Evolution is an inescapable mechanism in the process of existence – it is the pure embodiment of adaptation and change. Colloquially referred to as ‘survival of the fittest’, man adapted to his surroundings in order to ensure survival. Architecture and the mechanism of life are no different. While architecture does not possess the biological components to classify it as ‘life’, architecture is a direct representation of human life. Man’s ability to adapt and repurpose (not only themselves but their direct environment) can be seen through architecture with the rise of adaptive reuse projects. Adaptive reuse may be summarized as the repurposing of architecture for alternate uses. Berger et. al (as cited in Wong, 2017: pp. 30-31) define adaptive reuse as “… the reuse of materials, transformative interventions, continuation of cultural phenomena through built infrastructure, connections across the fabric of time and space and preservation of memory”. Wong (2017: 124) offers a more concise definition aligned towards architecture by stating “[a]daptive reuse [is] defined as the renovation and reuse of preexisting structures for new purposes…” Adaptive reuse is thus the evolution of a built form where its memory is retained with the intention of a physical change. In the ever-accelerating context of change faced in modernity that threatens the existence of structures, can adaptive reuse be its salvation?


Adaptive reuse dates back to our earliest hominids who used caves as their shelters, adapting the spaces within to their evolutionary needs (Merlino, 2018: 27). Adaptive reuse has also been recorded historically back to the age of plunder, conquest and monuments whereby structures were reinterpreted or maintained. Merlino describes how the Theatre of Marcellus in Rome was perpetually repurposed across history with little regard to the historical value attached (ibid: 28). It was only then after the age of monarchs that reason towards the preservation of structures emerged whereby humanity attached value towards these structures to be reused. The process of adaptation in humanity’s evolution is clearly observed through the adaptive reuse of structures. The concept of adaptive reuse has therefore changed, an ironic observation on the topic of change itself. Perhaps one of the core changes observed within the scope of adaptive reuse is the architect’s approach to it by applying ‘appropriate’ strategies and philosophies towards it. Within the philosophy of adaptive reuse, two come into focus: evolution and immortality. Architecture can abstractly be viewed as a living entity when considering it as a direct representation of humanity. Structures come alive with the life force of its inhabitants, but simultaneously it is only as alive as it contains the ability to provide for the needs of its inhabitants. All living entities have a finite life span before facing inevitable death. The same applies to buildings. Death is arguably the single most characteristic that binds all of humanity. The humorous adage comes to mind: “only two things in life are guaranteed – death and taxes”.

The desire to negate death has long been rooted within mythology and religion. Promises of life after death in religion or the fabled Philosopher’s Stone negates death to offer humanity comfort in the absolute and final closure to life. Humanities obsession with immortality is seen through architecture, particularly modern architecture, where the use of perfect and age-defying materials is employed into architecture (Pallasmaa, 1996: 32). In the realm of adaptive reuse, immortality is not achieved through the use of materials that defy time itself, but through the adaptation and reuse of architecture that extends its life. Wong (2017) refers to the resurrection of Jesus Christ in Christianity to highlight immorality. The first instance of the resurrection of Jesus Christ occurred three days after his death when he rose from his tomb. In that moment, Jesus Christ resembled himself at the moment of his death before his final ascent to heaven. The second instance is where Jesus Christ resurrected Lazarus from an untimely demise. The story of Lazarus describes his natural life before his final natural death. These two acts of immortality, permanent through the idea of Jesus Christ and temporary through the suspension of death to Lazarus and the return of Jesus Christ, offer two forms of immortality that architecture can receive through adaptive reuse. Architecture can therefore be restored or repaired to grant it immortality. Restoration and repair are often subjectively used within adaptive reuse projects and require an architect to take a firm stance on their decision.  Hunt and Boyd (2017: 48) take a clear stance on this distinction by stating “…’restoration’ means work intended to return a building or a component of a building to a perfect state or moment in time… repair and conservation is forward-looking, restoration looks backward…” It would appear, then, that the notion of immortality is not achieved through restoration, but repair. When a structure is repaired, it is given longevity and further to this when it is correctly adapted to new uses while considering its past its sign is immortalised while its new use is offered a temporary sense of immortality. It is important to reiterate that something may be repaired without restoring it. True immortality is thus achieved when architecture embraces its temporary immortality in the greater scheme of immortality. Architecture’s ability to adaptively change to grant itself temporary immortality within an overall immortality lies within its ability to evolve. A house may evolve to house a new function but the sign of the house as a shelter for humanity will exist forever. Much like the evolution of man is an immortal idea, but humanity itself is mortal, the same principles apply to architecture.


