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Another Level

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Despite living all my life in a postmodern world where the same project continues with successive reincarnations as different styles, I still believe there was more to history than referencing it. Admittedly, the emphasis on referential facade design as perception management went a long way to enable the optimization of development gain. Apart from one chimney getting in the way of one staircase, post modernism had little to say about the insides of buildings.

For all its talk of history, post-modernism liked to represent itself as new, much like the architecture it supposedly supplanted did. Also like what went before it, it had little to say about extensions and additions to buildings, even though we do have occasional buildings used as podiums to showcase an upwards development. Offhand,I can think of Jean Nouvel’s 1993 Lyon Opera and Herzog de Meuron’s 2016 Elbephilharmonie. Both use the existing building that was once the whole, as a base forming one part of a new aesthetic whole.

Frank Gehry’s 1984 Wosk Rresidence was something of a precursor, treating the existing building as nothing more than development rights to exploited.

These next three attempt the same. Acknowledging the podium is no guarantee of success but there seems to be correlation with that intent and strength of that acknowledgement.

This probably explains why these next two are so disturbing, and not in a good way.

I doubt we’ll be talking about any of these buildings in ten years, let alone 50 or 100, other than as examples of things people once did. Seeing the amount of demolition that occurs, it clearly costs less to build new than to refurbish or extend. Preserving building is seen as a perception management exercise to distract from development gains to be made. Calling this a tradeoff however, accords development gain an imperative it doesn’t necessarily have.

The Lyon opera house and the Gehry are the only (built) buildings that haven’t been gutted and restructured to accept the new volume above but we still want to see both as new buildings and not the additions they are. Perhaps it’s because additions don’t perpetrate the myth of inspiration and a pure creativity. They’re never a free call as the range of possible solutions is largely determined by the existing building. A certain type of creativity is still called for but, in some unspoken hierarchy, it’s a lesser one.

There’s also the contradiction of trying to add something to make something perfect and whole out of something that’s already supposed to be perfect and whole. If we think like that, the result can’t but be anything else but disrespectful or an insult. Adding to an existing building makes much sense in terms of resource conservation but we don’t have any guidelines for how to go about it aesthetically. To make matters worse, there’s invariably a time gap between the completion of the existing building and when it was decided it wasn’t large enough for its task. In the intervening period, the cost of building materials and labour, aesthetic preferences and even the building use may well have changed. In some cases an additional floor or two built in a similar or complementary style will pass, but in some of the other cases something that has no choice to be more different might be called for. I didn’t say “radical” because it’s rarely a 100% aesthetic call either. Even examples like this next one aren’t that radical when they can barely be seen from the street. It’s a partial rooftop conversion, albeit a very well publicized one.

At least in Vienna, architects grapple with this kind of problem and don’t automatically assume that not imposing on the street view will be a condition of development happening in the first place. This next one is a handsome solution that isn’t what the designers of the original might have imagined but works anyway as a modern mansard.

The modern mansard is a trope for the same very good reasons the original found favor. How to go about adding an extra storey may be case by case but that doesn’t mean each case is unique, or even that different. There’s a whole Pinterest sub-category of proposals that can be lightweight and modern as long as there’s a significant setback from the frontage.

Another modern trope is the vertical extension in a different material in some understated contemporary vein. This strikes some happy balance between development gain and perception management and you can also find many examples of this on Pinterest.

This next project is by emergent design studios, a British firm who have experience in estate refurbishment projects. [] The additional storey completes the building and is both mansard and extension.

Additions such as these are welcome to those who still think modern buildings look unhomely because they “don’t have roofs” and looked incomplete in the first place.

Both the neo-mansard and contemporary extrusion make clear the difference between the original building and the additional storeys. They’re both examples of aesthetic deference – of not scaring the horses. The odd thing about the rooftop extension to Franco Alibini’s 1938 Villa Pestarini below is that it’s difficult to tell if it’s being deferential to its famous first two floors or not. An additional floor has been added in a manner befitting the time that wasn’t that long ago. No attempt has been made to make something either new or old. Either way, the building isn’t what it was and, in any case, it’d be difficult for it to be when there’s an additional level increasing the building volume by a third.

The addition reads as walls as far as Colour, Shape and Alignment are concerned yet the overhang (Size) suggests it’s a roof. For me, the main conflict is the Pattern (texture) of the material suggesting it’s a roof yet the Pattern formed by the window openings suggesting walls. But if the walls had simply been extended upwards and rendered the same then I wouldn’t be thinking these things as all sense of the original building would be lost. All these approaches assume some kind of aesthetic deference as the best way to show respect for an historic building and perhaps it is.

