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The big business of ruins

Phaidon’s latest book collects demolished, forgotten, and transformed architectural ruins–a topic that has obsessed popular imagination for centuries.

What’s the value of a ruin? On the internet, it can be a few million clicks. In a city like New York, a few billion dollars. Eighteenth-century architects designed artificial ruins as aristocratic aeries; countless critics and designers have written about why they entrance us. Ruin and Redemption in Architecture, a new book from Phaidon and Dan Barasch, reckons with this enduring obsession.

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[Photo: courtesy Phaidon]
Half of the book is devoted to lost works of architecture, showing demolition photos alongside archival photos of the original buildings, from Penn Station to Prentice Women’s Hospital, which was demolished just five years ago, as well as “forgotten” works, many of which have found a second life thanks to the internet’s love of “ruin porn,” like Pyongyang’s Ryugyong Hotel and Soviet-era monuments in Eastern Europe. The other half of the book is devoted to ruins that have been redeveloped into high-value real estate, from the Tate Modern to the High Line.

These adaptive reuse projects are their own form of lost architecture, as Barasch points out.

“Once adaptive reuse projects are completed, the irony–and this is something that really strikes me everywhere–is that part of the excitement and the magic of the abandoned space itself is then lost once you turn it into something else,” Barasch says. “Even if you are successful, quote unquote, at transforming something, you lost what was there before and you really can’t recreate it.”

Left: Dominican Church, Maastricht, Netherlands, Order of the Preachers; completed 1294, abandoned 1794. Right: Boekhandel Selexyz Dominicanen, Maastricht, Netherlands, Merkx + Girod Architects; transformed 2005. [Photos: Merkx+Girod/courtesy Phaidon, Roos Aldershoff/Merkx+Girod/courtesy Phaidon]

“Adaptive reuse” has long had a halo, wafting the aura of sustainability and historic preservation onto redevelopment projects. But these days, the term faces a reckoning–with its often astronomical costs and, more importantly, its role in driving economic and environmental gentrification. Even the cofounders of the High Line, the project that inspired dozens of adaptive reuse projects, are now working with other cities to help avoid some of these effects. There are plenty of projects that use “adaptive reuse” in “really cynical ways, basically to sell condos,” notes Barasch, who is cofounder of the Low Line, a project that originated in 2016 to renovate an abandoned train terminal below the Lower East Side.

Yet there are dozens of examples of adaptive reuse as a tool for developing resilient public spaces or advancing social missions, too, as he points out. One powerful example comes from Theaster Gates’s Stony Island Arts Bank, a 1920s-era bank on Chicago’s South Side that Gates purchased and renovated into a cultural center including an archive for black publications, a reading room, and other community arts spaces. “In reclaiming the former financial center as a new cultural center, Gates infused this transformation with a sense of social and racial justice,” Barasch writes. Others, like Ricardo Bofill’s 1970s transformation of a 1921 cement factory outside of Barcelona, illustrate how adaptive reuse projects can age gracefully–now almost 100 years old, the vine-covered complex looks timeless.

Like all architecture, abandoned and ruined spaces are animated by what people want from them. They can be massive economic boons or cynical attempts to cloak a neighborhood’s rapid socioeconomic transformation. They can also be powerful symbols and drivers of community engagement.

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About the author

Kelsey Campbell-Dollaghan is Co.Design's deputy editor.

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