“Ruin porn is all over Instagram,” says Dan Barasch, the author of Ruin and Redemption in Architecture, a new book from Phaidon, in which he explores public spaces—think of the High Line in Manhattan—that have, and have not, been readapted in cities. “There are these really sumptuous, titillating images of abandoned spaces without any real context or substance behind them,” he says. “On the other hand, there’s endless celebration of design porn—stunning renderings or photographs of extraordinary structures.”
For Barasch, these two populist expressions of worship have one very important thing in common: “There’s no sense of history,” he says.
Barasch has been thinking about history, and its connection to public space, for over a decade. He and James Ramsey are the minds behind the Lowline, a proposed underground park in an abandoned former trolley terminal on New York City’s Lower East Side. It’s a project that’s consumed him since 2009, leading him to examine how other cities have made use of abandoned, old, or ruined spaces, which in turn resulted in this book.
History comes crashing into the present when we confront a sobering reality: More people are moving to cities. Many estimates predict that by 2050, two thirds of the world’s population will be living in them. Because space in cities is at a premium, public space has never been more expensive, debated, or important. “A lot of new development is making people feel small, and is disconnected from the city and lacking the humanity and the public space and the connected tissues to weave communities together,” says Barasch. Thirty or forty years ago, cities were less desirable because of issues like crime; now, cities tend to be so much safer that quite a different problem is on people’s minds: gentrification and income inequality.
“The ways we conceive of public space now, with large-scale public development, feels very corporate,” he says. “Hudson Yards is a good example. They did develop a large amount of public space, meant to be for the public, and yet there’s nowhere to sit, you’re dwarfed by large towers on all sides, and it’s dominated by high-end retail. Somehow this passed as a description of effective public space.”
Barasch tells me all this in the commissary at Metrograph, the repertory movie theater at the bottom of Ludlow Street. We’re meeting here after I refused to meet him at his first choice—Soho House’s Lower East Side outpost, Ludlow House. The two edifices represent largely the same issue: money arriving where culture once was, with Metrograph emerging leaps and bounds ahead. Barasch had just landed from Australia the night before (he was talking with city leaders in Sydney about what to do with its miles of underground tunnels). His 15-month-old son (with partner Robert Hammond, a cofounder of the High Line), Rigsby, decided not to sleep last night. He’s a bit of a ruin himself.
Barasch orders huevos rancheros and takes me through his book’s four sections: Lost (Les Halles, Paris’s traditional market, built in 1183, transformed in 1850, demolished in 1972); Forgotten (Gunkanjima Island, a.k.a. “Battleship Island,” in Japan, abandoned in 1974); Reimagined (the L.A. River, 11 miles of which Frank Gehry would like to transform into a park); and Transformed (the High Line, NYC’s elevated railway line, built in 1934, abandoned in 1980, transformed in 2009). The huevos are disappointing—there are a great deal of beans. “You’re not a fan of beans?” I ask him. “Maybe not this many beans,” he says. In the end, taste defines adaptive reuse projects as well.
The spaces we choose to preserve or reinvigorate are, like almost anything else, subject to trends. Currently, people are looking at transit—abandoned railways, train stations, and depots that once were the lifeblood of cities. Ultimately, the spaces we choose to save or abandon come down to important but difficult questions about what a community is. “It’s such a subjective question. The answer depends on whom you’re talking to,” he says, adding that land is inherently political. “The central challenge of public-spirited design is: What does ‘the community’ want? That’s an impossible question to answer. Sometimes you just want a bowl of beans.”
When it comes to manifesting this desire, corporations and private money, it seems, have picked up the ball where governments have dropped or deferred it. Barasch points to some of his favorite examples in his book: Gucci Hub—a converted Milanese factory from 1915 (abandoned in 1950) that the company has modernized with attention to public walkways and reverence for old-world elements, like maintaining the building’s original brick facades—and the Fondazione Prada, wherein a turn-of-the-century gin distillery has been converted into a center for contemporary art. He also likes the Tate Modern in London, a converted power station.
“What all of those spaces have in common is that they’re used as hubs for creativity, or cultural centers,” he points out. “Prada is a good example. You have the preservation of old buildings in an industrial area with stunning new modern additions. One cannot purchase a Prada product on the site. It’s a project focused on art.”
These favorites stand in opposition to a larger point Barasch wants to make. “Someone needs to pay for these things,” he says. And they’re expensive. One of the core findings of the book is that the easiest way for adaptive reuse to happen is for a city or state government to spearhead the project, or a private developer has to be able to underwrite the full cost. “Who is capable of paying for it? Governments, companies, and increasingly high-net-worth individuals,” he says, before reaching his conclusion. “Ultimately," he says, "we need the public sector to pay for the public realm.”