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PRE-EXISTING | Building within history

The pre-existing has always been a complex theme. Both architects and artists have struggled around words such as monument and ruin. From Piranesi to Turner, from Boito to Ruskin or Branzi, everyone has spread his idea about historical buildings: sometimes they are romantic, sometimes cynical. Today, there is a general interest in maintaining the cultural and historical heritage, but there are several ways to act over ruins and historical buildings. We present the different types of approach to the pre-existing as steps.

STEP 0 | Ruins are exposed to the elements of nature or, maybe, they are left in peace.  There is no project, no intervention. It doesn’t mean that these ruins do not have any historical or artistic quality: they can be reached and visited.

STEP 1 | The project is subtle and  non invasive, as it merely concerns accessibility, circulation and safety measures. Usually these ruins are part of the cultural and historical heritage: the intervention is designed to turn them into touristic destinations and urban polarities. Sometimes the intervention  is imperceptibile, as the project concerns only visitors’ paths, like the Fori Imperiali in Rome

…or just boardwalks and parapets, like Instanbul’s Basilica Cistern.

The case of Piazza Alicia, in the Sicilian town of Salemi, is a bit different. Designed by Alvaro Siza and Roberto Collovà in the 90s, the project is part of a wider urban plan, after the strong earthquake that stroke Sicily in 1968. The ruins of the previous main church (almost completely destroyed) are now the guidelines of the intervention.

STEP 2 | The intervention consists in improving the usability of the ruins, especially in the case of archeological sites. The Artemision Pavilion in Siracusa marks the entrance to the site, in which it is possible to visit the remains of the ancient Greek temple. 

The Acropolis Museum in Athens (Bernard Tschumi Architects), has a double interaction with the remains. Below the glass pavement you can see some of the ruins discovered while digging out  for foundations. From the inside, as almost all perimetral walls are made of glass, visitors feel the constant presence of the nearby Acropolis. Moreover, the project dialogues with the Acropolis and with the site also through its ground plan, with its double orientation. The Parthenon, even in ruins, still dominates the project site and the whole city.

STEP 3 | This paragraph isn’t about ruins anymore, as it concerns what to do about historical buildings. Even when they are in a good state of conservation, renovation interventions are not unusual. As centuries pass by, some historical buildings become useless, because their functions are now carried out by other modern more efficient buildings. But as they are historical and cultural monuments, they shouldn’t be torn down… In fact, they can be used differently. This is the case of the Gare D’Orsay in Paris, now Musée D’Orsay (conversion project by Gae Aulenti). To witness the building’s past life as a train station, a huge clock was left in the main hall, now housing the museum.

Another example is the conversion of the Bernardas Convent (Tavira, Portugal) into a dwelling. Project by Eduardo Souto de Moura.

In Zollverein (Essen), architects had to handle a very particular site: the former coal mine Zeche Zollverein, an area of 100 hectares, was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2001. Several famous architecture firms were involved in the redevelopment, OMA and SANAA above all. And the renovated site now hosts several buildings and several functions: a coal museum, a new factory, temporary spaces for start-ups, shops, a visitor center, an amusement park and a design school…

In other cases, the building is renovated but it keeps its function. This is the case of those museums which have just reopened or whose collections and affluence have increased and need a refurbishment. For example David Chipperfield’s intervention in the Neues Museum, Berlin. In October 2009, after more than sixty years as a ruin, the Neues Museum reopened to the public as the third restored building in Berlin’s Museum Island.

Another building with a long history is the Museo Reina Sofia, Madrid. The construction began in 18°century and the building was supposed to be the new hospital of the city. In 1805 only one-third of the proposed project was completed; in 1969 it was closed as hospital, after several modifications and additions. Between 1980 and 1988 the architects José Luis Iniguez de Onsoño and Antonio Velasquez de Castro led some restoration works. In 1988 the building was finally opened to the public as a museum and in 1989 the architect Ian Ritchie added to the main volume and façade three glass circulation towers. However, the most impressive intervention is Jean Nouvel’s expansion, inaugurated in 2005.

STEP 4 | In some cases, the pre-existing building is demolished…but you can still perceive it. This approach is well displayed by Funf Hofe in Munich, a Herzog and De Meuron’s project. The demolition of most of the buildings was requested by the competition brief. Although they do not exist anymore, it’s possible to recognize the pre-existing in some aspects of the new intervention.  For example in the neighboring, in the façade style and in the reiterated use of the courtyard. From the architects: “What initially appeared to be a disadvantage, proved a stroke of good luck”.

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My fundamentals: creativity and pragmatism. When a was a little girl I wanted to be a vet during the week and a great painter on Saturdays and Sundays. Now, I am a confused and curious mind at Architecture's service.


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