Restoring and developing old buildings is essential to preserving our heritage, so it’s important to go beyond minimum compliance with the regulations.
There’s so much to consider when you’re developing an old building – and that’s over and above the regulatory hoops. There are two broad approaches: knock it down and build something from scratch, or work with what you have, trying to create something that respects the space, the neighbourhood, the history, and the people who have lived and worked there, and in some cases still do.
Cities are alive
Cities – and, more importantly, parts of cities – go through cycles. As they expand, what was out in the sticks becomes central business district. Once-prosperous neighbourhoods fall into decay, grimy inner-city slums become fashionable neighbourhoods, and large swathes of industrial space change character. And that’s where developers need to have vision. They need to be able to preserve the good, ameliorate the bad, and reevaluate the ugly. Because ugly is subjective.
This is particularly important with old industrial buildings, most of which were built to be practical, not beautiful, but that nevertheless have a certain charm – a gritty aesthetic and authenticity that preserves a sense of history, of place. Tastes change, fashions change, and values change. So, something that a mere 40 years ago would have been instantly demolished, or at least ‘renovated’ to within an inch of its life, may now be considered worthy of conservation.
Babies and bathwater
Clearly, any building that has stood empty – or even largely empty – for a few years, or even decades, is likely to have been vandalised, and can be pretty darn icky. So it needs to be reimagined, rejuvenated, renovated, repurposed and probably as many more re- words as you can think of.
But, how do you decide where to draw the line? Sure, that 10-centimetre crack in the wall has to be fixed, the roof should – ideally – be waterproof, windows should have glass in them, and the plumbing and wiring will almost certainly need to be redone from scratch. But what about that uneven cement floor? The peeling plaster, the graffiti?
You can be pretty sure that, 50 years ago, that would all have been magicked away – the walls would have been replastered, and painted a nice neutral cream, the floors would have been skimmed and, yes, probably carpeted until the building quietly melted into a pale shadow of itself and a virtual clone of every dull commercial building that ever existed. And, yes, there are still some developers who do that – or would like to – but, fortunately, they are becoming fewer. Some 21st-century developers, like Jody Aufrichtig, for example, see a building as existing in a flux of time and space, as a palimpsest that documents elements of the city’s history – a history that probably won’t find its way into the archives or into school textbooks.
For example, when repurposing The Biscuit Mill, which is now a very popular retail and office space, and site of the iconic Neighbourgoods Market, he tried to maintain a light touch. The brickwork was beautiful, so it was worth restoring and preserving, and the old grain silos were converted into office space while keeping the look and feel.
When developing an industrial space, it is as important to retain the machinery and industrial infrastructure as it is to maintain the façade. So they have kept and restored the old biscuit ovens, and also the well, which is now working again.
It probably would have been more profitable to just build a new development, but that would have been soulless. As Jody says, ‘it’s key for us to focus on celebrating and restoring the heritage.’ And it shows. The Biscuit Mill is as popular with international tourists as it is with Capetonians of every ilk.