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Adaptively Reused Centers for Architecture Show and Tell the Power of Design

In spaces where architects tell the story of what design can do, adaptively reused buildings provide a ready-made example

By Sara Fernández Cendón

American cities are coming back. After decades of disinvestment, many downtowns are experiencing a renaissance, and architecture pays a vital role. Among the many renovations, infill projects, and daring acts of adaptive reuse found across the country, spaces specifically dedicated to showing what architects can do for cities are popping up in many reemerging neighborhoods—often owned and operated by local AIA components. As demonstration spaces with active outreach programs, these centers for architecture (22 so far) educate the public about the importance of architecture—both in theory and in practice. About half of these public spaces began life as different building types, encouraging their architects to reveal and accentuate the layers of history that come with renovation and reuse.

Miami: Not just for architects

“Besides being a home for the chapter and a place for members to meet, a center for architecture is a terrific way to help the public understand what architects do,” says Cheryl Jacobs, executive director of the Miami Center for Architecture and Design and AIA Miami. “In a city where design is so important, it just made sense.”

The building AIA Miami and the center now occupy was built in 1912 and is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Jacobs noticed the “available” sign while driving around downtown Miami. The building she spotted had been empty for years, but it had unmistakable character. A fine example of Beaux-Arts Italianate, it was Miami’s first major federal government building, at various points housing a U.S. Post Office, a federal courthouse, and the U.S. Weather Bureau. According to Jacobs, in the 1930s the building became a bank, and most recently had housed an Office Depot.

As one might expect, the interior showed signs of its many occupants, some of whom were not particularly sensitive when adapting the historic space. AIA Miami worked with Miami-based Shulman + Associates to design the space and Forbes Architects as architect of record. Even though the chapter lacked the resources to bring the space completely back to its original state, the ceiling, for example, was rebuilt. Also, marble floors that had been covered with vinyl tile are once again exposed. Its ornate exterior creates a sharp contrast to the renovated industrial and loft-like interiors.

In its downtown location, the center occupies 5,000 square feet on two floors. The main floor houses the AIA chapter offices and an open space for exhibits and events. The second floor has conference and studio space. Jacobs says she is also working on an incubator for creative enterprises.

“My goal for our center is, whenever there’s a discussion about urbanism, architecture, design, [and] transportation, I want it to happen at the center,” says Jacobs. “And it’s already starting to happen. This is not a place just for architects.”

Portland: Inviting the public in

The Portland, Ore., Center for Architecture is located in the Pearl District, a neighborhood of former rail yards and warehouses that has become an exemplar of adaptive reuse. In the 1980s, artist lofts became common in the area, and the 1990s saw a big push for high-density residential development. With new roadways, parks, and a streetcar line, mixed-use development began popping up everywhere, and a new neighborhood emerged within the existing fabric of the city.

At about the same time the Pearl District was coming to life, AIA Portland was looking for a space. The chapter had a storefront space downtown, but it consisted of only a small gallery and a conference room. Large events and continuing education happened off-site, at a price. As components across the U.S. were starting to consider centers for architecture, a new, larger space would offer the opportunity to create a more viable home for public programing at the Portland chapter.

The chosen property, the historic Mallory Stables, is one of the oldest buildings in Portland. Originally a one-story stable dating back to the 1880s, the space had housed government offices and most recently an art gallery. Holst Architecture and architecture w were selected to work jointly on the design direction for the renovation, with Luma: Lighting Design and Green Building Services as consultants. After the initial design direction was set, Holst was hired as architect of record, with Holst’s Dave Otte, AIA, as designer and project manager.

The goal for the 5,000-square-foot renovation was to facilitate flexibility while retaining some of the building’s original character. As it turned out, restoring the space’s original layout, a simple open volume, addressed both goals. “You can take a relatively simple building and use design to allow it to wear a number of different hats,” says Otte, who is also president-elect of AIA Portland. “You can make it a classroom, turn it into a black box, open it up completely, and make it a vibrant gallery or a party space.”

To open up the volume, all the mechanical equipment was placed in the basement, and an internal wall was removed, which then required seismic retrofitting. The concrete floor was leveled and polished, and walls were clad in acoustic paneling.

