The first life of the Grand Hall at Union Station, Kansas City.

In seventh grade I entered a writing contest where I had an opportunity to be published in the Kansas City Star. The class assignment was basically preparing us to send our opinions in as letters to the editor, which in turn was just preparing us for the onslaught of online comments sections.

At the time the fate of Union Station – an abandoned, massive, art-deco monolith in downtown Kansas City that still has bullet holes from overcoat wearing gangsters’ Tommy Guns – was a hot topic. My piece was called ‘So Tear It Down’. It had all the trappings necessary to get published in an opinion section; arguing that remaining indecisive about what to do with the building was worse than just making a decision was really a ruse to write something incendiary – newspaper fodder. The article was published and my social studies teacher, Mr. Van, handed me a copy. He was disappointed.

Luckily, no one listened to me.

Union Station has been adapted for re-use. But, in all honesty, it’s a shell of its former self. One of the major points of adaptive reuse is finding a second life for a place that isn’t the same as the first. In actuality, this is hard. How can a place change, keep a link to the past and find a use that is new and inspiring? The Grand Hall of Union Station, whose wooden pews faced an enormous clock like a cathedral for precision, now acts as a daunting walkway to a science museum that’s more appendage than integration.

It feels like there is even more at stake now than there was in the 1990s. Our modern cities have specific challenges – environmental destruction, social isolation and a lack of nature. Adaptive reuse provides a toolbox that can address a number of these issues simultaneously and new places have the capacity to help fix some of the damage we’ve done in the past. Union Station has symbolic and civic value but lacks any real function. It’s like a piece of history has been highlighted but the future forgotten. We need to be taking the opportunity to build and design with the past and for the future.

So what does it mean to be regenerative?  These three places and projects have some answers.

Swimming pool at Zollverein. Photograph by Jochen Tack.

Zollverein Coal Mine, Essen Germany

In Western Germany, near the town of Essen, the Zollverein Coal Mine Industrial Complex operated as one of the largest mines in Europe from 1847 to 1986. Its structure focused on function and shunned ornament on a massive scale, particularly after WWI, culminating in a pure form of modern industrial architecture. The history of the mine’s first life is the history of the apex of the industrial revolution and heavy industry in Europe.

Most sites of heavy industry quickly fall into decay after their first life ceases. In an odd twist, the North Rhine Westphalia state government bought the entire site immediately after it closed and declared the iconic Shaft 12 as a heritage site. A foundation was formed to take care of Zollverein and, in 2001, a second life started as an official UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Functions have continually been added to the site, with the Ruhr Museum showcasing permanent and special exhibitions at its centre. Today the mine houses food, shopping, art fairs, talks, performances, workshops, a swimming pool (or ice rink depending on the weather) and abundant programming. The space exemplifies how to move from industrial- to knowledge-based living gracefully, in a way that doesn’t shun the past and gives people a lot of quality things to do.

The iconic Shaft XII. Photograph by Jochen Tack.
Iceskating at the mine. Photograph by Jochen Tack.
Exterior of Zeitz MOCAA. Photograph by Wianelle Briers.

Zeitz MOCAA, Cape Town South Africa

Radically changing the life and use of a building is a hallmark of adaptive reuse and upcycling aims to take the step further by fixing a problem. The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa is rectifying the global imbalance in art by pulling the focus from Western Europe and serving as a much-need beacon for contemporary art from Africa and its Diaspora.

The Grain Silo Complex located at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town was a building with 42 isolated tubes that reached 33 metres into the sky, each just 5.5 metres in diameter. Not an easy space to work with, which makes its transformation into a functional space that pays tribute to its original industrial design particularly impressive.

The transformation was the brainchild of Jochen Zeitz and Thomas Heatherwick, resulting in the first major museum dedicated to contemporary art from Africa on the Africa Continent. Shifting focus to globally underrepresented art and artists, MOCAA upcycled a heritage building into a civic place with global resonance.

BMW Atrium ceiling at Zeitz MOCAA. Photograph by Mohammed Hoosain.

Western Treatment Plant, Melbourne Australia

Not everything upcycled needs to be flashy and not everything needs to be for us. There’s a certain amount of species-ism inherent in building, urban design and architecture and it’s probably worth us asking how cities can react to environmental issues to create ecosystems that are home to truly abundant life. Recently covered in depth by Watkin McLennan for Foreground and part of a symposium at this year’s Melbourne Design Week, the Werribee Western Treatment Plant has been getting a lot of deserved attention.

As Melbourne urbanised, draining wetlands and laying asphalt, the landscape of the Werribee Treatment Plant evolved alongside it, but in a different way. The life that once filled the area around Port Phillip Bay diminished everywhere except here. The by-product of the treatment process created a perfect bird habitat and in a single day visitors can expect to see more than 100 species of bird, some of which come as far as the Arctic for the nutrient-dense water.

No longer a by-product of urbanisation, the wetlands are there because they are protected. The process of sewage treatment used to create perfect bird habitats by chance, but new mechanised systems mean that the wetlands need to be managed. But, how should we do that? And why?

Maybe the answer is in what McLennan calls, “a positive vision for the Anthropocene”. This is a man-made landscape that isn’t trying to restore something that is now unattainable, nor is it damning for both humans and other animals. Can we engineer our urban environments to work with nature? This might be the best example of upcycling.

Treatment pools and the Werribee coastline.
Waste water treatment pools at the Western Treatment Plant, Melbourne.
Water treatment plant pool, Melbourne.

Details

Location
Essen, Germany; Cape Town, South Africa; Melbourne, Australia

Designer

MOCAA: Heatherwick Studios

Author

Nick Jumara is an Editor and Researcher at Right Angle Studio. His background is in publishing, writing, performance and design, primarily in New York and Asia. He has worked in both academia and industry often intersecting research and production. Recently, a combination of independent magazine publishing along with venue and event management in Asia have led Nick to a practice of urban research and placemaking that is inclusive, connected and human.