Adaptive Reuse and Cultural Revival

As the world’s population expands, our inhabitable land area essentially remains constant, causing an increasingly dire disparity in resources and land required to physically support the growing populace. Rather than scrambling to produce new resources and develop new infrastructure in a world where such materials are becoming even more precious, architects and urban planners are turning to existing buildings to bypass the demanding preliminary stages of construction and meet their structural needs halfway. This process, known as adaptive reuse, is also a creative approach to rehabilitating the forgotten monuments of historical significance, granting them a second life and encouraging engagement with the communities they serve. Adaptive reuse is a branch of architectural theory which is rapidly growing in influence and practice to address ongoing global conservation efforts with respect to construction, demolition and waste material. Beyond saving time and money on demolition of older projects, adaptive reuse offers a host of ecological as well as sociocultural benefits. This essay opens with a brief overview of adaptive reuse as a concept, as well as its historical context. A series of three adaptive reuse case studies subsequently assess the various scales of application and degrees of intervention that are accessible for contemporary architects to effectively update existing structures for modern utility.

Matteo Robiglio succinctly defines adaptive reuse as “adapting the content to the container rather than the converse; it involves maximum conservation and minimal transformation.”¹ The process typically stems from the identification of a viable historic structure, evaluating its integrity, and adapting its interior to whatever new program is to be implemented. The unique, conservational approach not only “presents a genuine challenge to architects and designers to find innovative solutions,”² but also honors the historical legacy of the building being adapted, while extending its life and reopening valuable real estate to the public. Adaptive reuse as we know it today became popularized “in the 1970s with the birth of the North American (1971), British (1973) and International (1978) associations for industrial archaeology,”³ attributed to the preservation of historical heritage buildings. Over the past few decades, the concept has evolved beyond the scope of mere preservation to incorporate the integration of entirely new programs, transforming the functions of these revamped spaces and inviting new relationships between the building itself and the community it accommodates. The processes of reclaiming and updating the construction of older buildings “show how innovation can result from social practices that are generated independently from architecture, but can be enhanced and structured by architecture to achieve their full potential.”⁴ Aside from the creative, industrious design approach exhibited in contemporary adaptive reuse projects, the precursory choice to renovate an existing building rather than start anew is a sound one, environmentally and financially, as well as socially.

From an ecological standpoint, the Australian Department of the Environment and Heritage agrees that “bypassing the wasteful process of demolition and reconstruction alone sells the environmental benefits of adaptive reuse.”⁵ The materials required for framing and stabilizing built structures are not only costly, but they also significantly contribute to the project’s carbon footprint, from the processes of creating the material itself, to transportation, manipulation and eventual construction of the massive pieces. And in this respect, adaptive reuse offers a unique opportunity that is dually beneficial for the project’s investors and the environment by taking advantage of the structural skeleton, and potentially more, left behind from the building’s past function. Ennis Davis attests to the economical benefits of reusing buildings, claiming that it “can be 16 percent less costly than other forms of construction.”⁶ This savings also finds its way into the local community, as “many of these spaces also become ideal settings for start-up businesses, because cost efficient shell space can be made available at a lower leasing rate than the market for new construction.”⁷ This is just one example of how the choice to rehabilitate an older structure “strengthens a community feel by positively linking a city’s past to its future, and offering cheap and robust infrastructure to emerging needs, which can spark wholesome renewal process.”⁸ The benefits of adaptive reuse are plentiful, and have manifested themselves in a variety of contemporary projects, three of which we will be discussing in this piece.

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The first project under consideration is the manifestation of North Adams, MA’s MassMoCA [Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art], born from a late-19th-century industrial complex, which “traces the trajectory of the economic development of New England, from print works factory to electronics factory to cultural arts producer.”⁹ Shoes and textiles were North Adams’ main industries in the mid-1800s, until around a century later, when the Arnold Print Works company closed its doors in 1942 and Robert C. Sprague subsequently adopted the property for Sprague Electric. But “In 1968, at the same time that Sprague Electric began to see regular losses, the government began its urban renewal program in North Adams,” which many attributed to the consequent economic decline of the area.¹⁰ Despite its charming name, North Adams’ “urban renewal” culminated in widespread demolition of the downtown area, without the promised subsequent reconstruction. The grimly unrealized project had catastrophic impacts on local industry; closures of Sprague Electric and General Electric in Pittsfield “took away 3,600 manufacturing jobs. At about the same time, 2,000 more jobs were lost as the last remnants of the textile industry disappeared” from the town, which resulted in North Adams facing the highest poverty rate in the region.¹¹