“The reuse of an existing structure for a new purpose requires similar adaptation to an imperfect host structure.” (Wong, 2017: 104). All adaptive reuse projects require a vessel in which to occupy. This is true not only in architecture but also in nature. Wong (2017) uses the analogy of the hermit crab to illustrate this, but the occupation of the host vessel in architecture is not as simple as merely identifying a host and occupying it as in nature. Through architecture, there is a need to acknowledge and respect the existing structure which transcends the natural act of occupying into a more metaphysical and artistic act. There are a number of ways in which architecture can adapt the host. These are: (1) the shell host; (2) the semi-ruin host; (3) the fragmented host; (4) the relic host; and (5) the group host. Shell-type hosts are interventions whereby the adaptation is focused inwards where the shell is kept intact. Shell hosts largely relate to heritage structures where the envelope is protected, but interventions within are free to acknowledge structural systems. The primary informant for space creation is thus the structural system that ultimately governs new planning interventions (ibid: 111). Shell-type hosts will cater towards adaptive reuse projects that adopt an ‘insertion’ approach (Hunt & Boyd, 2017: 95). Insertions focus on interventions that pay homage and respect internally through junctions and materials while the envelope is allowed to express its history. Semiruin hosts are hosts that show the scars of time. They are, as the name implies, entering a state of ruination and as such adaptive reuse projects enter simultaneously into alteration and reparation. Semiruin hosts provide adaptive reuse projects with the greatest opportunities to acknowledge time – the past and the present – through careful balance. As a result, the new is woven with the old as in most cases restoration is abandoned for its lack of authenticity (ibid: 97). A facet of weaving may also be understood as intersecting. Fragmented hosts are abandoned structures during their construction. Adaptive reuse projects that deal with fragmented hosts ultimately complete the host. Because of this completion through addition, there is a need to acknowledge the historical background of these structures. Fragmented hosts may also extend to historic sites that have been destroyed through time and acts of nature fragmenting the whole of the structure. Careful consideration is required for these fragmented hosts when incorporating the new so as to not express an act of facadism by falsely acknowledging the existing structure and its history.

Relic hosts pertain to host structures that are mere statements of the past (Wong, 2017: 118). Relic hosts have a deeper emphasis on the memory of the site as a catalyst for new interventions. Lastly, group hosts relate to hosts that span multiple structures resulting in a quasi-adaptive reuse of a micro-urban fabric. Group hosts can therefore contain a combination of the aforementioned host types, but the grand scale ultimately distinguishes it. Insertions and weavings are two strategies that can be undertaken for an adaptive reuse project. New forms can also juxtapose externally and internally and can therefore be applied to all manner of hosts. Where an extension is required, respect to the structure’s historical fabric can be expressed through echoes of form (Hunt & Boyd, 2017: 103) to create symbiosis and harmony on site. Insertions, weavings, juxtapositions and echoing can exist individually or as a combination of. It is worth mentioning that often times a poor strategy of harmonising and juxtaposing is through the ‘glass box’ strategy. Glass does have its merits, but oftentimes is acknowledged for its sterility and lack of character when compared to a historic structure. Pallasmaa noted the arrogance of man and the denial of time through the use of glass due to its perfection in appearance (Pallasmaa, 1996: 32). The choice of material should therefore not govern the design response, where the opposite is true. Glass chosen for simple visual effects often lead to failure (ibid) and require intelligent and rational motivations. All adaptive reuse projects therefore must acknowledge the ‘make-up’ of its host as well as its history. There is a level of respect between the old and the new where departure from the past to the present is gentle and displays a level of compassion. The disregard of this results in awkward and forced interventions – or Frankensteins. The humorously titled The Frankenstein Syndrome by Wong (2017: 34) highlights the essence of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein: Or the modern Prometheus. The Frankenstein creature is something new assembled from fragments – chaos into order. The notion of Frankenstein comes in with the more widely understood version of the monster – a deranged and violent creature due to incompatible DNA during the monster’s resurrection. While there may have been order in the creation of the new, the incompatibility of this order resulted in the creation of a monster. Returning back to adaptive reuse, architectural projects that seek to approach the repurposing of a structure need to be mindful of this incompatibility lest their designs fall victim to ‘Frankenstein Structures’. All architecture has its own essence and DNA that needs to be acknowledged. Order too is an inescapable aspect of existence. The array of LEDs on the computer monitor I use to type this essay, the organized structure of a syllabus, the timing of a traffic light, and the proportions of human anatomy – order is everywhere. In the process of adaptive reuse, an understanding of the order of the built subject is required before commencing to negate the creation of ‘monsters’. Wong once again returns to Frankenstein to highlight the results of acknowledging order: the first is duplication (whereby the monster was a duplication of man) and the second is subversions (whereby the substitution of body parts is a deviation from the traditional process of creation) (Wong, 2017: 38). Duplication and subversion are both strategies within order that correlates to an acknowledgement of the essence of a structure as well as the structure itself (its DNA). Adaptive reuse projects can respond to the host structure’s DNA and essence in three manners: (1) the passive; (2) the performative; and (3) the referential. Passive approaches involve the transformation of structures to create unique experiences within through the creation of metaphors. In passive approaches, the host structure is left largely intact. Adaptive reuse projects that adopt a passive approach are largely interior-based projects within the host shell. Performative approaches adopt a more dramatic and artistic approach where the DNA of the structure is altered, but its essence is acknowledged. Performative approaches seem to contradict the notion of DNA and may allude to the creation of Frankensteins but in reality, show the power to bestow immortality to a host through a deliberate act of alteration. Performative approaches are naturally more contentious, but when done correctly show aspects of trace and erasure that oftentimes highlight and enhance aspects of the host and its essence. Referential approaches incorporate interventions that show respect to the host’s DNA. “Referential action[s] reanimates the host structure through design strategies and interventions that are codependent with its past, incorporating what was with what is.” (Wong, 2017: 133). There is a deep relationship between the old and the new with a deep emphasis on respect. Referential projects perhaps hold the most weight in alterations during adaptive reuse. The acknowledgement of this referential attitude allows for the host to be transformed while having its DNA immortalised.


