Among the admirable and enjoyable sights to be found along the sidewalks of big cities, the ingenious adaptations of old buildings for new uses is the most enduring one. A glance on the patina of the old walls of these buildings evokes nostalgia. For a moment, the stone whispers the stories of the days long gone, the life stories of the generations of people who have lived in and around it. These buildings give a character to the neighborhood, visually pleasing and cohesive. It is in this context, the old buildings play an irreplaceable role in creating an image of the city: a sense of place, a sense of belonging.
How would it be to wake up one morning to find that your neighborhood has been replaced by the ‘modern’ buildings? The familiar old building that you walked past everyday and got accustomed with, is no longer there to offer solace. You feel you have lost a friend; you feel you have been alienated in your own home. What surrounds you now are the new ‘high-tech’ buildings, which are like babies- charming but nothing to tell.
Old buildings have two basic qualities, aesthetic and historical, both linked to durable cultural symbols. The district must mingle buildings that vary in age and condition, including a good proportion of old ones. This mingling must be fairly close grained.
Jane Jacobs, in Life and Death of American cities, has listed the ‘need for aged buildings’ as one of the four conditions to ‘Generators of Diversity.’ Old buildings do not necessarily imply museum pieces or old buildings in an excellent and expensive state of rehabilitation- although these make fine ingredients- but also a good lot of plain, ordinary, low –value old buildings, including run down old buildings.
1950s saw America start a massive campaign of ‘urban renewal’, to obliterate old buildings. The planning utopians were enchanted by the idea of ‘socially meaningful communities’. Real communities were bulldozed to make way for the virtual. Some of the finest buildings were lost. These had high ceilings, thick sound proofing, spacious halls, beautiful marble, wood and metal ornamentation delights that new buildings cease to provide. Across the country from New York city’s Penn Station to Detroit’s Neo- French Renaissance city hall to hundreds of Victorian frame houses in San Francisco; the old buildings continued to fall.
However, 1970s saw change. New catchwords were preserve, conserve, recycle, rehabilitate. With the passing of National Historic Preservation Act of 1966, old buildings got much awaited recognition.
Today, Boston’s market place revival attracts over a million people and a more that $80 million annually. San Francisco’s pioneering Ghiradelli Square, where an old chocolate factory has become an internationally famous shopping center.
Let us not forget that destruction is permanent. If in the name of efficiency we condemn the old today, what will be the fate of new tomorrow? After all, time changes everything. Time CAN make the space efficiencies of one generation the space luxuries of another generation