The space, which opened in 2008 and is LEED Platinum certified, houses Portland’s Center for Architecture as well as AIA Portland and AIA Oregon. A gallery opens onto the street, and offices are located toward the back for greater privacy. The gallery is used for monthly traveling exhibits and professional events, such as a presentation by Mayor Charlie Hales on the state of planning and design in Portland, a kind of a state-of-the-city address focused on urban design initiatives. No matter the occasion, says Otte, the idea is to allow people to see activity in the building.

“This was a strategic move to be where people already were,” Otte says about the decision to relocate to a newly vibrant neighborhood with a lot of foot traffic and public transit access, “but the repairs to the building greatly improved the streetscape around the building, too.”

In addition to the lush streetscape, the renovation added to street vitality by creating a stronger connection between the building and the sidewalk; windows were replaced with large sliding doors, for example. Also, the original entry into the building was reopened so the space, a corner lot, may be accessed from either street.

Columbus: Re-anchoring the neighborhood

The Center for Architecture and Design in Columbus, Ohio, is located in the Lazarus Building, a downtown civic icon over 100 years old. Closed since 2004 (when Macy’s, its last occupant, moved out), the Lazarus was built in 1908, and for many years housed the flagship store of F&R Lazarus & Company, a department store chain based in Columbus.

“This is a huge block of downtown space,” says Andrew Rosenthal, AIA, a principal at Columbus-based GRA+D, which designed the renovation of the center’s new space. Before a three-year renovation that started in 2006, this huge block was a mostly windowless and pedestrian-unfriendly urban black hole.

The million-square-foot Art Deco–accented building is now a LEED Gold mixed-use facility. Schooley Caldwell Associates of Columbus was architect of record; Boston-based Elkus Manfredi Architects was design architect. The windows that had been filled in over the years are now storefront windows, and tenants—a mix of government, corporate, and educational organizations—have started to move in. The AIA Columbus component and the Center for Architecture and Design occupy 2,400 square feet within the total volume.

The move to this new space was driven by a desire for visibility. The AIA Columbus chapter was formerly located on the second floor of a building in downtown Columbus. “There was nothing public about the location or the address,” says Rosenthal. “It was tucked away, with no street presence.”

Thus one primary consideration in forming a center for architecture in 2009 was to establish a visible storefront for the profession. The center’s original location was an old auto showroom which was larger than needed, and didn’t attract sufficient foot traffic.

Eventually the center decided to relocate, this time to a space it could share with AIA Columbus. Since January 2013, both organizations have been in the Lazarus, in a space that initially was very raw. Rosenthal says the project consisted of leaving much of what they found as it was (like the windows, concrete structure, columns, and coffered ceiling) and cleaning things up to create a flexible, reconfigurable space.

As expected, the storefront windows are hugely important in the new space. The center curates window displays that rotate every six to eight weeks. The center also organizes the design:ROLLS bicycle tours guided by architects and a series of lunch discussions known as Design Talks on the first Thursday of every month. The AIA chapter, too, maintains a steady drumbeat of events, charrettes, and lectures.

“The goal of the space is to constantly have activity,” says AIA Columbus Executive Director Gwen Berlekamp.

Although the area is still in transition, the center is strategically “bookended by two pieces of civic revival,” as Rosenthal puts it. With a newly revitalized riverfront (the Scioto Mile) a block west of the Lazarus, and a new nine-acre park (Columbus Commons) immediately to the east, the area is an important connector and will, in time, benefit from an expected influx of residential development.

Still, it’s difficult to tell if the center’s early presence in the area will be a catalyst or a beneficiary of a revitalized downtown, Rosenthal says. The answer is likely a little bit of both.

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Flexible space for exhibits and events at the Miami Center for Architecture and Design. Image courtesy of Robin Hill.

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The exterior of the Miami Center for Architecture and Design, looking towards the interior. Image courtesy of Robin Hill.

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The eastern façade of the Portland Center for Architecture. Image courtesy of Josh Partee.

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The Portland Center for Architecture offers flexible space for events and exhibits. Image courtesy of Michael Mathers.

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The AIA Columbus Center for Architecture and Design. Image courtesy of Brad Feinknopf.

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Every summer the AIA Columbus Center for Architecture and Design organizes architecture camps for kids. Image courtesy of the Center for Architecture and Design in Columbus.

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