Wong (2017), and Hunt and Boyd (2017) both agree that at the core of ensuring success for adaptive reuse projects is the acknowledgement and respect for the host’s historic background and the fabric in which is sits. Wong (2017) emphasises this acknowledgement through the host’s DNA. There is a need for adaptive reuse projects to constantly acknowledge the new with the old – the past with the future. Ultimately, each designer must take an informed stand on their decision but that isn’t to say that there are a few guiding principles. Hunt and Boyd (2017: 47) offer a few pointers to ensure the success of an adaptive reuse project. At the heart of these principles is the need for authenticity. Hunt and Boyd (ibid) place an emphasis on respecting the beauty of age in a host, conservation above restoration, reparation above replacement, adapting the new to the old, avoidance of artificially ageing materials, ensuring flexible and reversible design where possible and embracing the new that enhances and compliments the old. As previously mentioned in the initiation, Hunt and Boyd (ibid: 48) reject the notion of restoration in favour of reparation. The principal reasoning is that restoration ignores the passage of time and demonstrates a stubbornness against change – the core principles of evolution and adaptive reuse. Further to this, authenticity is placed at risk due to the attempted replication of skills and crafts of the past long lost. The character is placed under threat.

Adaptive reuse projects offer the character a sense of layering across time that extends its lineage and legacy. In a broader sense, adaptive reuse projects need to respond to the context in which it is sited as much as the structure itself. This context relates to the proportion and the hierarchy of its context (ibid: 50). This isn’t to say that where the context embraces large massing needs to be replicated, it can instead also be a subversion of its context. The decision lies within the designer and the relationship of the host to the urban fabric. The rhythm as seen in the character of the host offers moments for new design to acknowledge the host. Hunt and Boyd (ibid: 52) highlight the danger of ‘joining the dots’ of columns within host structures as a threat to the existing rhythm of the host. There is greater success therefore in, where possible, contradicting the planning of the old with the new to enhance the character of the host. Complimenting and contrasting are thus an added layer to adaptive reuse projects, but with-it further nuances that can either be detrimental or transcendent to the host. Contrasting the old with the new is rarely achieved by juxtaposing stone with glass (ibid: 53). The issue with the simple juxtaposition of glass to stone is the lack of detailing and thought. This isn’t also to say that the new against the old needs to be loud and expressive, as this complimenting and juxtaposing ultimately boils down to the detailing. The junctions between the old and the new relate to the micro and the macro scale of the new interventions, but once again require a careful and methodical balance. “Junctions must be considered technically and aesthetically and in some cases are designed to avoid all contact between the old and the new fabric.” (ibid: 59). These junctions may be either solid or void depending on their rationale and the character of the host. The now, according to Hunt and Boyd (ibid: 62), glass junction between the old and the new is considered a cliché and somewhat lazy approach. As a quieter alternative, ‘shadow gaps’ are celebrated to embrace this junction to provide a sense of movement to the dynamics between the old and the new. This element of movement relates to the notion of progression and adaptation as opposed to the hollow and static glass junction. Compounded on this, glazing lacks a material character in the urban context of most historical projects for adaptation. There is a degree of sanitization that lacks authenticity. Material choice therefore is tightly related to new interventions, but that isn’t to say that contrast and complimentary materials are exempt. The choice of the material in the continuum of the history of the host and its context through colour and texture, again the ‘details’, elevates the adaptive reuse project while considering the old and the new simultaneously.


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Hunt, R. & Boyd, I. 2017. New Design for Old Buildings. United Kingdom: RIBA Publishing. pp. 43 – 65, 93-105.
Merlino, K.R., 2018. Building Reuse: Sustainability, Preservation, and the Value of Design. United States: University of Washington Press. pp. 16-17
Pallasmaa, J. (2007). The Eyes of the Skin – Architecture and the Senses. Great Britain – Wiley Academy. pp. 31-34.
Wong, L. 2017. Adaptive Reuse: Extending the Lives of Buildings. Germany: Birkhauser.