Designed to last: ten of the world’s most inventive structures

Why waste buildings that are no longer needed? A new book highlights the best projects that repurpose factories, grain silos, and market halls. Here are ten of the most inventive – and inspiring – spaces from around the world for BBC Culture’s new series Designed to Last.

“Changes in how we live and work have radically altered our cities,” writes Ruth Lang in Building for Change: The Architecture of Creative Reuse, a new Gestalten book. “The spatial demands of working patterns have been utterly transformed over the past 50 years.” Many of our buildings could last for 50, or even 100, years; yet “fashion and changing patterns of use often curtail this lifespan, which sometime barely stretches to a decade”. Instead of abandoning these structures, however, designers are developing innovative solutions “which find value in the buildings that have been left behind… in place of our obsession with newness”.

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Building for Change investigates how creative reuse could be the future of space design around the world. While some architects are restoring and adapting existing structures to meet new needs, others are designing structures that can be easily repurposed for new purposes in the future. “Innovation doesn’t always have to mean creating something new – it can mean approaching existing resources in new ways,” writes Lang. Even within those constraints, ambitiously creative designs – those “that push the limits of architectural imagination” – are still possible. Ten projects, including former factories, sugar mills, grain silos, and market halls, reveal the most inventive, imaginative responses to a growing global challenge.

Baoshan WTE Exhibition Centre, Shanghai, China
Kokaistudios

In Shanghai, a former steel mill has been converted into an eco-park that includes a new thermo-electric waste-to-energy power plant, wetlands, an exhibition centre, and offices. The factory is a heritage site and one of the last remaining industrial structures in the city’s Luojing neighbourhood. Architects Kokaistudios kept the structure intact, fitting an independent modular system of panelling around the existing steel frame, “reimagining its rusting pipework and machinery as a design feature rather than a problem to be solved,” according to Building for Change. The polycarbonate screens are reusable and lightweight, which “enables the interior spaces to be flexible in configuration, reducing costs and construction times for adaptations as the site develops and the users’ needs change”. They also imply that the site’s appearance has been transformed “from ‘darkly overbearing’ to ‘warmly welcoming’ – even at night, when the building glows from within”.

Kibera Hamlets School, Nairobi, Kenya
SelgasCano and Helloeverything

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Just as Baoshan’s modular structure allows it to be dismantled and relocated for future reuse on another site, a Danish project built a second life into its initial design. “By accepting the commission to design a temporary pavilion for the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art near Copenhagen, Madrid studio SelgasCano and New York’s Helloeverything foreshadowed an afterlife for their creation,” Building for Change writes. “They designed a structure that could not only meet the requirements of the brief, but could also be disassembled, transported, and relocated elsewhere.” The former exhibition pavilion now serves as a school for 600 students in Kibera, Africa’s largest urban slum. Iwan Baan, a Dutch photographer, proposed the project’s new incarnation, which includes which houses 12 enclosed classrooms for nursery, primary, and secondary school students. The structure was built over two months by the architects and 20 Kibera residents using a universal modular scaffolding system that can be easily transported and adapted.

Alila Yangshuo Hotel, Guangxi, China
Vector Architects

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Vector Architects converted an abandoned 1960s sugar mill into a luxury hotel in an ecologically protected setting, surrounded by ancient villages. The landscape is as important as the buildings, and a structural truss, which was previously used to transport sugar cane to the boats on the Li River below, has been stripped back to its functional concrete core, which now frames a newly-built pool. The buildings’ original design has been preserved and simplified, with one wing of the hotel serving as a sound barrier to the highway that runs alongside the site.

Zeitz Museum of Contemporary Art Africa, Cape Town, South Africa
Heatherwick Studio

This grain silo on Cape Town’s Victoria & Alfred Waterfront, built in the 1920s, was the tallest building in Sub-Saharan Africa until the mid-1970s, and has been decommissioned since 1990. “The agricultural structure is an emblem of South Africa’s colonial history as well as another chapter in its post-Apartheid future,” says Building for Change. “Its transformation fractures these historic associations while not denying them, resulting in what… is renowned as the world’s largest museum dedicated to contemporary African and diaspora art.” Heatherwick Studio in London carved into eight of the 42 reinforced concrete tubes that comprised the grain lift and storage annex to form 80 galleries spread across six levels, as well as a massive void in the centre. “within which the nature and complexity of these spaces can finally be appreciated,” says the author.

Kamikatsu Zero Waste Centre, Kamikatsu, Japan
Hiroshi Nakamura & NAP

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“In 2003, following the forced decommissioning of its waste incinerator, the municipality issued a Zero Waste Declaration requiring all waste produced by the area’s residents to be reused or recycled in order to reduce the demand for landfill or incineration,” according to Building for Change. “Instead of increasing emissions by transporting waste to the nearest city for processing, a new centre was established where residents can separate and source materials for recycling and reuse.” To challenge public perceptions of a “waste centre,” the site includes a resale shop, a community hall, a laundry, a hotel, and an educational space for research into ways to increase reuse. The horseshoe-shaped plan allows for easy access to materials, and the center’s construction used waste materials from nearby houses. Schools and government buildings left vacant by the area’s depopulation, including 700 retrieved windows that form the structure’s walls, bolstered by plastic crates once used for mushroom harvesting. Residents in the area now recycle 80% of their waste, compared to the national average of 20%.

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