Introducing Quiet Architecture for the 21st Century
My definition of good architecture is the use of intelligence and creativity to enhance and transform existing structures to fit new functionalities and ways of living. This is progressive architecture that will preserve the environment, increase energy efficiency, reduce waste and minimise unnecessary impact on the urban fabric and our planet.
Of course there continues to be a need for new buildings: the global population is ever increasing and there are housing shortages in many economies. We cannot all be accommodated in revitalised structures. But when we have the choice, the existing must be reused.
Good buildings have survived across centuries and millennia, prevailing beyond the bloodlines of their original owners, to become places of great resonance and beauty. Yet today, the average life of buildings in the Western hemisphere is a little over 90 years. Modern technology, advanced building material and generations of uninterrupted construction experience notwithstanding, we now outlive buildings constructed in our lifetimes.
Why tear down what could have been preserved and improved? Why demolish and rebuild? Why add more stuff to the world?
As architects, we are building the aesthetic of today and the future. We must be progressive in our thinking and bold in our approach. My practice, Rabih Hage Architects, is exploring a new methodology that will avoid wiping out past layers of buildings, culture, history and lives. While new shapes can often be justified and result in good architecture, improving existing buildings and extending their lives is a bigger, better and more important challenge. This is what I call “Quiet Architecture.”
A superb example of Quiet Architecture is the Stirling Prize winning transformation, by Witherford Watson Mann, of the ruins of Astley Castle into a beautiful, poetic and functional building. Another example is the work of Bernard Khoury, who takes concrete carcasses of war-damaged buildings in Beirut and transforms them into vital modern structures which, rather than erasing the city’s painful history, ensure it isn’t forgotten. An example from our own work is the transformation of a Victorian town house in London’s Kings Cross into the Rough Luxe Hotel, in which we worked like urban archaeologists—painstakingly excavating and restoring the building to reveal the beauty of original distressed walls—while creating interiors like social analysts, adding subtle layers of functionality and contemporary living through colour, fabric, art and hospitality.
Quiet Architecture makes commercial sense: revitalising existing stock is almost always more commercially viable than building anew when the bigger picture is taken into account.
But what if there is nothing there? I believe that there is no such thing as an empty site. Even when you are creating a new building, there is always something to link it to—the landscape, the urban fabric, the geology or the culture. Like a creative anthropologist, an architect should design with the social profile of a building’s users in mind as well as the existing story of the site, keeping both at the heart of the project.
Quiet Architecture rejects monotonous one-size-fits-all urban developments that copy and paste what has been done elsewhere as much as it spurns overly-designed grandiose pastiche, the urge to create a personal monument to creativity, to shout what could be whispered.
It is easier to conjure bold statements out of the air than it is to work within existing limitations. But constraints are the catalysts that force us to come up our most innovative, aesthetically enriching solutions.
Good architecture sits beyond trends and movements. The best 21st Century architects will put a subtle imprint on buildings, like a message in a bottle or a time capsule. They will assert an opinion and an architectural presence at the same time as respecting the traces and aesthetic of what has gone before. Purposeful architecture will avoid collective social amnesia by respecting the work of past generations as well as contemporary sensitivities. It is not conservation, but Quiet Architecture, that passes a building to the future with renewed life and relevance.