[Korea Focus] Insightful Reuse of Industrial Heritage

The Musée d`Orsay in Paris, France, the Tate Modern in London and the Baltic Centre for Contemporary Art in New Castle, United Kingdom, are all renowned European art museums. Another commonality is that they are housed in converted transportation and industrial sites: a railway station, a thermal power station and a flour mill, respectively. The fact that creative ideas have revitalized deteriorating industrial sites into new centers of art and culture, bringing fresh life into the cities, adds to the charm of these art museums.

As is confirmed by ancient architectural relics, the lifespan of a building can be hundreds of years or even longer. Its lifespan depends not so much on the building`s structural qualities or its materials` physical properties as on how effectively it is managed and reused for new purposes. In Europe, old railway stations, power plants, factories and warehouses constructed immediately after the Industrial Revolution, and thus are some 200 years old, are generally referred to as “industrial heritage.

These historic buildings once served as important elements of infrastructure for citizens` livelihoods and the city`s economic development. However, the massive old buildings occupying city centers can ruin the urban atmosphere or cause serious environmental problems. Therefore, deciding whether to maintain or demolish disused industrial sites has been a key issue in urban development.

Why opt for renovating disused buildings rather than demolishing them to make room for new construction? One obvious reason may be cost efficiency. However, plenty of cases show that renovating an old building is sometimes more costly than constructing a new one from scratch. In essence, the effort to preserve industrial heritage is a matter more of attitude toward historic sites than of cost effectiveness. Architecture of a certain era represents the best technology and the spatial needs of the time, but the utility of individual buildings does not last forever. A station built for steam locomotives is not suitable for high-speed trains that run at over 300 km/h; a power plant on fossil fuels that emits black smoke from exhaust cannot coexist with today`s environmental awareness.

Common sense says it would be more rational to tear down an obsolete building and erect a new one in its stead. However, industrial heritage as a mirror of the contemporary society and as the outcome of its highest technological achievement has a value that transcends practical considerations. In the same vein, societal efforts to preserve industrial heritage help the society progress with respect for its history and tradition.

Besides, there is another reason to favor preservation. Industrial heritage offers the posterity an opportunity to create new from old. If the Musée d`Orsay, Tate Modern and Baltic Centre have been housed in completely new buildings, the concepts that characterize them today and the ideas that are represented by them would have been lost. The efforts to reuse the existing buildings, while preserving their features and making the most of their merits, resulted in the original structures and spaces of the current art museums.

When Sir Giles Gilbert Scott designed the former Bankside Power Station, in which Tate Modern is now housed, he is said to have expected the massive industrial structure to be equivalent to that of 15th and 16th century cathedrals. It is also quite interesting that the architect also foresaw that thermal power would not be in demand for very long. He observed that European cathedrals from centuries ago had endured the test of time and acquired the significance as a landmark of the city, irrespective of religion. As such, he expected this power plant, the main engine for the 20th century urban development, would also one day perform the same function.

The architect`s belief proved true; within a century, the power plant was revived as one of the cultural icons of the 21st century. Faded bricks, dingy concrete and rusty steel frames of old buildings are not necessarily urban monstrosities that we should be rid of as quickly as possible. Rather, urban development policies should be based on a more insightful approach to revitalize and embrace industrial heritage as legacies from the past that also define our time, albeit with different functions.

Korea Focus 20111001

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