How will the city of tomorrow adapt and reuse the city of today? I don't think we ask that question broadly enough, and our day-to-day, property-specific incrementalism can easily overshoot the greatest lessons from history. A hometown case in point transported me from Seattle to Croatia for inspiration about why we should think beyond limited geographies, time frames, and lifetimes when we discuss urban redevelopment options.
Recently, the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Seattle-based Preservation Green Lab made urbanist media headlines with a report stating the environmental benefits of green retrofits of historic buildings, as compared to new, state-of-the-art, energy-efficient construction. A local church restored as townhouses joined the list of intriguing Seattle adaptive reuse projects typical of national trends.
Almost simultaneously, Seattle Times columnist Nicole Brodeur described a protest-free goodbye to a neighborhood icon in Madrona. A 112-year-old repair garage and offices (recently demolished) will soon become the nostalgically named Pike Station, comprised of new townhouses, complete with a courtyard and intermixed retail.
The purported upshot of the story, that the building had a good life and the new use is commendable, is clear in the headline: "Sometimes it's OK to let an old landmark go."
To reinvent cities, we need to know where we have been and where we are going.
How did our predecessors handle these issues in simpler times, when reuse was a practical necessity? What can we learn from those stories? As our surroundings evolve, can we create incentives and inspiration for transformational places that are sustainable in form, function, and attention to the past?
When considering these questions, there is one place that deserves a hard look: Split, Croatia. Amid the old town center and ruins of the retirement palace of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, adaptive reuse is obvious. Split is a place which began as something different from what it is today, yet lives on in the new clothing of another age, more juxtaposition than reinvention. I was lucky enough to first visit Split in 1968, in the old Yugoslavia, and to return many times in the years that followed.
It's not a stretch to say that its impressionable story explains my legal work in urban redevelopment. There, the survival and reuse of historic elements tell a valuable tale of sustainability.
Shortly after 300 A.D., on the site of Split's town center, workers completed Diocletian's Palace. Diocletian was the first Roman Emperor to voluntarily abdicate and retire in the modern sense; he viewed the palace as a purposeful respite from power in his home region, possibly for medical reasons.
After Diocletian's death, the palace was first a refuge for exiled imperial family members. Then, after destruction of the nearby Roman city of Salona by the Avars and Slavs at the beginning of the 7th century, the palace became a shelter for fleeing citizens, later a medieval town, a Renaissance regional center, and eventually a major city, with core elements of the palace still prominent today.
Thomas Swick's essay, "Croatian Pop" captures the spirit of Split best:
I slid through more right-angled alleys that deposited me into an hallucination: a sunken square hemmed in by antiquities. The delicate remains of a colonnade filigreed one side, and the skeletal façade of a temple, now buttressed by brick... Spotlights dramatized the age-blackened columns, giving the scene a crumbling magnificence, while the cafe tables spread across the peristyle provided a jarring contemporary note. So that welded onto the indoor/outdoor motif — niches and statuary under the stars — was the even more compelling one of ancient and modern: teenagers flirting on ruinous walls; couples drinking in the shadow of the gods. It was like stumbling upon a cocktail party in the Roman Forum.
How was this scene created? In essence, the palace, which spanned almost 10 acres, contained enough elements of classical urbanity — including the gridded crossroads of a military camp (the ancient castrum and its standard roads, the decumanus and cardo), as well as several ceremonial spaces and religious structures — that when repopulated after the destruction of Salona, it became easily adaptable to what we now consider urban uses.
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