The Role of Redevelopment in Preserving Distinct Architecture

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Rarely, if ever, are buildings designed and erected merely for looks. They serve a purpose, and this function drives the direction the architect takes in drawing up the plans. The layout of a watch factory will have certain requirements which differ from those needed in the proper planning of a newspaper printing facility. However, this doesn’t mean architects can’t, don’t, and won’t do what they can to add a certain something special to the ultimate look and feel of a building. The result, ideally, is a beautiful structure serving a distinct purpose.

If “watch factory” and “newspaper printing” sound like outdated references to building purposes, that’s because they are; the percentage of buildings which make up the majority of the skylines of major cities like New York and Chicago were constructed for 20th-century industries and business ventures long gone. Their original purpose as buildings – the driving force behind the decisions made by their architects – ceased to exist decades ago.

So how come they’re still around? One word: redevelopment.


An American Story

By the 1960s, huge sections of Manhattan consisted of factory and office buildings going unoccupied. It was the beginning of the darkest days the city faced in nearly a century, with crime rates exploding in part due to the economic depression caused by the bleeding out of industry and commerce.

However, in almost no time at all, savvy investors were seizing on the prime real estate being sold for bargain prices across Manhattan. Old dress factories became artist lofts and former office buildings became dance studios. It helped bring New York City back from the brink and became an example for urban cores across the country.

These days the same strategy is being utilized on the American west coast, where industrial courts and office parks constructed 50 years ago are now starting to become increasingly unused and in need of a new purpose. For example, leading commercial real estate investment companies in San Diego have helped to redevelop these structures to serve modern needs. Whether by dividing large offices into smaller sections to appeal more to the small startups of today or converting entire floors formerly devoted to a single department into amenities for these companies to use, the iconic mid-20th-century architecture of Southern California is preserved while appealing to 21st-century tenants.


Nothing New

The above highlights the way in which real estate redevelopment helped to preserve the distinct architecture of the major cities of the United States, but it’s a business model which dates back over 12 centuries and likely farther. The Pantheon in Rome, for example, was originally built around 125 AD to honor the gods and goddess of the ancient Romans, which soon fell out of disfavor with the rise of Christianity two centuries later. It would have likely been destroyed like so many other architectural marvels of antiquity if it weren’t for the property being redeveloped as a Christian church in the seventh century.

Not far away, the Roman Colosseum is another classic example of redevelopment coming to the rescue of distinct architecture. In the middle ages, this one-time amphitheater was in the process of being slowly dismantled for construction materials when some cunning developer saw a better business opportunity instead. A section of tenement housing was soon built within the oval walls of what is now considered a world treasure of ancient architecture.

The Common Thread is Purpose

Whether we’re talking the last century of American history or going back to antiquity, real estate redevelopment cannot exist without renewed purpose. Install all the new lighting and knock out all the walls needed to achieve a certain look, but without an adapted functionality, there was no point besides to keep a nice looking building.

And as pointed out in the beginning, buildings don’t exist simply to look good. For every preserved example of beautiful architecture from the past, hundreds of distinctive buildings from the same time were demolished due to lack of purpose. Redevelopment is what saves distinct architecture simply because there is no other market force to support these old buildings.

Images from archiscene.net – House in the Woods by Alma-nac
Photographed by Jack Hobhouse

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