Over Christmas the architectural world was rocked by the plans to demolish Louis Kahn’s dormitories of the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad. How is it possible that even making plans to do this is discussible? I am a big fan of Kahn’s work, therefore it hit me as hard as many other lovers of his work. At the same time – to those outside the architectural world these buildings have a different meaning. They are not the gems of one of the profession’s greatest. They are places with a function and maybe places one associates some memories with. Of course the quality of the architecture, the play of light and shadow, the play of volume and void and how they interact all have an impact on those, but without knowledge of architectural and urban history, they might be just as many other buildings. Fortunately, Kahn’s work seems to be safe now – but many others are not.
Mahendra Raj’s work – beautiful pieces of structural engineering – have been destroyed in many places across the Indian sub-continent. I do not want to bash Indian preservation policy. I want to make a plea for a different approach to preservation.
Often the discussion oscillates between preservation in the form of conservation and replacement. Supporters of the former want to musealize buildings and abolish any change while followers of the latter argue that time moved on and places need to change, get a new impulse or get rid of the mistakes of the past. If we look back in history, the concept of preservation barely existed. Cities and buildings kept changing. Rome today is full of repurposed structures of the ceased Roman Empire. Medieval churches saw extensions and partial replacements and many of the old buildings we collectively seem to cherish cannot be attributed to a singular period in time. But today, we seem to have entered into an all or nothing debate where old is good, brand new is good and all in between – often classical modernist, brutalist or post-modern buildings – is disposable. The problem with that is – once it is gone it can only be reconstructed and once it is gone, the possibility to change it also has vanished.
But there is another dimension to it: the environmental cost of building. Construction after transport is the most CO2 emitting activity we have. 39% of the CO2 by human related activity is due to construction 1. To compare: flying is responsible for 2%. Buildings not only emit CO2, they also kill natural life, they create heat islands, and they affect water circulation. Destroying a building – especially when replacing it with another means further increasing those effects.
I believe we need to change our attitude towards what to do with building structures we deem outdated. There simply is no building and not a piece of infrastructure that could not be used differently. Often, we declare building not reusable and renovating or changing them too expensive – to demolish them and replace them with a new one. But that is only the case because the models of calculation we use are only based on short term financial considerations and not also on long term societal, environmental and cultural considerations. And often we also just do not work it hard enough to find appropriate other uses that could be housed in a structure deemed obsolete.
Just imagine we would abolish buildings to be taken down. That would free up a lot of creative potential on what to do with them. We could explore new concepts, new typologies and new types of uses. We would keep the possibility to see history as a continuum in our cities. And we could deliver a significant contribution to keeping CO2 exhaust lower. The result would be amazing. Rather than copy-paste environments cities could turn into something more specific again since the buildings might be similar but the urban layout typically is different everywhere. Regeneration would unfold in the true sense of the word – generating something new based on something which is already there. The generic city would turn into a specific place again! Just imagine!
by Markus Appenzeller