A massive three-phase program, spearheaded by former Williams College Museum of Art director Thomas Krens and North Adam’s then-mayor John Barrett III, was developed in the late 1980s to utilize the abandoned industrial spaces while incorporating an art presence in the old mill town. Phase I allowed Massachusetts architects Bruner and Cott to address the most run-down buildings first, and Bruner’s process is described by Aaron Ahlstrom as “[not] in a curatorial manner, but instead respect[ing] the past material without painstakingly preserving it,” going so far as to “remove entire floors in Building 4 in order to create a single enormous open gallery, yet he left in place the doorways of the upper levels to give visitors a sense of former uses of the space.”¹² This sense of reverence for the complex’s industrial legacy while generating an entirely new spatial experience for the contemporary art program is a running theme throughout the galleries, using rugged structural elements as a visual and formal contrast for the pristine and undisturbed art on display (see Fig. 2). In this sense, the experience of Bruner and Cott’s handiwork on the former textile mill becomes integrated into the greater cultural context of the museum, taking on artistic elements of its own, through intersections of the aged framework and the fresh contemporary pieces which rotate in and out of exhibition.

Phases II and III of Bruner and Cott’s revitalization of North Adams’ former industrial center more than doubled the original footprint of the museum, opening up approximately 160,000 square feet of interwoven gallery spaces. Throughout the network of buildings, the majesty of the displayed works is underscored by the rustic charm of the complex’s weathered, almost shabby infrastructure, rich with character and a pervasive visual reminder of the site’s historical significance. The choice to reframe a decommissioned historical artifact for reuse was not only a sound ecological decision, conserving valuable resources used in newer developments, but also brought new economic and cultural engagements with the surrounding community, according to the architects:

“With a footprint that encompasses nearly a third of the North Adams business district, the museum is central to the economic revival of the city, and its continued expansion is evidence of the power of its impact on the community. Phase III also continues to improve connections between MASS MoCA and the town of North Adams.”¹³

Rather than viewing the industrial complex as a defunct eyesore, occupying valuable development space, the adaptive reuse approach executed by Bruner, Cott, and other proprietors harnesses the factory’s historical legacy and charm, repackaging it into a breathtaking, expansive vessel for contemporary art, and one of the largest in the country at that. Indeed, Bruner and Cott’s evaluation of the museum as “a vibrant symbol of how innovative design thinking can transform the cultural experience” could not be more accurate.¹⁴

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A larger-scale undertaking of adaptive reuse takes place in one of America’s oldest major cities: Richmond, Virginia. The southern city was the greatest producer of cigarettes worldwide in the 1940s,¹⁵ and much of this industry was localized to a street of side-by-side factories and warehouses known colloquially as “Tobacco Row.” The famous Lucky Strike operated from this street, with the astonishing ability to produce 100 million cigarettes daily during its peak¹⁶ (see fig. 3). While the region was a huge economic resource for the Richmond community in the early 20th century, the tobacco factories certainly came with drawbacks. “Tobacco had historically wreaked havoc. On the land, it seriously depleted nutrients in the soil. For many smokers, it also depleted their health.”¹⁷ But from an industrial production and distribution standpoint, processing in Richmond “was relatively clean and did not leave behind the toxic byproducts often found at other industrial sites. In this sense, reuse of tobacco plants and warehouses was relatively straightforward” when it came to fruition beginning in the 1980s.¹⁸

America’s 1976 Tax Reform Act resulted in the creation of the Federal Historic Preservation Tax Incentives Program, a significant spur in motivations to take advantage of the unused, dilapidated industrial facilities overlooking the nearby James River. Over the course of about twenty-five years, the properties of Tobacco Row were gradually reclaimed by developers and transformed into primarily apartments and commercial space. In the middle of this rehabilitation process in 1991,

“[t]he Working People of Richmond: Life and Labor in an Industrial City, 1865–1920, organized by Richmond’s Valentine Museum, opened to an enthusiastic crowd of over 850 people at the former Philip Morris plant at 23rd and East Cary Streets. William Abeloff and Tobacco Row Associates donated 8,500 square feet of exhibition space, declaring its association with the project ‘a natural marriage of community, business and public interests.’ Abeloff insisted that the ‘nationally significant’ rehabilitation of Tobacco Row provided an especially suitable venue for an exhibit ‘focusing on the working people and the tobacco industry.’”¹⁹

Even before the revitalization of Tobacco Row was completed, Tobacco Row Associates, headed by William Abeloff, worked to bring the local community together in the historically rich factory street. This exhibition was an early example of how the memories of the industrial space could be reignited, immersing the public in an educational experience about the formerly thriving tobacco industry, and the creative adaptation of its former domain.

