What to do with empty, run-down structures? Architects in Brno embrace adaptive reuse – a growing, global movement to repurpose, not destroy. From Respekt.
“Never demolish, never get rid of, never replace anything. Always add, transform, reuse,” is the motto of architect Anne Lacaton and her partner Jean-Philippe Vassal, the winners of the 2021 Pritzker Architecture Prize. The French duo received that high honor for their “permanent and significant” contribution to architecture, specifically for their careful, clever adaptations of existing buildings such as public housing in Paris and Bordeaux. The buildings had been slated for demolition, but the architects managed to transform them into pleasant, airy, and desirable housing.
As the architecture world was discussing these awards for improving French prefabricated apartment buildings, work on a project following those same principles was coming to a head in Brno, the second-largest city in the Czech Republic. Low-cost, targeted interventions revitalized an empty four-story building in the city center. The unused university building, complete with cafeteria, became the KUMST creative hub – inexpensive spaces for small-business owners in creative fields, from graphic designers and architects to computer programmers.
Architects Tomas Kozelsky, Viktor Odstrcilik, and Alexandra Georgescu of the KOGAA studio designed the project. What they have in common with their famous French counterparts and many other architects around the world is the method called adaptive reuse. It involves transforming buildings for new uses, which is not the same thing as reconstruction. “Our strength is not that we clean something up and put in nicer doors,” Kozelsky says. “It’s mainly about giving the building a new function and adapting it so it can fulfill that function.”
Empty buildings abound in the Czech Republic; abandoned properties are estimated to number anywhere from 3,000 to 10,000. From a construction industry point of view, they should be demolished and replaced. Seen through the eyes of progressive architects, environmentalists, and idealists, however, the solution lies elsewhere – adaptation. There are good reasons for this. Not throwing materials away is desirable; the construction industry generates almost half of the country’s waste. Existing materials should not be squandered but be taken advantage of as new materials become more expensive and less available. And it preserves cultural values and the memory of old construction.
“The Roaring Twenties Redux will be about reuse,” says Aaron Betsky, an influential architectural theoretician who has long asserted that the world does not need even a single new building. This is not surprising; ideas from other fields are permeating construction. People have long been buying clothing and other items second hand and questioning the consequences of their consumption. Now that also is happening in architecture – and in Brno.
‘We Feel Good Here’
The entrance to KUMST is through an all-white reception area. Next to that is a sales room, where Brno creatives – mainly designers of fashion and other products – will offer their products. There also is a hall and a conference room. Designer Denisa Strmiskova created the interiors, including a bespoke table. Light-colored walls and glass dividers in dark steel frames create a contemporary, stylish vibe. There is access to a courtyard, where a deck with seating is planned. The graffiti-covered facades of neighboring buildings suddenly feel like part of an informal, creative atmosphere.
On higher floors the adaptations are fewer, and at the very top the space is still an abandoned school building, its floors covered with old linoleum. In the cheapest office spaces, users had to install their own electrical wiring. The rent for those was reduced accordingly, to a few thousand Czech crowns per month. Graphic designer Alina Matejova is one such tenant. “Graphic designers are not demanding,” says Matejova, who is studying and doing graphic design jobs on top of that in a space she shares with two colleagues. “The only things a graphic designer needs are a good chair, a good table, and the internet,” she says. The internet here is satisfactory. The tenants brought in their own table and chair; they put their design work on the walls and flowers in the window. A pleasant workspace was born, with affordable rent. “Working from home started to get on our nerves,” Matejova says. “We feel good here.”
The reconstruction was undertaken exactly for people like this young creative – and there apparently are plenty of them, because 100 firms applied to rent the spaces. Eventually about 20 made it in. Fortunately, such tenants can get by with this “professional punk,” as the architects call it – they don’t need billions of crowns’ worth of perfect reconstruction.
“We always analyze the situation and look for what will be important from the standpoint of the building’s new function,” Kozelsky says. In this case, it was inexpensive, start-up offices, a place to interact with colleagues, plus a basic working environment. And the entrepreneurs don’t have to be concerned about bringing even a demanding client into the modern conference rooms.
The construction work cost the investor, South Moravian Innovation Center – a business promotion group that connects universities and research entities with innovative companies – 6 million crowns ($272,000) plus the cost of the new interiors. Thus, a building that would otherwise be empty, dilapidated, and swallowing up maintenance costs has come to life. That is clear from the neon letters K-U-M-S-T in the display windows. They are reviving the street, as is the colorful, creative crew in the hub. “In Brno we have already demolished many industrial buildings that could have been preserved and transformed,” Kozelsky says. “But the city lacks a strategy.” In his view, it would be possible to revitalize many of them. “A conversion done right can be economically and environmentally sustainable,” he says.
