Symposium 2013: 04 / Long Life, Loose Fit

Long Life Loose Fit is a term that is permeating our profession with the goal to push architects to think long term about a building’s use. The purpose is to extend the life of buildings for future generations — and transcend the utilitarian and the fashionable — in order to create buildings that will always be valued, that people will identify with and wish to reuse and conserve.

I argue we should not plan for that outcome, but that we instead focus on the present and on the topics of elegance and generosity — and perhaps long life, loose fit will follow.

The premise is that historic buildings are proving more adaptable for reuse than buildings from the recent past. This is because of many factors, but most importantly it is because these buildings were designed to generously accommodate their intended use. There was care and focus on proportion of space, on simplicity, on doing the most with the least, on elegance.

BNIM’s Aaron Ross made a presentation using the modern loft to make his point. The warehouse spaces being sought by so many for both live and work possess great column grids, high ceilings and lots of light. The raw elegance of materiality is celebrated and joy is found in the very basic elements of what makes great space. Aaron spoke about how these buildings were specifically designed to serve their intended use, but they left flexibility for unknown needs.

In other dialogue following the presentation, Tom Nelson opened with the 1930s idea of Universal Buildings, which focused strictly on having good “bones” in the manner of large spans and high ceilings so they could be used for anything. This sparked relevant conversation getting to the essence of why some buildings are saved and others not. Others pointed out that though the Universal Building design idea is powerful, we cannot teeter to the side of “Loose Design,” for it is dangerous. We must refine the building for its intended use, but we must design the building generously. In my mind this point says the most about the building’s potential for reuse or its potential to be cherished in later years. A building’s character and beauty cannot be separated from its use and still be successful. The buildings that are most reused possess, in addition to the wonderful spaces, a uniqueness which is not found in similar buildings. This uniqueness endowed through the building successfully — and elegantly — serving the intended function.

BNIM’s best example of this methodology can be found in the success of The Todd Bolender Center. The former powerhouse was designed elegantly and generously to serve its intended use. The building was never to be used as anything but a powerhouse. However the volumes created by the well-proportioned brick exterior, the large windows, and the many bisecting steel members, which all create a very unique space and specifically addressed the functional aspects of the powerhouse, allowed it to have potential beyond this initial use. Seamlessly slipping the Kansas City Ballet’s studios into the two major volumes of the former powerhouse — and the resulting play of the industrial and artistic aesthetics — creates a space like no other. The Todd Bolender Center has a character that could not have been created from a building designed loosely.

In closing, I am resolute that our focus needs to be on creating buildings that are elegantly simplistic and generously refined, to be the best spaces for their intended use. We must let people fall in love with the quality of space in our buildings and hope they will find them useful in the future to be reused for another purpose, so that the creative adaptations of the future can find value in reusing the spaces we have created for today.

Editorial Response to ‘Long Life, Loose Fit' from the BNIM Symposium 2013. Other editorial responses to the sessions can be found at these links:

Collaboration: by Joe Keal

Design Excellence: by Levi Robb

Work/Life Balance: by Maria Maffry

Long Life; Loose Fit: by Joshua Hemberger

The Public Realm: by Christina Hoxie