Long gone are the days when designers would anticipate a 100-year lifespan for their buildings. Fifty or 60 is the best you can hope for these days – much less if you’re working with a city-centre site.
Look at Nicholas Grimshaw’s Financial Times printing works. Much lauded and awarded on its completion in 1989, it is now suffering the indignity of being gutted and going cheap to anyone with a few quid to spare. That’s 10 years; just 10 years.
So, is it fashion that’s dictating these short lives? Is it simply that if you don’t have a wave-form roof or a glass-block staircase or a fabric canopy entrance, you must move out of your cosily functional building into a brand spanking new glazed box with all the fashionable architectural titbits of the day?
Why, for example, are international banks building signature-architect-designed multistorey demonstrations of their wealth next to Canary Wharf tower when there are perfectly acceptable office blocks standing empty 500 m away? I know this, because from my site hut on the Greenwich Peninsula I can watch the sun setting beautifully, right through the glazed facades of one such empty building, as yet completely unobstructed by office fit-out.
There is, of course, the “march of technology” argument. In the space of 10 years, IT demands have changed so dramatically that even 1980s buildings are no longer capable of housing the miles of spaghetti cabling required to make a modern business viable. But is this really the case? Surely there are alternatives to tearing buildings down or leaving them empty. Practical solutions for cable management do not have to depend on 1200 mm deep floor voids.
Yeah, sure, designing a refurbishment is harder work than new build, but surely this should be seen as a challenge
And what happens to these magnificent edifices in a few years when banks merge, decentralise or downsize and find that they no longer need their custom-made headquarters? “Office block going cheap, big spaces, nice view of the dome” might become all too common.
Then there’s the tragedy of Battersea Power Station. This magnificent monument to power engineering has been looking desolate and windswept for years, relieved only occasionally by the odd party, or pop video or advertisement being filmed in it. The Tate Bankside proves what can be done with innovative reuse of space. Is it beyond the imagination of the hip, liberal, arts-minded government to find a worthy use for this vast cavern?
You see, building reuse is perfectly possible. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a change of use on the scale of power station to art gallery; a number of office buildings have been successfully reclad and relaunched with new lives, as have some of the country’s uglier residential tower blocks. A little thought on the part of refurbishment designers, a little compromise on behalf of new owners, and there’s no reason why a whole host of forlorn structures shouldn’t be reborn in another guise.
Yeah, sure, designing a refurbishment is harder work than new build, with more potential problems and without the luxury of starting with a blank canvas, but surely this should be seen as a challenge rather than a drawback. In our increasingly eco-conscious era, we should be embracing the idea of recycling and exploring more ways to use old space, not insisting on new build every time. It’s not just the materials but the land, too, that needs to be considered. It should be reused, not left as a wasteland of broken rubble and fractured conduits.
Building a building has often been compared to raising a child – the uncertainty at the beginning as the infant is born, the heartache of puberty, and the final realisation of potential as the young adult is ready to be thrust into the world to do the job they were raised to do. Imagine, then, seeing your child die a mere 10 years later. A pointless death, when a little imaginative re-training would allow adaption to a new job, a new function.
Tanya Ross ia an associate of Buro Happold and its project manager on the millennium Dome.