But what happens if the building and its history aren’t seen as one and the same thing? After all, post-modernism wasn’t the first style to decouple history from old buildings and apply its associations to new ones. However, buildings have many histories and what their fabric once looked like is only one of them.

Guisepee Terragni’s 1936 Casa del Fascio is a case in point. It was brought back into the architectural canon after decades of being shunned for its political associations. The history of those associations remains – it’s just that we don’t choose to remember it. Despite its rehabilitation as architecture, the building can’t be said to be doing any community service other than being a museum of itself but whether as a history lesson or an architecture lesson isn’t clear. The building has been prevented from ageing naturally and is kept in the same state as it was when it was the headquarters of the Como branch of the Italian fascist party. Its former occupants would be very pleased if they could see how nicely it’s been maintained in the intervening years.

The former occupants of this next building wouldn’t be as pleased if they could see what Shanghai architects Neri & Hu did to it. I think the point is that they’re not meant to. I see this building as a deliberate trashing of history.

The project is called The Waterhouse and the architects’ text repeated on ArchDaily told me it was the headquarters of the Japanese army during the occupation of Shanghai but the building seemed a bit small to do that. Sure enough, there’d once been much more to it. The site “” told me it was the headquarters of Japan’s marines – the Emperor’s Special Naval Landing Force, it covered two city blocks and could house thousands of troops. It was also a fortress said to have “bombproof” construction. It’s been called “a potent symbol of Japanese occupation” but the reality of a few thousand enemy troops stationed in one’s city must have been a greater concern.

The title, in Japanese is “chs399-Shanghai the Most Busiest International Harbour in Orient 大日本海軍陸戦隊本部の威容 大上海景觀” on the postcard site

In short, this building has history and it’s personal. What to do? One doesn’t want to forget but how to remember? What were the options? Keeping it intact and in pristine condition sends the wrong message. On the other hand, demolishing all trace of it does the former aggressors a favor.

Neri & Hu’s extra level is actually a conversion that diminishes the presence of the original building. The stated design idea may have been to maximize the difference between old and new but the remnant of the former building has not been restored to its former “glory” (like Casa del Fascio). Instead, its visuals and any 1970s [?] window alterations have been been left intact to age ungracefully with the rest. This is the opposite of distressing to confer the appearance and gravity of age. It’s letting time create some space. This past on display is definitely not a living one – it’s very much of a time that is no longer. We can be sure structural integrity hasn’t been allowed to deteriorate and that things like thermal and acoustic performance are probably better than they were. This approach is the opposite of post modernism in showing respect for the building yet disrespect for its history.

There’s a consistent thread of design decisions that show contempt for the history of this building.

  • A time-traveling Special Naval Landing Force commander or even rank-and-file infantry would be incensed to see most of the former building demolished and the only piece remaining turned into a five-star boutique hotel.
  • Smooth white finishes are side-by-side with walls stripped back to the original concrete. Internally, the building has been gutted, stripped of all hardware, wall coverings, surface finishes and so on down to the concrete. Anything anyone might once have looked at and thought pleasant or even pleasantly utilitarian is gone. In that sense, the interior surfaces we see now are being seen for the first time.
  • Internal walls and floors have been visibly knocked through and pushed around to make new spaces that are still about accommodation but it’s now the decadent, voluntary accommodation of luxury and pleasure.
  • Our hypothetical time-traveller will wonder what the large windows overlooking the river are expected to observe. They won’t understand why they’re so large and looking over the river or why the third, side window looks over where the rest of the building once stood.
  • They won’t understand the use of glass and timber on this that was once the most bombproof of buildings. That famously bombproof roof has been compromised by cutting openings into it to form those three double height windows that are not lined up with anything below. The actual rooftop is now an timber-decked place open to the sky where people can relax.
  • Most of all, they’ll be shocked by how awkwardly and asymmetrically this new top floor sits on what was once a fine and solid building representing all that was good about Japanese military architecture.

It’s a shame The Waterhouse will mostly be understood as some flashy conversion. When I saw it the first time I did too but now I see it’s disrespect for history as stunningly and critically poetic. The world has a surfeit of buildings associated with painful histories so showing people and societies how to move on from them is something architects could do more to help with. It’d be more worthwhile than making representations of fake histories or it’s opposite, faux progress. Even the pragmatic “what’s already there” approach of the post WWII Italian architects I so admire is still an aesthetic approach whereas the history at The Waterhouse’s is raw and personal. Neri & Hu say their design intention was to separate new and old. Yes, but showing the past slip deeper into the past as one builds newly upon it sends a powerful message of healing to former victims and if, at the same time, it also sends an equally powerful message of up yours to the former enemy then so be it. I’d forgotten architecture can do things like this. Thank you Neri & Hu.