Pre-existing Conditions (and The Mythical Green Field Site)

In the world of medical insurance, premiums are driven up when a potential customer is unable to exhibit a fully clean bill of health. ‘Pre-existing conditions’ are effectively held against their record and can stand in their way in a path towards health. In architecture, urban design and landscape, similarly it can seem that the baggage that a territory might carry along with it can make new policies and approaches for its future wellbeing too expensive and complicated to really commit to - the site is somehow condemned to either languish or be tabula rasa’d. Neither approach feels responsible, responsive or productive.

Over and again though, with just a little determination to break the more default thought processes, suppositions and conclusions, it’s actually the synthesis of all the issues that have taken a place to where it is today that holds the deep answers, a chance to unlock.

There are now so many great examples in both architecture and landscape where a respect has been cultivated around odd and even uncomfortable combinations of visual and cultural components - sometimes fetishised even - to powerful effect. We feel that working with ‘what we got’ in active ways creates a stronger likelihood of long term traction.

Radical retrofit is a term often used in building technology to classify existing scenarios where an underperforming structure is brought up to code – perhaps in relation to structure, but more often in thermal performance terms - with quite extreme retroactive measures applied (think exo or indo skeletons and thermal envelopes). Sarah Cowles and her team at Ruderal - our wonderful Georgia-based landscape often-collaborators – have extended the term to include what might best imagines as entire ecologies - swathes of cities, larger scale building adaptive reuse, and semi-redundant infrastructure. There never really is a ‘blank canvas’ as long as you’re prepared to recognise it. Even a ‘green field site’ has topography, weather, and most likely radical adjustments happen to it over time due to farming, irrigation and even geological scale changes.

So many of our projects resonate with these types of issues. In our work for the former 1.5 million sq ft Sears Distribution Center in Memphis, Tennessee we came to see this monolith as its own character, a soul really, that had grown, as an animal does, quickly and then more slowly, with successive grand additions each 10 years or so between 1927 and 1954, before fizzingly out with a badly built 1960’s underwhelming final wing, and ultimately being abandoned in the 1980s and going on towards ruin. We advocated for major internal changes but also to avoid the temptation towards shininess and so somehow reflect the fundamentals of this creature – it’s skin and bones, but also its identity within the city and its immediate setting. For Richmond BridgePark where multiple disadvantaged communities have been disconnected, mostly through sinister motives of Urban Renewal, the decision has been to repurpose the symptoms that the culprits of division have generated around the city. For example, the cutthroat expressways also generated barren plateaus ready to step up to become squares and convening moments that were never designed into the urban strategy. Similarly overly wide vehicular bridges, planned for traffic levels that never appeared, are opportunistically reappropriated for pedestrians, cyclists and also just to be places to experience the wonder of the city and its dramatic riverscape. So whilst recognising fully the flawed and unethical thinking that has generated the city as we know it, we determinedly search for armatures accidentally or at best half-heartedly provided and monopolise them, transforming them perhaps through changing their land use, access and role, instead of trying to remove them and pretend these invasions never occurred.

There are multiple wins by working this way; firstly the potential for enormous resource conservation, recognising the massive levels of embodied carbon locked up in these structures, as well as the energy required to demolish, and then all the massive draw of new materials and construction effort to provide the next iteration that could come (and normally does) with its own unexpected drawbacks. But there is also something that sounds more subtle but is actually more direct – a psychological sense of continuity where links to recent and ancient past are held onto. We make many judgements about our environment often at an intuitional level, following what smells good or feels better on our skin, just like a dog might track the sunlight around the house, and as people instinctively migrate towards particular tables in a restaurant at certain times of day and depending on who and how many they are with. We often cite the concept of mnemonics - essential devices to deliver psychological momentum via vestiges and references in buildings (perhaps ruins or fragments) and landscapes (left over drainage or grading clues) that were radical in themselves when first generated by quirk of nature or human intervention.

But how does ‘radical’ apply to evolved thinking for an existing condition, when perhaps this approach conversely sounds passive and deferential? What we’ve found is that for both pragmatic and experiential reasons, working with, rather than clearing away, will typically require some gymnasitics, both ideological and physical, and that making former circumstances relevant for what are often extraordinary differences in current and future predicted cultures can actually feel shocking, and that a reminder of the ‘before’ condition several years after a radical retrofit has been implemented will often prompt the “I can’t believe it used to be like that” response. A good example is closing a formerly busy street to vehicular traffic without significant demolition to allow free pedestrian access. The statement is easy to grasp, and yet traffic modelling and the redesign of surrounding highway systems and stop light timings to facilitate the change is major; the resultant ability to shift from impermeable to free draining and vegetative surface and from flood lighting to gentle glow is game changing; and the resultant experience for those walking through the space is night and day. In this case, and with most of the radical retrofit approaches, the wider structural and environmental systems hold true and yet more ‘subtle’ adjustments turn out to have major impact. So while an overall city drainage system – A to B – may be maintained (as in our joint Ruderal // Spatial Affairs) Dobrich Competition Project, the intricate web of channels and conduits to get between the points can be adjusted for practical and experiential use. Some aspects of the existing character remain, whilst new sides to its identity emerge. Sometimes this comes from finding stronger links to its past, like pulling through lost elements of natural history (forests, meadows, river courses and outcrops) back up through the asphalt.

Radical retrofit is not unlike therapy – reconciling past and current iterations to be better equipped for the future. It recognises that the answers are right there within, and that a head or full body transplant is unlikely to do the trick. Augmentation however, crude or refined, may have some milage, and for sure thinking again how all the taken for granted ways that this bit or that has been used up to now, and so retraining the paths seems necessary. Also recognising that having the right ‘others’ around, in the form of compatible new uses, can help break problematic dynamics and bring fresh energy.