Is it fair to call a building bad simply because the world outgrew it and the type of work that used to keep it humming no longer happens?

On the island of Manhattan, the epicentre of skyscrapers for much of the last century, an old urban proverb goes something like this: “There is no such thing as a good new building and no such thing as a bad old building.”

Of course, that’s not true. There are plenty of good, bad and mediocre buildings of varying ages, and who is right to judge whether a building is good or bad anyway? Do we judge based on how it looks or how it functions? Do we factor in what it cost to build? Is it fair to call a building bad simply because the world outgrew it and the type of work that used to keep it humming no longer happens? What about the ugly and dysfunctional house that is nonetheless the happiest home someone has ever had in their life – is that a bad building?

Putting the impossible task of fairly judging buildings to the side, the proverb makes an interesting point about the psychology of architecture and the fact that city folk are not only sentimental when it comes to buildings, they are also surprisingly suspicious of any change.

The Paramount Pictures Screening Room, 1940s.

Our romantic affection for old architecture is a universal phenomenon, though less so in fast moving Asian countries where the wrecking ball swings pretty freely. Here in Sydney, our communities rally to save old buildings all the time, such as Sirius, the incredibly progressive social housing apartment block building in the Rocks and White Bay Power Station near Balmain, which at one stage provided the majority of electricity to the city. The weird but kind of wonderful thing about tribes that mobilise to save old buildings is that many of them have never set foot inside. What they are protesting to save is not a personal memory but rather the idea that we should respect our past and protect the symbolism of our significant buildings. For Sirius, there was an argument to protect it because of its unique brutalist architecture, but an even more powerful argument that it represents a rare moment in Sydney where people of lesser means could live close to the harbour in a building that made them proud. It is a symbol of social equality as much as design.

Golden Age Cinema today.

We’ve also acted as a kind of Tinder for the building, setting up relationships between new tenants and the owner, occasionally swiping left when the wrong ideas or people for the space have been suggested.

Paramount House is obviously an old building. 78 years old to be exact. Right Angle Studio was the very first tenant to move in after it was bought by its current owner in 2007. We basically squatted in an old board room for a few years and we’ve helped bring it to life by opening Golden Age Cinema & Bar in the basement and Paramount Recreation Club on the roof. We’ve also acted as a kind of Tinder for the building, setting up relationships between new tenants and the owner, occasionally swiping left when the wrong ideas or people for the space have been suggested.

Through it all, the owner and Right Angle have been incredibly careful to ensure that whatever happens in the future of the building in some way reflects and respects its past as a headquarters for exciting creative business. Of course, we’ve needed to think of new uses for old spaces, such as the café, which occupies what was the loading dock, but if you walk and look around you’ll see that every tenant and all the design somehow feels like it belongs. It’s not a recycling of an old building but rather an upcycling to a better building. That is why, from time to time, we need to push back a little on community groups who don’t want any change at all – the people who complain all the time that a suburb is no longer what it was and expect that grand old buildings should just be left as is, even if they are dying a slow death. Sydney has too many NIMBYs (Not in my back yard) and we need more YIMBYs (Yes in my back yard).

The doors to Paramount House.
Paramount House today.

To give comfort to these anxious people who don’t want any change at all, I would like to relate the parable of ‘your grandfather’s axe’. Your grandfather gives his axe to your father and your father passes it on to you. Along the way, both its blade and shaft will break multiple times and be replaced, which means that the axe you hold in your hand today was never touched by your grandfather… but it is still your grandfather’s axe. Paramount House now only has one small room, the cinema, where the same thing happens as in 1941. Even in that room the screen has been replaced and the original chairs were thrown out by the old tenant, meaning we needed to import some of the same style and era from Switzerland. The building has new people, new architectural elements, new businesses and totally new experiences for anyone who visits… but it is still and always will be Paramount House.

Author

Barrie Barton is co-founder of Right Angle Studio. Since 2005 he has overseen the company’s strategy and insights, establishing it as as one of the most influential agents of urban change in Australia and increasingly across the world, with Right Angle now also working in London and Johannesburg. Qualified as a lawyer but motivated by creating cities that improve the lives of their inhabitants, Barrie brings an humanistic understanding and casual style to property development.