Reuse of the Worn

In my initial post about a D-Crit lecture by Christopher Hawthorn. I briefly touched upon the six themes and current trends in architecture that he spoke about and had extrapolated from exhibits at the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale. These themes include: Atmosphere, the Worn, Vacancy, Temporary, Softness and Engagement. I recently posted an essay on my interpretation and further pondering concerning atmosphere and I will now enlighten you most gracious readers with some other ideas on worn, or aged/old, elements of the built environment.

First, lets recap what was said at the lecture. The idea of worn materials was demonstrated by referencing an Architecture Biennalle exhibit that incorporated salvaged materials from various vacant buildings thorough Berlin. A carpet with areas that occupied the footprint of a desk showed clearly where foot traffic over the years and places of heavy wear had occurred. Paneling from a wall or possibly a door relieved scratches, chips and natural wearing down at the edges where people probably leaned against it. Even a chunk of the Berlin wall was mentioned noting that the Eastern side was clean and white while the Western side was full of colorful graffiti. These markings and signs of wear give us a history of the place that the materials existed and act as ghosts of what used to be.

 The idea of worn materials lending a familiarity to a place and sense of comfort to its inhabitants is true in my case but I know people who would disagree and feel the need for things to be cold and sterile, or if that seems negative, open and clean. Most of the interiors that arise from this aesthetic are, in my opinion, stark and foreboding – albeit in a beautiful and sometimes surreal way, surreal because it cannot naturally remain as clean, uncluttered and unworn. Can you imagine that all stainless steel kitchen (for example) after years of use, scratched up, glossed over with grease and smoke stains and dented with time? Not exactly what the designers had in mind. But could it still be as comfortable as an old pair of jeans or as familiar as a well used doorknob.

There are millions of interesting case studies concerning worn buildings, especially here in New York and I can only imagine the multitude of items from older nations with grand architectural traditions. I feel like this is old hat, so I’m not going to dwell on buildings as worn objects instead I’m going to point out a couple interesting ideas that are inversely related and then delve a bit deeper into the idea of worn materials.

One artistic interpretation of this theme is found in reverse graffiti. The art is in the undoing of grime build-up, the activism is in the provocation to finish the job in order to remove the images. The act of creating this form of graffiti is impossible without the build up of dirt and grime on a surface over time. This is not necessarily an area that has been worn down by the human hand, this wear is caused by the disuse of the area, the lack of attention and the slow buildup over time.

Moss graffiti on the other hand allows time to take its natural toll. The natural progression of this type of artistic expression would result in the moss covering the hospitable (shaded and damp) areas. Again, this action is not the direct result of humans using the place and wearing it down, it is still an active process that nature takes part in and is accelerated and formed by human hands.

Clothing is probably the easiest thing to depict the idea of worn material. Once you remove the tags from brand new items and wear them once, they are worn when you wash them and wear them again you are essentially reusing them. Although I don’t usually go around telling everyone, I take a particular pride in the fact that around 75% of my wardrobe was purchased from second-hand thrift stores.These clothes are usually gently worn and in fact, after losing some weight, I have turned around and given some of the second hand duds back to consignment stores only to be sold a third time. Worn clothes segue nicely into the expanded topic that I am adding to the theme of worn, that of reuse.

Reuse of worn materials is an especially important topic idea as it relates to our current economy. I want to stress that reuse does not necessarily mean cheap or second rate design or materials, although it definitely can lead to that. Reuse of materials has always been an important element of crafts and DIY projects. It is unfortunate that our consumer based economy has virtually made even the idea of reusing materials unfashionable, unpopular and, depending on who you are talking to, un-American. on the contrary, not to get too political but, America has a strong history of economy, frugality and DIY mentality. Now that we are in unstable financial times it is almost cool, if not necessary, to reuse worn materials but I fear this is just a passing fad and will end along with the great recession, whenever that may be.

In the chain of conscious action – Reduce :: Reuse :: Recycle – reuse is a step above recycling and reducing consumption and waste takes precedence. (Perhaps the theme or reduction in architecture (and other areas) should be discussed and promoted in the future) Reuse in architecture is a humble practice that is not employed often enough. Sure there are earthships that reuse glass and plastic bottles, tires and an assortment of other random “junk” but who in the architecture world takes these structures seriously? When is the last time you heard of a new modern building incorporating materials from the previous building that was located on the site besides the token cornerstone or prized artistic/antique element that was salvaged? Sure LEED offers points for incorporating “salvaged, refurbished or reused materials” but at the time of this writing only 5% of all material need meet these standards to receive the credit. ( it should be said that I am a huge supporter of the LEED rating system but I am also the first to admit it does a better job of raising awareness than it does of actually producing/certifying truly “green” buildings). I am not going to toss around statistics (and probably never will) but suffice it to say that the construction/demolition industry accounts for a HUGE portion of material placed in solid waste landfills year after year.

One solution to this dilemma is provided by Build It Green! NYC which is a non-profit organization that offers “low cost salvage surplus material” at their warehouses. This is something I would personally like to venture into as it is my hope to one day start a company what will, in time, expand into the field of deconstruction and selling antique, interesting and/or easily reused building materials to warehouses like this one, that can then resell them to contractors and property owners for use in new construction and remodeling projects.

The last job I held in Mississippi was at Karnes Landscapes, The gentleman that owned the business had just completed construction of his home a couple months before I moved to Orlando. It was a beautiful house. One of the most striking things about the home was the reuse of materials. I helped re-plane board foot after board foot of reclaimed pine that he had salvaged from the old Coca-Cola bottling company downtown and several old barns in the region. This pine was absolutely beautiful. Full of distinctive knots and beautiful imperfections that you just don’t find in today’s lumber stock. He also had the most unique bar stools that where crafted out of massive (and heavy) tree roots which would normally be ground up or hauled to the dump.

I must repeat though, this is not enough.  Buildings, and all “products” for that matter, should be designed and created fully acknowledging and embracing the fact that the items and structures themselves are temporary. Future users should be able to easily replace parts and pieces or to completely disassemble the whole thing and reuse all the component parts to recreate. This is William McDonough’s idea of Cradle to Cradle design and ties neatly into the theme of the temporary which I wrote about last week.

On a different scale, and more specifically, I have seen old tires in folks yards throughout the South that have some soil and plants in them but creative reuse, like these blooming tire planters I see all over NYC can transform the whole idea and render the original material unrecognizable. (Please note that these planters are not safe for growing food for human consumption and I still wish we could find some better materials to make tires out of, or better ways of getting ourselves from point A to point B than cars for that matter, but it’s better than chucking them into a landfill and much better than burning them as many third world nations do.)

Another excellent opportunity for reuse is taking root in a community known as freecyclers, this is a phenomenon that all sorts of people participate in and epitomize the idea that one man’s junk is another man’s treasure. There is an online community but I participated in a few real time freecycles at Ethos in Orlando – which are monthly events and are often themed – Halloween or Christmas decor or school supplies for example – and there where also a couple plant exchanges each year which are organized by The Simple Living Institute. I hear that there is/was an actual storefront in Brooklyn. Taking material out of the waste stream is very important for nature and ecology and extending the life of perfectly good items already in existence is important to our economy. Some may argue that by reusing items you are reducing the number of factory, material extraction, transportation, packaging and retail jobs. I will bite my tongue and save that argument for another post.


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