By 2000, more than 155,000 square feet of commercial space and 719 apartments were established on Tobacco Row,²⁰ and today, the historical riverside street features developments of “loft apartments, condominiums, offices, and retail space along part of the restored canal system”²¹ (see fig. 4). The row of former factories and warehouses has a storied history, having once been the epicenter of worldwide tobacco production. The moral implications of this fact are complex, considering a degree of dependence such industry originally sourced from enslaved laborers, and the various adverse health effects of tobacco products. When this industry declined in the second half of of the twentieth century, and its decommissioned physical remnants fell to the entropic effects of nature, the choice to reinvigorate these massive constructions, rather than demolish them, was a crucial one, adding a new chapter of community growth and innovation to the Richmond neighborhood.

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Shifting one’s focus to New York City, the 1.4-mile linear park, known as the High Line, demonstrates a different scale of urban intervention in the run-down state of a former industrial asset. What was once abandoned, unapproachable land evolved, in 2009, into “a global inspiration for cities to transform unused industrial zones into dynamic public spaces.”²² Opened for the first time in 1934, the High Line “originally an elevated railway for New York Central Railroad known as the West Side Elevated Line,” constructed as a protective measure for pedestrians, who were previously crossing the train’s path at street level with fatal complications.²³ A rise in commercial trucking reduced the need for the elevated railway, eventually leading to its decommissioning and “by the early ’80s, all traffic had stopped on the line.”²⁴ An opportunity arose when “full demolition never materialized. Instead, the line grew thick with wild plants that covered up the tracks”²⁵ (see fig. 5).

Decades later, the design team in charge of the High Line “translate[d] the biodiversity that took root after it fell into ruin in a string of site-specific urban microclimates along the stretch of railway that include sunny, shady, wet, dry, windy, and sheltered spaces,” according to architects Diller, Scofidio and Renfro.²⁶ Rather than allowing this historic element of the Chelsea neighborhood to be consumed by time, Friends of the High Line and local residents maintained passion for restoring the linear landscape, eventually manifesting a world-renowned work of urban restoration, “featur[ing] over 500 species of plants and trees, multiple viewing balconies, an open-air food market, a semi-enclosed pathway with video programming,” and other amenities serving tourists and locals alike.²⁷

The High Line serves as a prime example of how choosing to honor the historical and ecological legacy of an existing site can have immensely beneficial effects on the local atmosphere while providing an entirely new cultural experience. “Unlike other parks in New York,” writes Stevens & Associates, “High Line does not try to separate visitors from the city, or necessarily provide a respite. It is in the heart of the city (it even runs right through some buildings), and allows access to urban sights and sounds.”²⁸ Adaptive reuse affords these opportunities to create unique relationships between urban space and its occupants, such as DS + R’s direct injection of lush greenery, in tandem with hardscape for strolling or sitting, through the 1.4-mile stretch of Chelsea (see fig. 5). Evidently, this type of creative work pays off well, given that “the park has welcomed millions of visitors and become one of Manhattan’s most popular tourism destinations”²⁹ since its 2009 opening, certainly a lucrative investment for not only capital, but also community enrichment. Indeed, Adapt + Reuse accurately notes that the project “serves as a fantastic example of what can be done with unused city infrastructure.”³⁰

Adaptive reuse is truly a simple concept at its core: reusing older infrastructure to give it a new life in contemporary society. But the potential applications of such a concept are practically boundless. As observed in this piece, abandoned remnants of the American industrial boom nearly a century ago often manifest into beautiful, energized spaces that establish themselves as local destinations. Whether it’s a sprawling art space like Mass MoCA, a revived industrial street like Tobacco Row, or a train-line-turned-linear-park such as New York’s High Line, people are naturally drawn to the intersections of historic charm and brand-new architectural innovation. The unique building approach welcomes user exploration and invites introspective evaluation of what else in our world could be reused, refurbished, to bring it new uses while simultaneously saving on new supplies and effort. In this day and age, these types of considerations are becoming ever more pertinent considering contemporary focuses on minimizing waste, universally but particularly in the building sector. The future of adaptive reuse in the architecture field is rich with promise, likely to expand as a discipline and help populate our world not with new properties, but cleverly repurposed ones with traces of historical charm.


