The Beauty of Renovation

One of the reasons I love the practice of architecture is that every project is unique and different, which is especially true in renovation projects. They are all affected by being mindful of the past, relevant to the present, and focused on the future. I felt compelled to share my thoughts on Hugh Hardy’s new book, The Theater of Architecture, as he discusses buildings in relation to what they do, how they do it, and how their context inevitably influences the results. This is not a cut and dry architecture book with explanations of design solutions, it’s about all the elements and people that affected the building examples. His stories are supported by commentary from the project’s prime clients. I particularly enjoyed the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater in Brooklyn, New York. Formally known as the Majestic Theater, it had long since closed its doors and sat in ruin. The theater was chosen as the stage for the production of the “Mahabharata”, a nine-hour epic, creating the need to renovate the space.

During the course of construction, the designers made an unusual discovery – that they preferred the way it looked in this semi-unfinished state. While a theater with a somewhat natural character had been desired, it was never intended to be this radical. It wasn’t an easy sell to the city fathers and the code officials, but the producers prevailed. “Such a premise was completely unheard of in New York, where restoration was long assumed to mean returning a building to a simulation of its original appearance as close as physically possible”. The results are extraordinary! Hugh takes the reader on a journey along the spectrum of renovation from the recreation of the original design for Radio City Music Hall to the rebirth of New York City’s 42nd Street and Broadway Theater District in the 1980’s. All are noteworthy examples of the social and political forces influencing their design solutions. In Hugh’s words, “The assumption that restoration involves reproducing the original does not always apply. Interpreting the past is sometimes preferable to attempting to re-create it”.

When a building has a valued, historical past, it is not an easy decision to alter its original appearance. But for a building to remain relevant, it must serve its function properly and accommodate today’s new technologies. As natural resources diminish, and our energy sources are at a premium, we are learning to recycle and reuse much of our existing products, including our buildings. An inevitable question that surfaces during a building renovation is, do we restore a building to its original state, or alter it somewhat, or maybe repurpose it to something different, or all the above? Knowledge of theater can help inform creation of buildings – not through imitating the illusions of painted scenery, but through understanding how buildings are discovered and experienced by the public. What excites me about my profession is that architecture is defined by the human spirit. And all of us, as individuals, affect our built environment more than we realize.