As the trend to refurbish old buildings with more than a nod to their heritage gathers pace, we take a look at what’s on offer around the world, from not-so-old building conversions in Sydney, to French-inspired villas in Cambodia, and refurbished glass factories in Shanghai.

Gaga Changning Villa and Shanghai Museum of Glass, Shanghai: Changing buildings to suit the times

We aren’t used to seeing Shanghai and adaptive reuse in the same sentence but increasingly the city’s designers are seeking texture and richness to counter the everything-is-new gloss of the city. These two developments met that brief.

Upmarket Gaga Changning Villa is a stylish tea house and restaurant located in the old St Mary’s Hall Episcopalian girls’ school built in 1881. Locals campaigned against a mooted demolition of the derelict school buildings in 2009, hoping to preserve the school and grounds as an oasis of calm in the middle of the city. 

Gaga Café is now in one of the preserved buildings, where the age of the building adds to the richness of the design. Tilman Thürmer, founder of the architectural and design practice Coordination Asia, which did the design, says the elegance of the villa, which sits next to Raffles City shopping mall, “complements its contemporary surroundings”. 

“Our team sought to maintain the connection between the building’s historical connotations, and its present-day function as a place for a fashionable set of dynamic consumers to congregate and exchange ideas.”

Another of its projects, Shanghai Museum of Glass, is a larger and more complex undertaking. Since 2011, the 40,414 square metre former glass factory located 40 minutes from Shanghai, has been transformed, precinct-by-precinct, into a 17,800 square metre multi-functional museum park where visitors can spend the entire day. The site includes a Kids Museum and other attractions designed to attract a broad age-range of locals and tourists.

The project was inspired when Zhang Lin, president of the old factory and now president of the museum, “detected the rising trend in cultural tourism and urban regeneration around the world” and “decided to create a glass-themed cultural destination that will continue the industrial legacy of the place” in an area empty of other tourist attractions, says Thürmer. 

“Adaptive reuse is definitely the future of built environments as the world is getting ever more crowded.”

The 31 buildings on the site vary in age and scale and are covered by a 20-year masterplan in three phases that included the Shanghai Museum of Glass and Radiance Theatre for hot-glass shows in phase one. 

Phase two includes the just-completed museum park with a wide range of cultural and leisure facilities that offer a more diverse visitor experience. 

Thürmer says that by the end of phase three the site will be a “glass-related ecosystem that merges art, culture, research and leisure into one community”. 

“Adaptive reuse is definitely the future of built environments as the world is getting ever more crowded,” says Thürmer.

“Buildings, especially factories, are being abandoned due to the shift in industry and lifestyle. In China especially, the fast-growing economy and middle class created a vacuum of cultural experiences and unused industrial spaces. Repurposing the existing buildings and turn[ing] them into cultural destinations [meets] both demands.”

IDA, Potts Point, Sydney: What’s old is new – and new again

In 1978, in a five-day boogie marathon, disco dance-a-thon, bopalicious fundraiser, three men fundraising for the Wayside Chapel set the world record for disco dancing in Ida’s Disco, housed inside the Ian McKay-designed Calidad building.

The Calidad was a timber and glass commercial building built on top of a sandstone cliff in Potts Point, with sweeping views of Woolloomooloo and Sydney Harbour. 

By 2015, threatened with demolition, the Calidad was heritage listed because it was one of the last remaining timber commercial buildings from the Sydney School architectural movement, and one of the few Ian McKay buildings still standing. It had been bought by developer IPM Holdings.

It was always going to be difficult to preserve the existing buildings and satisfy current Australian Design Guidelines for cross ventilation and light, says John Andreas, director and principal at WMK Architecture, the firm behind the redesign.

“What I love about it is the history of the family of buildings on the site… You don’t get the sense that it’s a seven-storey apartment block.” 

In addition to Calidad – which had been built from Australian hardwood reclaimed from old wool stores – the site also included the Georgian Telford Hall built in 1830 and two turn-of-the-twentieth-century terrace houses. 

The original plan was to excavate under the buildings to develop apartments and parking below, but the developer quickly concluded that dismantling Calidad and storing it offsite during ground works was a better option. 

The result is, IDA, 33 high-end apartments and parking, which preserve the historic sandstone cliff face above McElhone Street, plus two 2-storey apartments in the previously commercial Calidad Building on top of the cliff. More apartments have been built between the historic structure above and the cliff below. 

