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The urgent case for revisits

Introduction by Peter Buchanan to ongoing series in The Architectural Review

Most architects, surely, have wondered about the fate of certain buildings, published with fanfare when finished and now seemingly forgotten. Did that radical idea for providing freedom of use and flexibility, or for catalysing residents into cooperative communities, really work? Did that network of open spaces come to life as envisaged? Did those stuck on pediments and pilasters ensure popularity? Did those flimsy cladding panels last, corrode or succumb to vandalism? Did that spindly structure suffice for support and stability?

Having no answers to such questions deprives us of immensely useful feedback so we have learnt too little from how realised buildings, their generative concepts and technical innovations, have actually performed over time. Recognising this, the AR introduces a regular series of building revisits, starting with this issue.

A building revisit is a retrospective reappraisal of the structure. Two kinds are particularly germane: the reinterpretation of the original work; and the analysis of how it has actually performed over time. Both sorts, done well, help us learn and build on lessons from the past - the latter sort of revisit is particularly useful in relation to the numerous, more experimental buildings of the last half century or so

And if, as many assume, we are nearing a pivotal moment in history when many assumptions and ways of doing things must be rethought, then both sorts of revisit are urgently relevant in highlighting what to take forward into future approaches to designing and assessing architecture.

The first sort of revisit re-reads a well-known or canonical work, re-interpreting it, providing new insights into its generative concepts and composition - or speculating on the former, which may be unrecorded or never consciously articulated. When appropriate, some of these extend down to the level of construction and detail to illuminate the design and its intentions, and how these have been fulfilled at even this level.

Such revisits deepen and broaden our understanding of a design, and often too of the potentials of architecture generally, while assessing its relevance to its own and our own times. Thus an architectural work, or a way of thinking, is kept alive and contemporary, remade as a fertile resource for our time, one that enlightens us to and expands architecture’s potentials.

Such studies tend to be undertaken by academics and appear sporadically in journals or collected in books. They typically ignore the building in use, maybe discussing functional concepts but not their success or failure. The AR has and will continue to publish such essays as come its way. (They seldom arise from commissions but from eureka moments or pondering and lecturing about a design.) Such AR essays include now famous examples such as Colin Rowe’s ‘The Mathematics of an Ideal Villa: Palladio and Le Corbusier Compared’ (AR March 1947) and Richard Padovan’s ‘The Pavilion and the Court’ (AR December 1981).

The other sort of revisit is seemingly more prosaic, although more germane to the concerns of clients and users. Yet it is even more useful in expanding the knowledge base that guides practitioners and the development of architecture. Such research is rare in academe (seen as uncreative slog work, requiring thoroughness but no particular perceptiveness and critical acumen), a gross dereliction of an essential service to architecture that academe is arguably best placed to provide.

These revisits focus on the building in use and all aspects of its performance over time (from functioning and durability, to ease of cleaning and maintenance), from which an immense amount can be gleaned. It is the sort the AR is introducing as a regular series.

Although most architecture departs little from the conventions of its time, there has always been some innovation, in the forms and styles studied in history, to accommodate new functional programmes and to exploit new materials and techniques. The Victorian period, for instance, was immensely innovative in exploiting new materials and devising new building types for an industrialising era with new forms of transport. But the AR revisits will be confined to modern architecture, particularly those shaped by innovative social concepts.

Most modern and contemporary buildings also simply rework standard solutions. Yet, even if only as a minority strand within it, architecture since the beginning of the last century or so has been a hotbed of innovation and experimentation, as encouraged by Modernism’s utopian ideals and rhetoric.

These advocated shedding the shackles of historic convention and starting designs de novo, bringing new approaches to form and the organisation of socio-functional relationships, and adopting the latest materials and techniques as almost a moral imperative.

New building types (such as open-plan offices, shopping centres and airports) were developed and older ones reinvented (including the house and collective housing), in accordance with new concepts of serving or transforming society.

Attempts to generate, with varying degrees of success, some sense of conviviality and community have ranged from glass-roofed ‘streets’ lined with communal and commercial facilities linking the blocks of a large complex (corporate, educational or healthcare) or ‘streets in the sky’ in housing blocks as surrogates for the traditional residential streets.

New mechanical and electronic equipment now service buildings (escalators, air-conditioning and fluorescent lighting), and the proliferating equipment within them - with, say, under-floor cabling and devices removing the increased heat loads. New structural techniques and methods of analysing and calculating structures and internal environmental conditions have been developed, along with thousands of new materials (such as high-performance alloys and glasses, and a plethora of petrochemical derivatives), whose long-term corrosive and toxic effects are virtually unstudied. And new approaches to construction and its management have also influenced design.

Accelerating change necessitates flexibility, with approaches ranging from Mies van der Rohe’s gridded ‘universal space’ (usually in conjunction with suspended ceilings or raised floors containing the service runs), to Louis Kahn’s ‘served and servant’ spaces, and their combination in the tartan grids of served and servant zones developed by Arup Associates.

Other approaches range from the Metabolists placing equipment and services around the perimeter for easy repair or replacement, to Herman Hertzberger’s devices - which don’t dictate a single use but provoke creative interaction and the discovery of potential uses.

Further impetus for change came from Postmodernism’s critiques of Modernism, particularly of its obliviousness to context and culture, but also for its arid aloofness from the user. The concern with semiology might have waned quickly, but that with phenomenology continues, even if primarily in academe. Now the quest for sustainability and the impact of the computer on design, component manufacture and assembly processes are further drivers of innovation.

