Symposium Examines History and Future of Re-use in Architecture, Design, and Landscape
From the multiple lives of Roman columns, to present-day New York Harbor, a recent symposium explored the ancient phenomenon of spolia and its relevance to current efforts to forge more sustainable and resilient human patterns of habitation. "Spolia: Histories, Spaces, and Processes of Adaptive Reuse" was held in Milstein Hall on November 14 and 15.
"Spolia refers to using scavenged materials for new — and often originally unintended — purposes in constructed environments," says architecture assistant professor and symposium organizer Aleksandr Mergold.
Sites, buildings, and structures of antiquity were repurposed into new edifices, not only to facilitate the production of new form, but also to claim the cultural and political heritage of the donor structures.
"This practice is millennia old, dating back to Ancient Egypt and perhaps beyond," says Mergold. "It's extremely pragmatic and symbolically charged. More than recycling, spolia also has social, cultural, and even political dimensions. We think of it as an archaic practice, yet we also think that we have just invented recycling, life hacking, and adaptive reuse. In fact, it has been practiced for millennia."
Keynoted by Scape's Kate Orff and structured around the themes of "spaces," "histories," and "processes," symposium participants described the connection between spolia and currently emerging concerns about environmental degradation, and the resulting interest in adaptive reuse, ongoing historic preservation debates, recycling, and the slow movement.
Orff's talk focused on the recently launched phase I of Scape's Living Breakwaters project to rehabilitate and protect the southern coast of Staten Island. Funded in part by HUD's Rebuild by Design competition, Orff described the massive build as a collaborative effort that includes designers, federal and local government agencies, community organizations and schools, scientists, and engineers. And, perhaps most exciting for Orff, Living Breakwaters marks the beginning of the Billion Oyster Project — a 20-year plan to restore a thriving oyster population to New York Harbor.
The Spaces panel focused on spolia's application in architecture and design and included Jennifer Di Leonardi, Club Monaco/Ralph Lauren; Ada Tolla and Giuseppe Lugano, LOT-EK; Dennis Maher, Assembled City Fragments; and was moderated by Jack Elliott, Cornell's Department of Environmental Analysis (DEA).
Preservation and cultural heritage were discussed on the Histories panel which included Geoff Manaugh, BLDGBLOG; Abraham Thomas, John Soane Museum; Dale Kinney, Bryn Mawr College; with Jeffrey Chusid, Department of City and Regional Planning, moderating.
The Processes panel — made up of Ernesto Oroza, Architecture of Necessity; Gregg Buchbinder, Emeco Ltd,; Margaux and Walter Kent, Peg and Awl; and moderated by Denise Ramzy, DEA — focused on more recent global examples of re-use and adaptation.
"The speakers did an incredible job illuminating the complicated but productive relationships embedded in spolia in order to better understand its potential in contemporary design practice, art, history and preservation, material science, and formation of culture," says Mergold. "And what was really great to see were the multiple conversations happening between various participants — who come from very different backgrounds — faculty, and students on the subject of the symposium."
An exhibition on display in Milstein Dome presented the student sculptural work from Mergold's seminar ARCH 4605/6605 Spolia: Special Topics in Technology. The site-specific sculptures located in Milstein Dome were created with fragments from the broken plaster replicas of ancient statues once owned by Cornell's first president A. D. White, and with the help of various high-tech prototyping tools in the Rand Hall digital fabrication shops. The seminar was a collaboration with the Department of Classics and the Department of Fiber Science and Apparel Design.
Assisting Mergold on the symposium were teaching associates Gretchen Craig (B.Arch. '13) and Juliette Dubroca (M.Arch. '10), and student Andrew Fu (B.Arch. '15).
The "Spolia" event was part of the Preston H. Thomas Memorial Lecture Series.
By Aaron Goldweber