How long a house, a terrace or an apartment block will last, nobody really knows. Weather, fire, population movements and societal changes can all lead to the redundancy of the built fabric whether individual buildings, neighbourhoods or even areas of the city or town. Two attitudes prevail in these circumstances; demolition and clear out, or reuse and renewal. Each in their own way represents extremes of position. One supports the idea that form is bespoke to a function ie that form is moulded around the internal activities like a glove, the other that function can adapt to form by responding to its idiosyncrasies.
Pre-19th century there was little need to differentiate the potential subtle relationships between function and form. Probably, as cities began to emerge, with the consequential explosion of infrastructural issues, more analytical techniques evolved. One early, dramatic analysis of functional fit to building volume emerged in the 19th century as a result of Charles Booth's mapping and colour coding of London streets according to class, a record which charted the story of social change in laissez faire, inner City London. Inevitably exercises like this became the analytical backbone of later 20th century social planning, as if we could map and model such change then perhaps we could predict it. The result is obvious to us all, social engineered communities largely housed in indifferent containers. Separating form and function simply resulted in what we know now to be poorer quality environments, lacking in character.
Identifying the tipping point is not a precise art, was it the demolition of the Euston Arch that raised the emotional temperature, or the technical warning provoked by the Ronan Point disaster? Charles Jencks would have said it was the demolition of Pruitt Igoe housing block, whilst Aldo Rossi would have argued that the belief in functionality was spurious as functionality changes over time and building easily adapt to new use, and Rowe & Koetter simply said the city was richer for its interweave of forms and use.
It was into that complex mix that a new generation emerged alongside ourselves with strengths in conservation and masterplanning, managing that complex weave of use and character, reflecting the change in mood of society. The city was re-imagined as a contemporary work of art in its own right, a mine of opportunity to be exploited, revealed, celebrating the ad-hoc, transforming and juxtaposing. Where once achievement was counted in numbers of flats and repeated blocks, we now revelled in the idea of lofts and curious juxtapositions.
What is most interesting is the way that we re-use what has been retained. By stripping away the insides we open up space, connecting inside to inside and inside to outside. It is a paradox that while the modern conception of radical masterplanning had been discredited, it is in the opened up, free flowing spaces of loft and barn conversions that the modern conception of space has been continued. Here you see new and old working together to create a rich experience – which can inform what we do in new-build projects. That enthusiasm for re-imaging the city is currently to be found in the reworking of a former hotel at Barnton in Edinburgh into a group of houses, the transformation of the Parkview School in Dundee and in redefining the existing city streets at Laurieston in Glasgow.