“We managed to get all the bedrooms [in Calidad] into the roof line so that the bedroom windows look out through the slots in the roof to the city or Potts Point” says Andreas. 

“What I love about it is the history of the family of buildings on the site – the 1830s Telford Lodge, 1900s terraces (sold separately to the IDA development), the 1974 Sydney School Calidad, all built so the history of the site reveals itself around the courtyard. You don’t get the sense that it’s a seven-storey apartment block.” 

Modern services were added in a modern building on the south side of Calidad, further adding to the site’s story. 

Knai Bang Chatt Resort, Kep, Cambodia: a faded-glory lives again as a unique resort

When American Jef Moons first arrived in Kep, on the Cambodian coast, in 2003, he walked into a mid-century ghost town. The town’s early-to-mid twentieth century villas owned by wealthy Khmer families had been plundered for anything of value through years of war and famine, leaving the faded but stylish pastel shells to moulder in the face of an encroaching jungle. 

Many of the villas had been designed by Vann Molyvann, a Cambodian student of Le Corbusier and arguably Cambodia’s greatest architect of the modern era. Kep’s tropical climate and its location between jungle-covered hills and the the Gulf of Siam was spectacular. 

Moons bought a row of adjacent villas that had belonged to a relative of the King of Cambodia, the governor of Kep, and the head of customs, among others. With the help of Phnom Penh-based French architect, Francoise Lavielle, he repurposed the villas into a “barefoot luxury” resort.

It’s a light-touch renovation… that relies on architectural forms rather than finishes to provide most of the texture and grace of the resort.

The result – the exclusive retreat of Knai Bang Chatt – typifies the re-loved building ethos of reusing and repurposing a strong building fabric. Knai Bang Chatt is a quiet private oasis; you feel like you are holidaying in the house of a wealthy friend. The accommodation is simple – dictated by the Japanese aesthetic of wabi sabi – and furnished with Khmer antiques and polished plaster bathrooms that let the materials speak for themselves. It’s a light-touch renovation with some lush landscaping, that relies on architectural forms rather than finishes to provide most of the texture and grace of the resort.

Moons says the modernistic architecture of the Vann Molyvann period is “priceless and a beautiful connection to the recent history of our region”. 

“We call it an architecture of a new lifestyle. It fits with our commitment to making a positive impact on the region and the people.”

(Disclaimer: Damian Clarke and his wife stayed at Knai Bang Chatt at their own expense in 2011.)

Omnia, Potts Point, Sydney

Sometimes adaptive reuse can right a wrong – perform a kind of architectural healing. 

It was hard to miss the Crest Hotel when it was built above Kings Cross station in the mid-1970s – it was a massive, grey concrete erection that towered over its neighbours, vastly out of scale compared with the crumbling Kings Cross Theatre, the home of Surf City, that it replaced. A later brown and burnt-orange colour scheme failed to camouflage the ugly, and it remained a prominent eyesore, visible for kilometres in all directions, until developers Greenland and architects Durbach Block Jaggers (DBJ) worked their magic. 

Throughout 2016 and 2017, Kings Cross watched as the facades and walls of The Crest were stripped away to reveal a skeleton of floorplates and pillars, then hidden by scaffolding. 

Let the healing begin.

What emerged was a 20-storey hourglass on top of a green tiled podium with a scalloped parapet. The green reflects the green roof of Darlinghurst Fire Station and walls of the heritage listed Woolworths Building – both adjacent to Omnia. 

The scalloped parapet represents the crown of the king – the king of Kings Cross – who lives at street level. The curve of the scallops on the parapet mirror the curve of the Dynamic Ribbon Device™ on the landmark Coca Cola sign across the road. Finally the hourglass shape is said to reflect the intersection that the building sits on – though it may also reflect DBJ’s love for the shape, given that it mirrors DBJ’s own offices, a few streets away. At street level, shopfronts line the street where the wall of a nightclub once stood. 

In all, the stretch of Darlinghurst Road from Kings Cross intersection to Kings Cross station has become a more activated and human space. The gateway to Kings Cross is now marked with an hourglass-shaped gatepost which even former prime minister and alpha aesthete Paul Keating has complimented. And all while retaining 90 per cent of the fabric of the Crest Hotel structure that Omnia has replaced. 

Let the healing begin. 

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