Sustainability, among many other things, emphasises the efficient use of all resources, not only energy, exploiting ambient conditions (sun and natural light, wind and natural ventilation, rain and groundwater, and so on), the elimination of high-embodied energy materials and those that are toxic to manufacture or when in place, and again the need to reintegrate an environment fragmented by modernity.

The computer (on which much sustainable design is dependent) facilitates the conception and construction of virtually any form, raising new questions about the appropriateness of forms. Such concerns are changing architecture, and also how we assess that of our own and earlier times.

These pressures for change have resulted in both incremental improvements and radically innovative, even highly experimental, designs that have accumulated into an immense resource to research. Yet there has been amazingly little systematic research into the successes and failures (and the reasons behind these) of innovative buildings, and even less of such kind of feedback has been published to become general architectural lore.

Instead, we are vaguely aware that buildings have failed or been demolished, but are uncertain as to exactly why, which may be a lack of management rather than a design failure. Architectural firms once responsible for landmark, experimental buildings have admitted, when asked how these are faring, that they do not know. And many such buildings, despite their great intrinsic interest, have simply been forgotten.

Even architects presenting themselves as studiously rational and technocratic, pursuing a semi-scientific approach, do not conduct post-occupancy and follow-up studies, nor monitor such things as energy consumption and environmental performance. Yet a useful way of thinking about innovative and experimental architecture, one consistent with the supposed spirit of Modernism, is as quasi-scientific hypotheses to be tested and proved in terms of the building’s performance. In dialectical terms, this is the antithesis stage from which a higher level of synthesis will derive as architecture progressively moves on.

Such steady improvement depends on even the most problematic aspects of the past being studied and learnt from rather than dismissed and ignored.

So what might form the basis of a typical revisit? Schemes will be selected that are illuminating to study, because success and failure, and the reasons for these, can be established. (Although failure is frequently more instructive than success, the concern is not with finding fault but to distil useful, positive guidance for designers.) Revisits will ideally include feedback from owners and users, and those who manage and maintain the building. Performance, not aesthetics, is the primary concern, with emphasis on the programmatic, with the design’s novel social concepts and arrangements, what these were intended to achieve and whether these have proved successful. Technical matters are also of interest and will be appraised, but are unlikely to be the sole criteria for selection as a revisit.

Modern architecture was shaped to realise the intentions of brief and programme, and promised functionality, to which flexibility (offering options in the moment as well as long-term adaptability) contributes. Efficiency, of which value for money is part, was similarly emphasised, hence the stress on assessing performance.

Has the scheme fulfilled its programmatic intentions and functioned well and, if germane, how flexible and easy to refit-out has it proved? Were users consulted about the design and does it dictate or offer choice in modes of use? Have the relationships of activities and spaces to each other proved apposite or not? What sort of social life has been engendered, or has the design inhibited that? How robust has the building proved (a dimension of functionality)? How gracefully has it weathered and in what condition is it now? Was it costly to light and heat, service, repair and clean, and how easy have these activities been? Has it proved good value for money? (Buildings that were initially cheap often aren’t so over time.) Has it provided adequate return on investment? And so on.

The questions listed so far all relate to more or less objective criteria of the sort privileged by what we see now as a rather reductive modernity. But times have changed and we now consider more subjective criteria, or at least those requiring somewhat more subjective judgment, to be equally important. How well liked is the building by users and passers-by? Does it alienate people or leave them indifferent? (Many modern office buildings, which were highly esteemed by architects and functioned very efficiently, were little liked by those who worked in the offices or merely passed them by.) Does the building encourage or discourage casual encounters and so the potential forming of friendships and community? (Many modern buildings inhibit this, although admittedly some enjoy the resulting anonymity, a trait now usually judged as pathological.) Has it been subject to vandalism and has the design helped to provoke that?

Postmodernism in architecture was in part a reaction against the perceived unpopularity of modern architecture and its urbanistic shortcomings, again expanding the criteria by which architecture is appraised. How sensitively does a building respond to context, extending or disrupting the existing urban fabric? How does it relate to neighbouring buildings and invite relationship with its users? Does it frame positively shaped, rather than merely residual, public space and articulate and animate it aptly? Do its functions, particularly those on the ground floor, further animate and bring alive these public spaces and the surroundings? Are they safe throughout the day? Is the scheme a viable urban exemplar to be emulated elsewhere?

Sustainability brings with it a whole slew of new criteria as design becomes concerned not only with the qualities and performance of the building itself but also the long-term and global impacts of constructing it - from extracting the materials and manufacturing the components through to the recycling of these or their return to earth.

There are too many new concerns and criteria to list here and much recent attention in the professional and general media make such an exercise rather redundant. Although most green buildings seem very recent to be contenders for revisits, the improvement of approaches to green design is so urgent that some will probably be the subject of revisits, particularly those addressing a broad range of relevant concerns in novel ways and whose technical performance has been monitored.

Constraints on time and research resources as well as space available in the AR mean that no revisit could possibly answer all these questions. Instead each revisit will concentrate on those points which are most apposite and illuminating. Besides expanding architectural knowledge, collectively the revisits should contribute to a stocktake of the triumphs and failures of the architecture of the recent past - a very necessary part of any reformulation of architecture as part of the sustainable culture of the future.

Although this series is impelled by recognition of how vitally urgent revisits are, the AR is all too aware of the limited resources for research of the magazine and its authors. Yet there must surely be many studies and student research projects that have and are being conducted, which offer vital information to guide or fill out a potential revisit, or are sufficient to be reworked for publication in this series.

The AR would be grateful if those who have conducted or know of any such comprehensive and rigorously conducted studies would get in touch.

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