Jul 23, 2022 - Economy & Business

Adaptive reuse projects: New art in old buildings

Bourse de Commerce museum in Paris
A partially-melted wax sculpture by Swiss artist Urs Fischer, displayed at the Bourse de Commerce - Pinault Collection in Paris. Photo: Christophe Archambault//AFP via Getty Images

Where should cities build museums and other cultural centers, if they're already full of buildings? Increasingly, the answer is: Don't build a museum from scratch. Instead, take the hermit-crab approach, and adopt an existing building's shell.

Why it matters: Adaptive reuse projects, as they're known, are generally much more environmentally friendly than new builds. They also preserve much-loved older buildings.

Driving the news: AEA Consulting's 2021 Cultural Infrastructure Index breaks out adaptive reuse projects for the first time.

  • Just in the past year, per AEA, 22 adaptive reuse projects were completed and a further 18 were announced.
  • The GES-2 House of Culture in Moscow, designed by starchitect Renzo Piano, was bankrolled by Russian gas magnate Leonid Mikhelson to the tune of $379 million. The converted power station features two bright-blue chimneys that are a functional part of an environmentally-friendly HVAC system.
  • The Museum of London is in the midst of moving to new digs in the former Smithfield Market, in a project estimated to cost more than $400 million.

The big picture: Many of the most beloved museums in the world, from the Musée D'Orsay in Paris to Tate Modern in London, are housed in structures built in an era when labor and construction costs were much lower than they are today, enabling hugely ambitious architecture.

  • Even the Louvre is an example of early adaptive reuse: It's basically a palace commissioned in 1546 by King François I of France.

By the numbers: The 22 adaptive reuse projects completed in 2021 collectively cost more than $1 billion, per AEA. There are probably some financial savings involved in reusing existing buildings, but they're not huge.

The bottom line: Working within unexpected constraints tends to unleash creativity. Olafur Eliasson's iconic Tate Modern installation The Weather Project, for instance, could never have happened in a more traditional gallery.

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