The twentieth century marked a definitive shift in the realm of architecture, as the Modernist movement broke from traditional building styles and encouraged experimentation and innovation. With the help of new materials and technologies, these times represent a crucial moment in the history of architecture as both cities and building styles evolved at an unprecedented rate. The structures that stand testament to this day are, however, nearing the age of a hundred years old. Their stark design features are not always embraced by the public, while the functionalist principles often hinder the adaptability of their interior spaces. Given that they also often occupy central positions within the city, there is increasing pressure to demolish these structures and redevelop the area in its entirety.
Modern heritage structures are often seen as rigid, both futuristic and outdated, and non-compliant with modern standards for energy efficiency and comfort. Additionally, these structures are in an intermediary position: often not old enough to be considered monuments, but not new enough to be seen as useful for the city. All of these arguments contribute to the pressure to demolish, in spite of the intrinsic knowledge that “the most sustainable building is the one that already exists.”
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The typical pre-demolition process does little to counter this mentality. Imposed with the purpose of assuring a safe demolition process, it focuses mainly on superficial aspects like the building’s physical condition, neglecting the intrinsic value, the intangible qualities, and historical narratives woven into the fabric of these buildings. The possibility and feasibility of retrofitting and adapting the structures to modern standards are also rarely included, as the documentation’s main purpose is to create the basis for demolition, not to contest it. There are however voices, from both architects and a certain section of the public, asking for a more careful selection process.
Saving Mäusebunker: A New Model Procedure
The central animal laboratories of the Free University of Berlin, also known as the Mäusebunker, were slated to be demolished in 2020. Built between 1971 and 1981 by architects Gerd und Magdalena Hänska, the striking Brutalist structure served as a research facility for experimental medicine until 2010. In a bid to remodel and modernize the campus, the building was proposed for demolition. The move faced opposition from architects and the larger public, as two other Brutalist buildings within the same complex, the hospital and the Institute for Hygiene and Microbiology, were already listed as modern monuments.
The Berlin State Monuments Office contributed to the debates by making public the result of a new type of analysis, the “Modellverfahren Mäusebunker.” The research, conducted in cooperation with the Charité University Medicine and the Senate Department for Urban Development, Building, and Housing, aimed to assess the building in terms of its future usability and potential. The cross-disciplinary approach represents a shift from the typical pre-demolition process. It highlights the historical importance of the building’s unusual elements, such as the complex ventilation system visible on the exterior, while also assessing the image of the building, as a highly recognizable one can make future uses more visible to the public.
This process emphasized the significance of the Mäusebunker in its larger context, as a testament to the commitment to scientific progress, which defined post-war architecture and urban planning in Germany. The Brutalist experimental architecture is now understood as part of a particular cultural identity. Experts also explored the potential for “retrofitting” as a sustainable alternative for conserving resources. The analysis also looked at the feasibility of the structure and the potential future uses, searching to understand the compatibility between a new function and the existing structures.
The Mouse Bunker poses a question for us: How do we deal with highly specific buildings from this time when we mistakenly assumed that energy and resources were in abundance? – Christoph Rauhut, head of the State Monuments Office in Berlin, in an interview for Tagesspiegel
In urban planning, feasibility studies are often used to analyze the proposal and define the real possibility of implementing the project from a technical, administrative, legal, and financial point of view. This new model procedure mirrors this type of study but applies it to the feasibility of reuse for an existing structure.
As a result of these collective efforts, the Mäusebunker building has now been placed under monument protection. The Berlin States Monument Office concluded that the former laboratories could be transformed into a mixed-use cultural venue, as cafes, event rooms, and various commercial uses could be integrated into its spaces while maintaining its distinct cultural identity. Contributing to the conversation, ERA Architects have contributed by demonstrating how to adapt buildings to reach modern standards for energy balance without significantly altering the concrete exterior.
Besides the positive outcome related to the Mäusebunker, this entire chapter proves the viability of the experimental model procedure, a process planned to become the standard procedure for the Monument Office, and hopefully an example for more local administrations overseeing the modern heritage.
Understanding the Potential of Existing Structures
The option to reuse and adapt buildings has multiple advantages. Besides ensuring the continuity of the cultural identity of the place, it also conserves the energy and materials already used and limits the need to consume new resources, making it the most sustainable option in most cases. This concept is known as “gray energy,” a term referring to the sum of all the energy required to produce a product. The primary energy utilized during construction accounts for a large percentage of the building’s entire energy use over its life cycle, with materials such as concrete accounting for significant amounts of CO2 needed for production. But solid concrete structures possess advantages for reuse, as their structures can cope with major interventions, priming them for reuse.
Existing buildings are the new building material of tomorrow. Appreciating what exists is not a conservative attitude, but rather an (often forgotten) method of continuity and enrichment. It is based on a philosophy of care and is often much more economically responsible.
– Anne Lacaton –
Examples of reimagined concrete silos and bunkers demonstrate that creativity and freedom of design can stem from existing structures. Between 1973 and 1975, Ricardo Bofill transformed an old cement factory into a La Fàbrica, a complex for living and working that became one of his most well-known projects. A similar conversion project was undertaken between 1977 to 1986 in São Paulo by architect Lina Bo Bardi, resulting in The Fábrica da Pompéia, an exemplary project of post-industrial conversion and a prominent example of Brutalist architecture. In more recent times, Studio Thomas Heatherwick’s transformation of Cape Town’s Grain Silo Complex into The Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa demonstrates once again the quality and complexity of spaces that can result from integrating and reusing existing structures.
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