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    Ruin porn and green preservation: why are dilapidated sites of the past so exciting?

    Nathan Johnson

    As our technologies for imagining the buildings of the future become more advanced, architects are becoming more equipped in adapting structures that may have previously been demolished and redeveloped or otherwise left to deteriorate.

    What’s more, the parameters for measuring a building’s environmental performance are also evolving and there is now a growing push towards green preservation rather than green building on the basis of measures such as embodied energy and material life cycle analysis.    

    Simultaneously, the widespread fascination of urban decay and dilapidated buildings within and outside the field of architecture is a rising phenomenon and has even seen the development of a photographic subculture nicknamed ‘ruin porn’.


    The Mecca for ruin porn photographers is unsurprisingly the post-industrial city of Detroit, Michigan in the United States, which has 70,000 abandoned buildings and seen a rise in young college undergrad migrants and a wave of visiting artists in recent years. (Image: Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

    Some commentators aren’t impressed with this ‘fetishisation’ of dilapidated sites and believe it hinders their redevelopment.

    In his article Detroitism, John Patrick Leary writes, “Ruin photography, in particular, has been criticized for its “pornographic” sensationalism… And others roll their eyes at all the positive attention heaped on the young, mostly white “creatives,” which glosses over the city’s deep structural problems and the diversity of ideas to help fix them.” 

    Others say it’s good for tourism and some have indicated that abandoned buildings—with their crumbling structures and desolate atmospheres, are a good place for businesses to [re]capitalise on their cultural symbolism.  

    MARKET OPPORTUNITIES: RUIN SITES AND GREEN PRESERVATION

    Capital will always flow to the most profitable location and away from those unprofitable. It will materialise a physical landscape while at the same time abandon and destroy others, but that’s not to say it can’t return to a site that is reinvented and transformed.

    In a recent article, ‘Industrial sites of old can be the cities of the future’, Lorraine Farrelly, Professor of Architecture at the University of Portsmouth, showed that with some creative thinking and ambition, sites of urban decay can be reinvented as part of the sustainable future of the city.

    She asserted that because existing brownfields – the sites of our industrial past—offer heritage character and sense of place, their potential for successful redevelopment is heightened, especially if that character influences the design.

    “Globally, brownfield regeneration has reinvented cities and created new cultural quarters, which in turn has had a positive effect on the surrounding economy,” she wrote.

    “The current agenda around sustainability could make the possibility of regeneration more competitive. Brownfield sites offer an alternative to new-build projects on sites close to urban centres.”

    Farrelly showed examples of adaptive reuse, including in Australia, where developers have capitalised on the public’s fascination with the character of a particular brownfield site, and reinvigorated it into a new market commodity.


    The Boat Builders Yard, by 6 Degrees Architects, is originally Shed 4, South Wharf maritime precinct, on the Yarra River in Melbourne.
    “The project has tried to provide a ‘human scale’ connection across and between these iconic buildings as well as redefining an industrial site,” said Farrelly.
    “It provides a new use for a redundant building and capitalises on the maritime context.”

    Like Farrelly hinted, the agenda surrounding sustainability has now evolved to include new parameters for measuring a building’s environmental performance. The measures of embodied energy and material life cycle analysis for example now have more weight in green building circles than the rudimentary measures of a building’s annual energy bills post-build.

    Subsequently new debates have risen which address the benefits of adaptive reuse versus those of high-tech new builds and why we should be ‘greening’ existing buildings rather building new green buildings.

    American architect Carl Elefante puts it more eloquently in his 2007 submission to the Journal of the National Trust for Historic Preservation titled ‘The Greenest Building is the One Already Built’.

    “Seeking salvation through green building fails to account for the overwhelming vastness of the existing building stock,” he explains.

    “The accumulated building stock is the elephant in the room: ignoring it, we risk being trampled by it. We cannot build our way to sustainability; we must conserve our way to it.”

    THE ROLE OF ARCHITECTS


    The Rippon Lea Roof Reinstatement by Lovell Chen Architects & Heritage Consultants incorporates refashioned roof tiles, a 4.5kW bank of solar panels in roof valley, a new stormwater collection system and new insulation. Image: Daniel Colombo

    “The fields of architecture and preservation have long been separate if not antagonistic, but more recent practices begin to fuse the two as preservation is acknowledged as an act of design,” writes Bryony Roberts for LOG 31, an architectural journal.

    “The convergence of design and preservation opens up a new territory of architectural experimentation, in which we are designing the past and present simultaneously.”

    Here Roberts is discussing what she calls the “loosely termed New Ancients” field of architecture, which she describes as the integration of emerging technologies with buried histories.

    It is easy to see the correlation between her discussion and those of the advocates for green preservation such as Farrelly and Elefante.

    Roberts is excited by the potential of contemporary technology and its ability to facilitate the delivery of detailed, intricate and sensitive restorations in unprecedented ways—a new exciting market for designers to be involved in.

    Combine Elefante’s belief that preservation is the most sustainable building practice and Farrelly’s assertions that sites of our industrial past make for great reinvigorated commodities, and we can see the excitement surrounding ruin sites unfolding.

    “We can see these ruins as icons of failed industrial socio-economic organizations, monuments to a bygone era of our urban history, but simultaneously, they present tempting opportunities for preservation, restoration and urban renewal strategies,” says Shayari De Silva of Yale University.

    “Certainly, the success of projects like the High Line in New York and the Tate Modern in London, make these fantasies all the more enticing.”

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