Dan Barasch on the beauty of reclaiming & transforming abandoned space

Dan Barasch, Co-Founder & Executive of the Lowline, joined us for a talk, where he illustrated the vast potential of abandoned spaces.

Milwaukee’s Schlitz Brew House. Credit: Eric Holubow

Pointing to the apocalyptic image of peeling paint and intricate turquoise banisters of Milwaukee’s Schlitz Brew House, Co-Founder & Executive of the Lowline Dan Barasch illustrated the vast potential of abandoned spaces. His own in-progress prototype–a deserted trolley station in the Lower East Side of NYC, turned subterranean public park–seemed to have gleaned inspiration from his next slide; leafy plants spiraled into analogous curved ruins of the decrepit French Chapel in which they’d run rampant.

Not only is there potential for what’s aptly come to be called “ruin porn,” but also a market. The hashtag: #abandonedplaces boasts over three million Instagram posts alone.

Yet how, Barasch asked, does the so-called “ruin porn” translate to “design porn.” How did a Caproni aircraft factory become Gucci Milan’s HQ? What was the process of converting an old Chinese Sugar Mill into a luxury hotel nestled in the region’s karst mountains?

Caproni aircraft factory becomes Gucci Milan’s HQ. Credit: Piuarch

Barasch quite literally wrote the book – Ruin and Redemption in Architecture (2019) – on the process and subject of urban futurism: the repurposing of forgotten structures for future reuse. He outlined four classes of project: abandoned and lost (Taiwan’s Sanzhi UFO Houses), abandoned and existing (Japan’s Ghost Island), abandoned and reimagined (Washington D.C.’s 11th Street Bridge), and abandoned but transformed (Theaster Gates’ Stony Island Arts Bank).

And at a time when the density of cities is at a crucial turning point (by 2050 nearly ⅔ of people will live in cities versus ½ that do today), Barasch argued that now more than ever salvaging vacated sites is crucial. Especially, he stressed, as we already see huge levels of inequality in inner cities. One such example, Gates’ Rebuild Foundation, revamped a crumbling 1920s bank on Chicago’s South Side. Now an art and culture center (what Gates has called a “repository for African American culture and history,”), it provides an often-disenfranchised public access to private art generally reserved for wealthy city dwellers.

Stony Island Arts Bank. Credit: Tom Harris

Enabled by technology, these locales can also serve as emblems of both innovation and antiquity. Like Bombay Sapphire’s English-paper-mill-cum-gin-distillery (whose greenhouses of undulating glass sit alongside preserved red-brick Victorian buildings), these storied spaces fuse the future with the past in the very outlay of their contrivances.

But the question remains how many will actually undergo creative restructuring? And what are the consequences?

Barasch’s own Lowline, proposed as New York’s first underground park, falls into the abandoned but reimagined category. The design aims to bring green space into one of the city’s most dense areas by piping natural light into a derelict 1940s Lower East Side trolley terminal via solar technology thought up by Co-Founder (and previous NASA satellite engineer) James Ramsey. According to Barasch, their proof of concept: “The Lowline Lab” attracted over ten thousand of visitors, but uncertainty lingers.

Barasch emphasized that conversions don’t occur by accident. Preservation is expensive and requires safety and code measures be met. The alternative, tearing down historic buildings to create sterile edifices built on the cheap, is much more likely.

“It’s easier to start over,” Barasch said. “In a vacuum, capitalism will have its way,” in his opinion, effectively obliterating the elements that make cities worth living in. But, he contended that affordable housing can and should be inspiring, urging a save-and-reuse model – a recycling of urban landscape. Yet in order for these costly ventures to have a chance, someone has to fall in love with it.

Whether by an individual, non-profit, governmental agency, or a different set of urban regulations (see: Europe’s stricter stipulations for historic landmarks), these proposals necessitate advocacy. Accordingly, projects like the LA River’s reworked rendering as a pedestrian/bike path (offering low-income residents access to greenery), require big pushes.

LA River master plan.

And still, such massive overhauls can act as catalysts for gentrification in underserved or neglected areas, negatively impacting the vulnerable populations they propose to serve.

To counteract this, Barasch highlighted alternative archetypes that attempt to meaningfully connect with the community (a dilapidated grain silo reconstructed as South Africa’s Zeitz MOCAA or a 13th-century Dominican Church remodeled as a Dutch bookstore). To Barasch, the most successful cases not only mitigate unintended consequences of adaptive reconfiguration, but also prompt positive social change.

Like his own project endeavors to, those undertakings that strive to integrate the community in the creation process (like providing space for design feedback and input along the way) have the greatest potential for positive impact. Or, in Barasch’s words, enterprises focused on accessibility – fashioned as truly location-specific hubs like Gates’ – can facilitate “weaving communities together.”

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