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Out with the new, in with the old-new

Words:
Françoise Astorg Bollack

Architecture is about a great deal more than new build, with some of the greatest creativity to be found in sensitive adaptation and reuse of heritage buildings

Carlo Scarpa’s renovation of Castelvecchio 1957–75 embraces its multiple histories.
Carlo Scarpa’s renovation of Castelvecchio 1957–75 embraces its multiple histories. Credit: Peter Guthrie

Architectural history tells the story of the ‘new’. It showcases new buildings, chosen because they are seen as harbingers of things to come, important markers in a progression focused on the evolution of styles and construction techniques. However, it often ignores the value of buildings and urban environments that are created by architectural transformations of existing buildings and urban environments and that create a different, more complex ‘new’; one that adds, retains, recombines, represents, remodels and recontextualises the old buildings in a new way.

My new book, Old Buildings, New Ideas: A Selective Architectural History of Additions, Adaptations, Reuse and Design Invention demonstrates the creative possibilities of working with existing buildings

  • The amphitheatre in Nîmes in 2010. Medieval and later accretions have been removed to recover the amphitheatre’s original configuration.
    The amphitheatre in Nîmes in 2010. Medieval and later accretions have been removed to recover the amphitheatre’s original configuration. Credit: Isalinemarie 1989/ Wikimedia Commons (CC 3.0 Unported)
  • Registry map of the amphitheatre of Nîmes 1782 showing the space occupied by buildings, gardens and streets.
    Registry map of the amphitheatre of Nîmes 1782 showing the space occupied by buildings, gardens and streets. Credit: MIT Press
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Amphitheatre of Nîmes, France

Amphitheatres reflect the needs and culture of the moment. They are a compelling example of how old buildings can transform over time and take on new values, roles and uses. Create alike, they have evolved in different ways.

The amphitheatre in Nîmes was built in AD70 and could seat 20,000 spectators. By the 4th century Nîmes was shrinking, and the amphitheatre became part of the city’s defences; the arcades were closed to create a fortified building in which people could take refuge. By the end of the 12th century, with the return of stability, the amphitheatre was occupied with shops and houses.

In the first half of the 16th century, with the renewed interest in Roman antiquities which animated Renaissance culture, King François I wanted to restore the amphitheatre to its original appearance, but only the first-floor gallery was cleared of buildings. Later, in 1786, the remaining houses cluttering it were demolished. It was not until the middle of the 19th century that the full restoration of the building was completed by the architect Henri Revoil, and in 1853, the first bullfight took place there. Two bullfights a year now take place in the arena, helping restore it to something akin to its original function.

  • Colour, texture and hierarchy-versus-modularity all play a role in the design of Erik Gunnar Asplund's extension to Gothernburg Law Courts 1935-6.
    Colour, texture and hierarchy-versus-modularity all play a role in the design of Erik Gunnar Asplund's extension to Gothernburg Law Courts 1935-6. Credit: W. Bulach / Wikimedia Commons (CC 4.0 International)
  • Gothenburg Law Courts with Asplund’s addition to the right. The whole building is now Gothenburg’s city hall.
    Gothenburg Law Courts with Asplund’s addition to the right. The whole building is now Gothenburg’s city hall. Credit: Courtesy Arkitektur Forlag Asplund 1986
  • Floorplan of the old (left) and new (right) Gothenburg Law Courts buildings.
    Floorplan of the old (left) and new (right) Gothenburg Law Courts buildings. Credit: Göteborg Stadsbyggnad Stadsbyggnadkontoret
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Addition to the Law Courts in Gothenburg, Sweden
Erik Gunnar Asplund, 1935–36

This addition to the Law Courts in Gothenburg demonstrates that a modern addition to a historic building can be sympathetic without imitating its style. The design is a skilful compromise between additions that fully integrate with the original building and those that stand aside and play the role of silent partner.

The new wing is separated from the 1672 original by a blank recessed reveal that clearly delineates the edges of each facade. The two buildings are bound together by height, colour and a continuous floor level. However, the original building retains its primacy due to its monumental order, unchallenged by the new wing, whose wall treatment is rather flat and whose design is inflected towards the old building at the piano nobile by the windows and the introduction of decorative panels. Furthermore, the original building retains the Law Courts’ main entrance. Although some intermediate schemes contemplated placing a second entrance to the new expanded building in the new wing, in the end Asplund decided against it – an important decision which should be pondered by contemporary architects.

