Don’t tear it down – convert it

With the influences of demographic developments and climate change, it is becoming impossible to meet the demand for suitable and affordable housing exclusively by building new houses. So how can we use existing modernist buildings and convert them in a way that will suit the growing need for urban residential homes and create an identity at the same time?  As part of the project ‘Reuse of Modernist Buildings (RMB)’ design tools and strategies have been developed for sustainable reuse of buildings from the 50s to the 80s.On Thursday, 23 November 2017, the RMB conference on ‘Resilience’ met in Detmold.

The topic of current use and reuse of modernist buildings was broached by several members of the RMB project and by the European guest speakers in their talks. The subjects presented ranged from architectural projects to research studies; they were based on sound research processes and presented numerous reference projects from the European area.

The architect and current winner of the Mies van de Rohe Award, Xander Vermeulen Windsant, showcased in his talk on the subject of “Resilient Neighborhoods” the reuse concept for ‘DeKleiburg’ as an example of a positive neighborhood development which successfully manages to create a sense of identity. DeKleiburg in one of the largest building complexes in the Netherlands, and is situated in the Bijlmermeer city district of Amsterdam. The reuse and revitalization concept included the entire building, from floorplan to communal rooms to activities in the city district. The design of the individual flats is to remain chiefly the responsibility of the users with their own DIY projects. A variety of layouts and façade designs promotes identity  of the building structure. Windsant raised the question whether instead of demolishing them we could apply such reuse concepts in other buildings too.

In the second half of the talks, with the theme of “Resilient Building Skins”, Professor Alex Dill thematized the relationship between architecture, culture, politics and historic monuments, based on modernist buildings like the Rietveld-Schröder house and the Bauhaus Dessau.  He also referred to the Russian architecture of Erik Mendelssohn and inquired about the relationship between the original and its restauration. Dill viewed architecture both as having the potential to create culture, and the prime medium to aid the transition from conventional types of housing and lifestyles.  Politically architecture acts, he said, as the border between different social classes and has a representative effect.  In the category “Architecture and Heritage”, he explained the interdisciplinary restauration of the Villa Tugendhat (Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Brünn).

Background: The ERASMUS project “Reuse of Modern Buildings” (RMB) is a cooperative project of five universities and Docomomo, a European NGO and an associated international partner (The Energy and Resources Institute, India). The RMB project which is coordinated by the Hochschule Ostwestfalen-Lippe is aiming to create a  European Master study program. Teaching will focus on the technological, conceptual and social aspects of modern architecture after WWII and the necessary technical and conceptual adaption of today’s building and living standards required to meet future housing needs and at the same time win acceptance for modernist housing complexes.  Past study projects and international workshops have developed experimental new living and working environments for such buildings as the Bauturm, the city hall of Marl and the prefabricated buildings in the urban district of Hüls.

Talks were also given by the following speakers:

Anica Dragutinovic: Contested Resilience of a Modern Structure or “Dissonant Heritage”: Multilayered Identity of the Old Belgrade Fairground

  • Zara Ferreira: Post-WW II housing estates in Europe: obsolescence or resilience?
  • Daniela Arnaut: Radium Pavilion of the Portuguese Institute of Oncology in Lisbon. A modernist functional skin.
  • Prof. Aslihan Tavil: Presentation of ERASMUS+ RMB project
  • Prof. Gonçalo Canto Moniz und Prof. Paulo Providência: Dialouge with the community and photo elicitation for reuse of modern buildings design studios: a pedagogical experience
  • Prof. Teresa Heitor: Role of workshops in education. Introduction of different workshop formats. Results of the RMB student workshops
  • Students of the study programs Master of Integrated Design/Hochschule OWL and Master of Integrated Architectural Design/Hochschule OWL: Poster presentation – Scientific Approaches for resilient modernist buildings and facades.

For further information on the project and the conference, please go to:

(Text and photos: Dennis Kehr)