designed to be.
If consumed by the landfill, different scenarios apply. Nature takes over, and it regenerates in a new ecosystem, where fauna, flora and materials adapt in a new form of symbiosis — depending on the nature and materials of the building.
Or, now, one sees in the actual form the by-product. It is then demolished, some parts reimplemented, and the rest will be wasted. Increasing durable approaches will recycle and use those elements. It then lives on in separate forms and places, not as a building but as elements and materials, in a final form of regeneration.
A building’s longevity then seems to be a matter of perspective and parameters detached from the design process. A construction’s impact and durability are not just about the durability of its materials and physical structure but also about its symbolism, monumentality and the dynamic of its users. To prevent material waste or extensive consumption, many practices advocate for the interweaving and layering of usages, times, materials and techniques: for a non-linear life cycle for a building.