As the wave of nostalgia for old buildings, fashions and furniture washes over the country, the preservation of older buildings becomes no longer solely the domain of an elite crew of historians -- it is a popular middle class movement. Pressure groups like Washington's Don't Tear It Down have done a great deal to preserve buildings that might otherwise have beome an easy pile of rubble under a wrecker's ball. "Adaptive Reuse" has become the catch phrase in the movement to save buildings once designed for uses no longer appropriate to today's needs.
Architect Arthur Cotton Moore, Washington's chief proponent of adaptive reuse, wants the public to look beyond the threat of the poised wrecker's ball to the host of largely commercial structures that dot this city and nation, only to face certain death in the days, weeks and years to come. It is the victims of an earlier (post-World War II) push to save old buildings that concern the architect of places like Canal Square, the Foundry and the Old Post Office. Moore has been taking a hard look at what he calls the "transmogrification" of older buildings and is working on a book on the subject. He talked with design writer Andy Leon Harney about how we abuse our buildings.
Q. You've photographed buildings all over the country that highlight your concern for this earlier attempt at saving old buildings. It's easy to understand today's sensitivity to historic preservation, but how would you define the motivations of those preservation attempts?
A. You've got to look at what happened to this country after the Second World War. We put all our efforts in terms of development into the suburbs. And the small businesses in the city had to attract customers -- to call attention to themselves in what we now view as a rather strident way, through design. I don't think anyone really looked at these improvements as anything but a stab at 'upgrading' their image. They didn't have enough money, for the most part, to really give any thought to what they were doing to the architectural integrity of the building. I've always said that poverty is the greatest preservationist and a little bit of prosperity is a dangerous thing.
Q. What makes you so sure that these buildings are slated for certain death?
A. You just have to look at them. Let's face it, the owners of these buildings are sending us a message. The building is not important -- it is simply an economic vessel. And although you see active businesses in many of the buildings I've selected, so little of the vessel is filled. For example, I would guess that about 20 percent of a building like Gino's [see photograph, p. 22] is being used. That kind of use just isn't going to work in the long run.
Q. If you were to tick off some of the visual clues that spell certain death for a building, what elements would you cite?
A. I think the whole question of context is the first and most important issue. It's one that conerns any architecture -- new or existing. How does the building relate to those around it in style, in scale? Invariably, in these architecturally abused buildings, not only is the architectural style of the building ignored in relationship to others in the block, but often the changes ignore the context of the building itself.
Q. What do you mean 'ignores the context of the building itself?
A. Look at the changes in these buildings -- they are almost always at the first-floor level -- ignoring the integrity of the structure as a whole. They may look all right to you if you're walking on the same side of the street, but look at the impression from across the street. Why, for example, would someone paste a phony colonial pediment on a clearly Victorian building? The context is all wrong. What we end up with is a variety of appliques from other periods, or cancerous growths that destroy the line and design of the original building or disguise the original building and deny its original architecture. The old Kann's building was a good example of that. Underneath that screened disguise was a collection of marvelous Victorian facades of a completely different scale and a completely different period from the so-called improvement.
Q. But does the architect of adaptive reuse then have to become a tool of the previous architect's hand?
A. No, I don't think so; I think the architect working on an existing building has to show respect for the period and the architectural intent of the structure. There's plenty of room for creativity within those limitations.
Q. What then is the solution for some of these older, charming buildings that dot our downtowns?
A. For many, I'm afraid there is no solution, simply because they cannot be made viable economically. These are some buildings, however, that could be packaged, or grouped around a central service core and housing or office space could be placed upstairs, within the existing building, and separate access provided. There's also my proposed solution [see page 23].
Q. What about the current wave of adaptive reuse -- will another architect some 30 years from now write a book showing cities all over the country with hulks of old warehouses designed with bare brick walls, globe lights and spider plants? Is the contemporary solution to saving older buildings destined to provide only a temporary stay of execution?
A. I don't know the answer to that, but my own gut feeling is that even if such a solution to these buildings isn't the ultimate solution, what we have is at least a good holding pattern, until a much wiser time.