The Twentieth Century Society

Review: Old Buildings New Forms: New Directions in Architectural Transformations

Françoise Astorg Bollack (The Monacelli Press, 240pp, £40)

Reviewed by John Bacon

How can one reconcile a love of old buildings with a modern architectural practice? Bollack, who runs a thriving New York firm and teaches in the Historic Preservation Program at Columbia University, finds that many peers have made successful ‘interventions’ with older buildings which she categorises into five types: insertions, parasites, wraps, juxtapositions and weavings. The terms are intuitive, but Bollack expands on them verbally and visually in an interesting and even absorbing way. Several of the projects she profiles are well-known, for example David Chipperfield’s Neues Museum in Berlin (a weaving), but others are both modest and obscure, including a small building in the German countryside that originally served as a pigsty (an insertion). While preservation of the older fabric is more or less a given – though some are merely stabilised ruins, like the pigsty – Bollack focuses on the interventions of the contemporary architects.

The book starts with a dense but wide-ranging introductory essay on historical trends with a marked focus on post-WWII New York. Bollack makes interesting (and sometimes provocative) connections between trends in the visual arts, performing arts, and architecture, documenting a cultural and artistic shift that created the context in which the interventions arose and in which they may be understood and appreciated. Her categories provide a useful, comprehensible framework in which to look at such interventions—you may find yourself debating whether a building you see or visit regularly is a wrap or a parasite! Examples of each category are presented in some detail with excellent photographs and useful plans and drawings. The 28 projects are roughly split between Europe (15) and North America (12), with a restaurant in Beirut (an insertion) being the only outlier. Bollack discreetly includes one of her own projects, the 1995 Chesterwood Gallery and Visitors Center in Massachusetts (a clear, almost gleeful parasite). Londoners will know the one UK project featured, the Bridge of Aspiration at the Royal Ballet School in Covent Garden, a 2003 work by Wilkinson Eyre Architects (Bollack labels it a juxtaposition; one might also see it as a parasite). But many of the other buildings will be new to the reader and, as such, wonderful food for thought and future architectural travel plans: Lille and Mons make a nice duo, for instance, and many will want to make the pilgrimage to the German pigsty.

Bollack includes an image of Luytens’ Page Street Apartments in the introduction, along with those of other buildings that have inspired her (many in her native Paris). She does not reference these directly in the text, but simply celebrates their existence. One might quibble with the book’s thesis and the categories as defined by Bollack, but her passion for architecture in all of its varied manifestations is clear. This passion makes Old Buildings New Forms a stimulating verbal and visual treat that will inform and enhance how one looks at such interventions.