Perspectives February 12, 2020

Adaptive Reuse Is an Attitude, Not an Aesthetic. And It’s Urgent.

By Victoria Walsh, Senior Project Manager

Last week I typed “Atlanta Dairies” into my phone instead of the exact address to hail my Uber. I didn’t realize I would be sending my driver down memory lane. The 10-acre Dairies property in Atlanta’s now-famous Old Fourth Ward is quintessential adaptive reuse: art moderne milk factory becomes postindustrial urban destination.

In the network of catwalks that tracked the pasteurization process, we saw a circulation spine for the client’s mixed-use program of creative office space, amphitheater, courtyard, and specialty retail. In that new spine, enough of the skeleton of the old building survives to call up familiar red milk cartons, the smell of the factory, and so many throwbacks to my Uber driver’s school days.

She was happy, she said, to see the buildings given a second life. And I thought, that is adaptive reuse at its best. It shores up the stories that connect people to the places in their lives.

Transforming Spaces
For 60 years, the old Atlanta Dairies cooperative, with its familiar milk carton sign and Streamline Moderne façade, was a hub of commercial activity near downtown Atlanta.

Yet, our cities are running out of factories and warehouses to update. In Atlanta, it has taken two decades for banks and investors to catch up with developers. Only now, when it is harder to find industrial property to convert, are they fronting the capital to fund adaptive-reuse projects.

Do not read into this irony the demise of adaptive reuse or the passing of a trend. That would be to limit adaptive reuse to the conversion of warehouses and allow market forces to reduce a powerful strategy to aesthetic alone.

In fact, our cities’ need for adaptive reuse is urgent. Urban centers are densifying, resources are diminishing, the planet is warming, the construction labor force is shrinking, and we long for what the writer Wallace Stegner called a “sense of place.” Defined more broadly, adaptive reuse is about keeping our built environment relevant and breathing life into our existing structures. It’s about respecting the places that give meaning to our everyday lives.

Architects disagree about how to show that respect, especially when the stakes are high. Viollet-le-Duc and John Ruskin’s important debate about conservation and restoration emerged when in the late nineteenth century they were faced with how to treat the wearing of monumental architecture in Europe’s great cities.

It may be the first rodeo for America’s young cities, but the U.S. can reap the benefit of knowing the great arguments of the past. Viollet-le-Duc and Ruskin’s is just one. Halfway through the next century Sherban Cantacuzio and Rudolfo Machado, among others, were theorizing how to rebuild postwar Europe; Carlo Scarpa and Raphael Moneo then put their ideas into the practice. Their examples are invaluable as we in the U.S. start to confront the realities of an aging, outdated built environment.

Revisioned Catwalks Create Common Grounds
The site is layered in many ways; historically, topographically, and programmatically, with new, existing, and adaptive reuse structures.
Base Camp: Interface, Inc.'s New Home
Known to Interface employees as "Base Camp," the new Headquarters is a dramatic reimagining of a 1960s office building.

What I’m saying here is, adaptive reuse is just getting started. Look for it in all the “re-“ words that pop up in urban development contexts: reuse, renovation, restoration, repositioning, reskinning, restoration, revitalization … Adaptive reuse isn’t just about looking back or returning to a place or time. It’s a forward-looking attitude toward buildings, blocks, and even urban infrastructure that is nonetheless rooted in history. Let’s not underestimate the power of this attitude to completely transform existing spaces.

Witness one such transformation just a few blocks from our office in Midtown Atlanta where we created an iconic new headquarters for Interface—not from a Dairies-type site, but from an unremarkable 1960s’ office building. The new glazed building skin projects oversize images of a deciduous forest, at once a public declaration of the company’s ethos and an unexpected expression of Atlanta’s identity as a city in a forest. The new HQ works beautifully as a dramatic standalone gesture, but if that’s all you see, then you’re missing the project’s greater role in the dramatic revitalization of Midtown Atlanta. Let’s not miss the forest for the trees.

Watch this space in the coming weeks for a tour of transformational projects, classic and off the beaten path, that capture Atlanta’s attitude to adaptation and reuse.