Refurbishment as a sustainable urban-design strategy.

AuthorCraun, Zachary

As the world's population moves from rural regions to urban centers, it is imperative to design policies and physical environments that can accommodate such a massive influx. In response, many countries have been building cities from scratch, clearing greenfield sites and building at an extremely rapid pace. Additionally, existing urban centers have been slow to respond, instigating suburban sprawl. A new conceptual framework is needed, one in which existing buildings and infrastructures can be seen as spaces for grafting and injecting additional density and public space. A marriage of the philosophies of Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses is required, recognizing important cultural centers and economies, while allowing new buildings, infrastructures and ecologies to be incorporated in harmonious coexistence. In order to create alternative urban-design strategies, it is beneficial to study Spain, whose history and architectural philosophy has promoted a healthy relationship between the urban-planning policies of the past, present and future.

In 1800, only 3 percent of the world's population lived in cities. By 1900, the proportion had risen to 13 percent. Not long after 2000, the figure passed 50 percent. More than half of the world's population currently lives in cities, and the United Nations claims this number will increase from three billion to almost five billion by 2030. (1) The scale and speed of this urban expansion is unprecedented but our current trajectory of urban growth in the form of suburban sprawl is unsustainable. (2)

The adaptation of existing buildings must be a central concern of urban designers in order to ensure the future survival of our cities. Developing the existing urban environment is not merely a task of aesthetic integration; it is an economic and ecological imperative. A sustainable approach is one that utilizes existing buildings as a part of a broader strategy of resource management that sees our cities as a repository of massive amounts of energy and material. To create new sustainable urban design strategies that differ from the principles of modernist urban planning, it is beneficial to study Spain.

Modernist urban planning strategies, created in part as a reaction to the horrors of the industrial city, adapted a tabula-rasa mentality. Its urban concepts, usually designed in deliberate contrast to the "old city," often led to the destruction of obsolete urban structures. (3) This attitude persisted into the 1970s and characterized U.S. and European urban-planning efforts. Spain, however, was an exception. Spain managed to avoid modernism's transformative urban strategies because the country was politically isolated under the authoritarian rule of Francisco Franco until the late 1970s. (4) While significant modern buildings and urban-planning techniques were never implemented inside Spain, Spanish academics and professionals learned from the successes and failures of those outside the country. After shedding its despot, the country gravitated toward modernism's social idealism and aesthetic confidence, while embracing then-emerging trends of the preservation movement. When these professionals began rebuilding their country in the late 1970s, they implemented planning strategies that rejected extensive demolition and instead curbed physical expansions of their cities. The government provided incentives to infill urban voids, refurbish existing buildings and remediate inadequate public services. (5)


When asked about the contemporary attitude toward refurbishment in Spain, architect Alberto Campo Baeza said that the "preservation of historical and culturally significant buildings [is] already very strong." (6) His answer is typical for most professionals in Spain, because the past, in both cultural and built form, is still very much alive there. Roman ruins are frequently found during excavations for new construction. The idea of transforming an old building for a new use while conserving the existing structure predates Spain's formation as a country. Refurbishment, or adaptive reuse, is evident in many of their national treasures, including the Alhambra, the Seville Cathedral and the Great Mosque of Cordoba.

In the latter example, the original building was constructed in 600 CE by the Visigoths as a church, and the Moors subsequently refashioned it into a mosque between 780 and 980. After Ferdinand III of Castile reconquered Cordoba, the Christian majority of the region transformed the building back into a cathedral between 1230 and 1530. Beyond their cultural heritage, there is a professional history of architectural and urban-design strategies in Spain that illustrate the progression of refurbishment and conservation policies from the past to the present. When the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the first organization of its kind in the United States, was founded in 1949, Spain had already been grappling with questions of conservation at a national level for at least half a century.

The Spanish-American War was quickly fought in the spring of 1898, during which Spain lost its colonies in Puerto Rico, Cuba and the Philippines. Called "El Desastre" by the Spanish, the war led a number of academics to criticize their country's restoration of a constitutional monarchy, which they thought regressive. The activists, commonly referred to as Generation '98, wanted desperately to modernize Spain, and their architectural school of thought was labeled regeneracionismo ("regenerationism"). One of the main figures in the movement was Leopoldo Torres Balbas, an architect, conservator, urban historian and theoretician of architectural restoration and historic preservation. (7) He was not only an influential...

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