  • Aerial view of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden in 2008, showing the two pools of water and central group of trees.
    Aerial view of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden in 2008, showing the two pools of water and central group of trees. Credit: Françoise Astorg Bollack
  • Analytical sketch of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden, c.2018.
    Analytical sketch of the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden, c.2018. Credit: Françoise Astorg Bollack
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The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Sculpture Garden, Museum of Modern Art in New York, USA
Philip Johnson, with James Fanning, 1950–53

The power and beauty of the new MoMA sculpture garden depended on making a statement of difference. The space, designed by architect Philip Johnson and landscape architect James Fanning 1950-53, was gloriously modern and abstract. They created a new roofless room, with spaces that opened up and slid past each other. Two ‘canals’ in the garden were not in line with each other and a dark group of trees which anchored their meeting point set the surrounding spaces in a pinwheel movement around it. The openings in the 54th Street wall also allowed the space to move dynamically as the wall became a vertical element in a floating space instead of a boundary.

The contrast between the garden’s design and its context was entirely deliberate and utterly impactful. MoMA was surrounded by a motley collection of old buildings, redolent of historical forms and historical ornament. The sculptures, although modern, were figurative and embodied sensibilities quite unlike the abstract environment Johnson created for them.

However, now that the new buildings around the garden all look alike, and follow the same aesthetic and material tonality, and now that most of the art exhibited is hard-edged, geometric and abstract, the design can no more be appreciated – it is lost.

  • Castelvecchio's statue of the Can Grande on his horse displayed on a new pedestal under a new roof, next to the old Commune wall (left) creates a layered image of history.
    Castelvecchio's statue of the Can Grande on his horse displayed on a new pedestal under a new roof, next to the old Commune wall (left) creates a layered image of history. Credit: Peter Guthrie
  • View of the Napoleonic wing, with Gothic windows added in the 1920s by Carlo Avena and his architect, Ferdinando Forlati.
    View of the Napoleonic wing, with Gothic windows added in the 1920s by Carlo Avena and his architect, Ferdinando Forlati. Credit: Wikimedia Commons (CC 4.0 International)
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Castelvecchio renovation in Verona, Italy
Carlo Scarpa, 1957–75

Carlo Scarpa’s acclaimed renovation of the Castelvecchio shows how architects can design with history and make multiple stories present by embracing fragments and incompletions.

Castelvecchio was constructed in 1354 by the lords of Verona. Napoleon’s troops added a grand staircase and an L-shaped barracks block in the early 19th century, and in 1923 it was converted into a museum by the city’s Director of Civic Museums Antonio Avena – elaborately remodelled to give the illusion of a historical palace.

Scarpa disliked imitative interventions to historic buildings and instead aimed to make visible the physical traces of Castelvecchio’s history. His method was one of selective excavation and creative demolition; removing parts of Avena’s fake decoration and exposing archaeological discoveries which alluded to how the castle had previously functioned. The project juxtaposed the precise, square, cuts of the new materials with the uneven edges of the old materials and even increased the drama of this encounter by visible separation between the ragged, uneven old and the precise, square new. Scarpa removed surfaces, overlaid new details, invaded the domain of the old with his new interventions and allowed, in turn, the old to invade the new.

  • Foster + Partners’ new staircase reclaims the space between two buildings at the Royal Academy of Arts. Burlington House (pictured) was designed by Samuel Ware in 1815.
    Foster + Partners’ new staircase reclaims the space between two buildings at the Royal Academy of Arts. Burlington House (pictured) was designed by Samuel Ware in 1815. Credit: Martin Charles / RIBA Collections
  • Cross section of the Royal Academy of Arts Painting Gallery, looking north east, showing the new circulation space leading to the two new galleries on the top floor of Burlington House.
    Cross section of the Royal Academy of Arts Painting Gallery, looking north east, showing the new circulation space leading to the two new galleries on the top floor of Burlington House. Credit: Foster + Partners
12

Royal Academy of Arts Painting Gallery in London, UK
Foster + Partners with Julian Harrap Architects, 1985–91

The Foster + Partners intervention at the Royal Academy of Arts thrives on difference and the clear contrast of aesthetics, materials and construction techniques. The project reclaims a narrow and forgotten space between two buildings designed and built at different times: the back wall of Burlington House, designed in a Palladian manner in 1815–20, and the Victorian back wall of a gallery built 1867–69.

An oval glass elevator and steel-and-glass staircase have been inserted into the space, providing access to the new Diploma Galleries at the top of Burlington House. The existing walls were constructed of masonry whose stability depends on mass and the piling up of masonry units; the new work is a light steel-and-glass structure depending on articulation, not weight, with each structural joint visible, and the transparency of glass standing in contrast to the opacity of the old masonry walls.

The intervention allows us to see the carefully restored buildings and to appreciate their qualities up close. They are no longer exterior walls but have become themselves museum exhibits and are on display.

Françoise Astorg Bollack is an architect, founder of Françoise Bollack Architects, architectural historian and an educator. Excerpted by Flo Armitage-Hookes.

Old Buildings, New Ideas: A Selective Architectural History of Additions, Adaptations, Reuse and Design Invention, by Francoise Astorg Bollack, is published by RIBA Publishing, 2023

Sign up to Françoise Astorg Bollack's Cover to Cover CPD talk on RIBA Academy here

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