In this beautifully designed addition to the Princeton Architectural Press’s Architecture Briefs series, San Francisco architect-engineer Charles Bloszies provides clear thinking and non-dogmatic analysis on the intersection of historic preservation and progressive architectural design. In these two areas, where the debates of inflexible proponents on both sides often result in buildings of the lowest common denominator, author Bloszies presents both a theory of how to marry old and new buildings and nineteen well-chosen examples from Beijing to New York to San Francisco.
Adding to or repurposing existing buildings is difficult at best, particularly in the case of designated historic buildings. The world abounds in timid examples, often the results of an environmental evaluation and entitlement process designed to give every bystander a vote on design, and publics more interested in conflict than resolution. Bloszies points out that these conflicts can often be the result of both 20th century modernists’ disdain for past architecture and preservationists’ emotional reaction against modern architecture.
As an architect and an engineer who has been called upon to make significant additions to existing buildings, and as a highly informed thinker in both architectural history and modernity, Bloszies convincingly presents the cases both for preservation and change. Making the argument for balance in public policy decisions that reinforces the cultural diversity of our cities, he begins by examining examples from history, and finds, of course, that buildings in successful, evolving societies have always changed and grown and developed over time. Using the disparate examples of the Duomo at Siracusa and the Great Mosque at Cordoba, he points out that at every historical juncture, the architects were simply building in the current style of the day. Differences are honestly expressed, sometimes with restraint, and sometimes not.
Drawing on the art of musical composition, he observes that while musicians perform and the public appreciates classical pieces, there is little call for new compositions following exact historical principles. How different from typical public desires when it comes to architecture and urban design!
His keen observations have led to two principles: a successful project requires not only a well conceived new design but a well conceived old design; and, “ a time stamp must be unmistakably identifiable on both parts”. Bloszies divides his examples into three families of architectural unions: extreme, restrained, and referential. The differentiating factor between extreme and restrained is a matter of degree, as both clearly distinguish between old and new. With referential contrast, old vs. new may not be as obvious at first glance. Bloszies finds all three approaches valid, and goes on to demonstrate examples of each, primarily buildings completed in the last decade. Aerial photos of each site are included to show the buildings in context, color-coded for which of the three strategies they illustrate.
The examples are organized in three major categories: small interventions, major additions, and repurposed buildings (as well as a none-of-the above category for three wholly unique examples.) Small interventions refers not to the degree of contrast but rather to the absolute size of the project. Bloszies tells us that “Hutong Bubble 32”, a stainless steel utility core inserted into an historic Beijing courtyard residential complex, has both attracted enmity from the contextualists while also becoming a tourist attraction in its own right. MAD Architects have created a tiny insertion that perhaps speaks volumes to the changes and conflicts going on in China today. Other examples also illustrate extreme contrast as well as referential contrast.
The major additions chapter includes the well-known local Contemporay Jewish Museum, a major contrast project by Studio Daniel Libeskind, which transformed a handsome enough but not unique 1906 powerhouse by Willis Polk into a dynamic landmark at Yerba Buena Gardens. Hinted at but unsaid, this architectural “powerhouse” would never have happened in architecturally timid San Francisco without the proactive support of San Francisco Architectural Heritage and its then-director architect Charles Chase. While many contextualists and less sophisticated preservationists opposed this design, the result is a clear endorsement of Bloszies’ principle of positive contrast and the best thinking of the historic preservation community.
Also highlighted in this chapter is Jensen & Macy’s Walden Studios in Geyserville, a fine example of restrained contrast, as is the Renzo Piano Building Workshop addition to Manhattan’s Morgan Library. In an excellent example combining a 1906 French Renaissance Revival building with a 1960s Charles Moore addition, Boszies includes his own work at 1 Kearny Street, where he designed a major modern addition that wonderfully complements the other parts on an urban design, architectural and structural basis.
The repurposed buildings chapter features such examples as the 1960s Greyhound bus maintenance facility, a marvelous modern industrial building, since reconceived as the San Francisco classrooms and studios of California College of the Arts, with portions by Jensen & Macy with Charles Boszies, and Leddy Maytum Stacy with ARUP, resulting in spaces that never cease to thrill.
This is an important book for both the architectural and urban design communities and for the general public because it shows the possibilities that exist as our cities become denser and more sustainable. It is not only possible but also desirable for buildings and districts and cities to grow and change and evolve while protecting the integrity of high quality traditional buildings and neighborhoods.
Book cover, Princeton
Hutong Bubble by ohskylab (Paul Love), Flickr Creative Commons
Contemporary Jewish Museum by kennymatic (Kenny Louie), Flickr Creative Commons
Walden Studios, Jensen Architects / Photo: Richard Barnes