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Monday, December 02, 2013

Book Review: Old Buildings, New Forms

Old Buildings, New Forms: New Directions in Architectural Transformations by Françoise Astorg Bollack
The Monacelli Press, 2013
Hardcover, 224 pages

I have always loved old buildings. They are the visible, three-dimensional record of our life on earth. They can be thrilling or modest architectural works; they can be interesting or banal. But they are always complex cultural objects, whose value lies in their very existence. -Françoise Astorg Bollack
Rather than looking at building types or buildings in a certain local, New York-based architect Françoise Bollack presents 28 projects that transform old buildings and contexts in various ways. She breaks down these techniques into five chapters: Insertions, Parasites, Wraps, Juxtapositions, and Weavings. Her book is predicated, as the quote above shows, on an appreciation of history and a desire to creatively change the relationship between it and our present. The book is full of some great examples of how old buildings are not static set pieces; they are canvases for the continuing evolution of places and the lives within them.

Many people will not be fans of the more jarring transformations within these pages, such as Steven Holl's replacement of the center wing at Pratt's Higgins Hall in Brooklyn or Will Alsop's black-and-white box on stilts in Toronto, but one of the most convincing aspects of the book can be found in the introduction to each chapter. There, Bollack presents historical precedents that lend credence to the handful of techniques she highlights, while also adding weight to the idea that transformations are necessary and welcoming.

One precedent, in the Parasites chapter, is the expansion of the 19th-century Boston Custom House, carried out by Peabody & Sterns in 1905. The large stone Greek Revival structure capped by a Roman dome would certainly be landmarked into stasis today, but Peabody & Sterns transformed the temple-like building into a base for a much larger campanile. Granted, visual character is maintained by classical elements in the tower, but I'd wager that it was greeted with a similar amount of shock as some contemporary additions.

I'm not advocating for matching new buildings to old ones (something Steven Semes argues), but rather that the contemporary juxtapositions between new and old should be seen relative to past epochs. When we look at the essence of changes like the Boston Custom House, they were more dramatic than we think all these decades and even centuries later. The same could probably be said about Higgins Hall, the Sharp Centre for Design, and other buildings collected by Bollack when we look back on them in the future.

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