A Space for Idealists
Empty buildings create blight that can spread. “In the long run, an empty building means difficulties for an entire locality; it attracts [negative] social effects; it lowers the value of real estate in the neighborhood,” says Petr Zeman, founder of Prazdne domy (Empty Buildings), a database of information about vacant buildings. He has 7,000 entries so far: abandoned factories, barracks, rectories, and small chateaus all over the Czech Republic. “The biggest problem is finding a new purpose for them,” he says. In the best cases, this succeeds – they become pensions, recreational cottages, cultural centers. Otherwise they are torn down.
“We all wash our yogurt containers for reuse, but we have no problem with demolishing a building and taking it to the dump. And we build a new one in its place,” Zeman says of the standard approach.
According to the Czech Statistical Office, construction waste makes up 15 million of 37 million tons of waste produced in the country annually. “They recycle 2% of it,” estimates Viktor Trebicky of CI2, a non-profit devoted to measuring and reducing the carbon footprint of human activities.
As dumps fill up, manufacturing of new materials generates large-scale energy consumption. Cement production globally has three times the carbon footprint of air transport, and that of steel production is even greater.
“We’re concentrating on low-energy buildings and on reducing the energy consumption of operating buildings,” says Antonin Lupisek of the University Center for Energy-Efficient Buildings at Czech Technical University. “But the energy consumption built into construction materials isn’t much less.”
The language of money conveys a different message. Using existing buildings is economically feasible only in special cases and in attractive locations. For example, developers profitably convert apartment buildings in large city centers. If a building is in a less desirable locality, it’s less expensive and easier to tear it down than adapt it to serve a new purpose.
“Transformation is complicated, and the developer never knows in advance what awaits him and what the costs will be,” says Petr Hana, a construction investment analyst with the consultants Deloitte.
A Promising Path
The construction industry tends to be inertial and pragmatic. Adaptive reuse, at least now, is on its fringe, a space for idealists, experimental architects, and innovative industrialists. But it is a growing trend, both abroad and in the Czech Republic, in exclusive projects as well as public housing. This is evident in the results of architecture competitions: old and adapted buildings have scored points in recent years.
The Prague studio ov architekti received the 2020 Czech Architecture Prize for the transformation of two timber-frame buildings into a headquarters and showroom for the luxury lighting fixtures brand Lasvit. This year, Dum v ruine (House in a Ruin), by Znojmo-based studio ORA (Original Regional Architecture), has been nominated for the award. The project involved installing a living space in the shell of another building. The World Building of the Year 2019 at the World Architecture Festival was a railway depot converted into a public library in Tilburg, the Netherlands. All of these involve courageous and quite often costly elevation of the old to the new and stylish.
Other projects are guided more by an effort to save money and resources, such as the work of Pritzker winners Lacaton and Vassal. Their most influential project transformed 500 apartment units in a prefabricated building in Bordeaux by installing a translucent facade four meters in front of the existing exterior walls. Each apartment thus gained a spacious winter garden, with more air and light. Adjustments also were made to the common areas and the surrounding landscaping; in the spirit of the architects’ motto, nothing was demolished and no one had to move.
Whether such projects become mainstream depends on many factors. On the development of architecture; construction; society as a whole. What values will we protect; how rich we will be; the costs of construction materials, including their carbon tax. Many European Union documents at the very least declare that adaptation and conservation is the right path – one that should be given preference over demolition.
Brno-based KOGAA is on that path. After graduating from architecture school, the founding partners formed a studio and resurrected a former distillery in Brno’s city center. The Distillery, a “social reactor” lab, was born. They set up an office there, rented spaces to colleagues, and ran an open-air movie theater in the courtyard during the summer and a bar in the elevator. Profits were invested into repairs. The work touched activism, architecture, and development.
“We used ourselves as guinea pigs and learned that this can work,” KOGAA co-founder Odstrcilik says. They then created another “social reactor,” Lyceum, in an abandoned primary school. The studio also has adapted an abandoned storage facility on the banks of the Svitava River in Brno into a mixed-use and residential project, which includes a green roof. In fact, most of their work to date has been in the form of conversions and adaptations. “We are not saying that absolutely everything has to be preserved,” Odstrcilik says. “But for many buildings it makes sense.”
Karolina Vrankova is a freelance journalist who writes mainly about architecture and design for the Czech weekly newsmagazine Respekt and other media. She hosts a weekly podcast about architecture, urbanism, and design for the public radio channel Radio Wave.
Reprinted with permission from the Czech weekly Respekt. Edited for clarity and concision. Translated by Gwendolyn Albert. All photos by Respekt photographer Matej Stransky.