1- Robiglio, p.3

2- Dept. of the Environment and Heritage, p. 5

3- Ibid. Note 1

4- Robiglio/Carter, p. 169

5- Ibid. Note 2, p. 2

6- Davis

7- Ibid. Note 6

8- Ibid. Note 1, p. 5

9- Oehler et al., p. 2

10- Ibid. Note 9, p. 12

11- Ibid. Note 9, p. 14

12- Ahlstrom, par. 10

13- “Mass MoCA Building 6,” par. 4

14- “Mass MoCA (Phase 1),” par. 4

15- Reed, par. 4

16- Ibid. Note 14

17- Bluestone, p. 149

18- Ibid. Note 17

19- Ibid. Note 16, p. 149–50

20- Reed

21- Wikipedia contributors

22- “History,” par. 1

23- Adapt + Reuse, par. 3

24- Ibid. Note 21, par. 5

25- Ibid. Note 21, par. 6

26- Madsen, par. 2

27- Ibid. Note 21, par. 10

28- Oscar, par. 1

29- Ibid. Note 21, par. 11

30- Ibid. Note 27

Works Cited

Adapt + Reuse. “The New York High Line: A Different Kind of Adaptive Reuse Project.” Adapt + Reuse, 4 May 2020,

Ahlstrom, Aaron. “Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art”, [North Adams, Massachusetts], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012 — , Last accessed: April 2, 2021.

Bluestone, Daniel. “TOBACCO ROW: Heritage, Environment, and Adaptive Reuse in Richmond, Virginia.” Change Over Time 2.2 (2012): 132,154,219. ProQuest. 24 Feb. 2021.

Davis, Ennis. “Ten Benefits of Adaptive Reuse | Modern Cities.” Moderncities.Com, 9 July 2019,

Department of the Environment and Heritage. “Adaptive Reuse: Preserving Our Past, Building Our Future.” Department of Agriculture, Water and the Environment, 2004,

“History.” The High Line, 11 Nov. 2019,

“Mass MoCA Building 6.” Bruner / Cott, Accessed 3 Apr. 2021.

Madsen, Deane. “High Line at the Rail Yards.” Architect Magazine, Accessed 3 Apr. 2021.

“Mass MoCA (Phase I).” Bruner / Cott, Accessed 3 Apr. 2021.

Oehler, Kay, Stephen Sheppard, and Blair Benjamin. “Mill Town, Factory Town, Cultural Economic Engine: North Adams in Context.” North Adams, MA: Center for Creative Community Development (2006).

Robiglio, Matteo. The Adaptive Reuse Toolkit: How Cities Can Turn Their Industrial Legacy into Infrastructure for Innovation and Growth. German Marshall Fund of the United States, 2016, Accessed 25 Mar. 2021.

Robiglio, Matteo, and Donald Carter. RE–USA: 20 American Stories of Adaptive Reuse: A Toolkit for Post-Industrial Cities. JOVIS, 2017.

Wikipedia contributors. “Tobacco Row, Richmond.” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 2 Feb. 2020. Web. 6 Apr. 2021.

Figs. 1, 2-

“Mass MoCA (Phase I).” Bruner / Cott, Accessed 3 Apr. 2021.

Fig. 3-
Hartnett, Jen. “Tobacco Row Richmond.” Pinterest, 2020, .

Fig. 4-

KBS. “The River Lofts at Tobacco Row, Phase III.” KBS — Construction Firm Based in Richmond, VA, 30 Jan. 2020,

Fig. 5-

Build LLC. “The High Line Before The High Line | BUILD Blog.” BUILD Blog, 7 Oct. 2014,

Fig. 6-

Rosenfield, Karissa. “Take a Walk on the High Line with Iwan Baan.” ArchDaily, 23 Sept. 2014,

Architecture major at Northeastern University :)