Buildings go through life cycles, a time period in which the use of the building no longer suites its original purpose. Some developers choose to knock down and start over, but others choose a different approach by reprogramming, and creating a new life out of something that flat lined. Here in China, we have seen a couple of precedents that reexamined the potential for old warehouses, by converting them into trendy creative industries.
Through gentrification, old warehouse districts have been converted into lofts, studios, galleries, cafes, shops, event spaces, and coffee houses. By tailoring these projects towards artists, collectors, and the public, these districts start to become thriving communities, allowing artists to live and work amongst their clients and other artists. These vibrant settings bring people from all over to appreciate artwork, and also to support the parasitic programs. Through successful gentrification, these creative industries become their own ecosystems that support art and the community.
We had the opportunity to visit a couple creative industries in China, The first one we visited was called OCT in Shenzhen, which was designed by Urbanus. Looking at an old warehouse district they were able to use the shells of the existing buildings, and retrofit them with gallery spaces, creative offices, lofts, and cafes. A steel and glass network of bridges, corridors, and storefronts, parasitically connect and feeds off of the existing fabric. This parasitic network grows through the different warehouses creating a communal public space that connects the multitude of retrofitted loft buildings. This contrast of new and old creates this distinctive texture that allows the two systems to be understood for their individual characteristics, and collectively as a way to create a unique public condition. The project is still under construction, but one could imagine these parasitic connections filled with people actively participating and being a part of the creative industry.
798 district in Beijing, created a creative industry by taking over an old artillery factory that was no longer used for manufacturing. 798’s quaint town atmosphere is created through its different street scales including: a major artery cutting through the district, side streets focusing on a smaller more intimate scale, and pedestrian friendly alleyways full of tiny shops, and art. The streets are lined with galleries marked by intricate entryways that carve into the old fabric, giving a fresh edge and identity to the individual warehouses. As you move from gallery to gallery you pass through a series of vaulted spaces and pristine white walls, contrasting the rough brick and aged wood. This district creates more of an attraction than a community, but the specificity allows the creative industry to be very unique, and engaging to the public. By taking out the sterile atmosphere and high admission fees, 798 creates a completely different setting for art that in my opinion, can become more appealing to a broader range of people. Art museums have their place, but this different setting gives art a new audience and appreciation.
The interesting design element behind these creative industries is the importance of program. These buildings were designed with the intentions of manufacturing, and ended up becoming vibrant creative industries. Instead of the buildings being torn down, the shells of the buildings were recycled and given a new life. The importance of program is not necessarily in the form of the space; rather it is in the strategy of program allocation, and finding a concept that creates stimulating environments. The ability to create culturally rich, and vibrant public spaces, out of something that was once intended for private mass production, demonstrates the importance of program strategy. As architects we may not have control of what happens to our projects when we finish the initial design stages, but if we envision interesting concepts, and strategic program strategies, we will hopefully see our ideas successfully carried on. If not the project may be reprogrammed to better fit its users, and sometimes that is just as exciting too.