Retrofit can be art, says leading architect

Sensemaking / Retrofit can be art, says leading architect

For London-based architect Sunand Prasad, retrofit isn’t just about cutting carbon and saving energy: it requires the same intellect, passion and creativity as new build.

14 Dec 2011

For London-based architect Sunand Prasad, retrofit isn’t just about cutting carbon and saving energy: it requires the same intellect, passion and creativity as new build.

Almost on a daily basis we change the buildings around us. We should think of them as dynamic, living entities. Consider the sensual experience of being inside. You’re often not aware of the building’s structure: that’s the timeless factor. You may barely be aware of the services it provides, from temperature regulation to lighting. Then you have the scenery: the colour of the paint, the style of furniture. These things are immediate to us, and we change them all the time.

Retrofit isn’t just about cutting carbon and saving energy. It can also be about the wellbeing of the people who use that building. I fundamentally believe that people need to be more aware of the spaces in which they live and work, and the profound impact these have on our lives. We all need to talk about it more. We talk about music, cookery, the theatre, but not about the walls around us. The broadsheets have a few column inches on architecture, but media attention is light.

Where there is coverage, new build tends to dominate, instilling the feeling that working on retrofit is second rate – that it doesn’t require the same intellect or passion or creativity. But it does. Retrofit can be art: if it couldn’t, I wouldn’t be so interested. Of course, there will be retrofit projects where things are so constrained that all you can do is replace the boilers and plumbing… But then you probably won’t need an architect.

To my mind, architecture has become too narrowly defined. It’s about space and image, but also about resources and the environment. What do we need for our wellbeing? We need to survive, but fulfilment of human life and potential begins when basic needs are met. And so there’s no trade-off between art and architecture. Genius lies in combining art and resources to produce a result that is both long-lasting and fulfilling.

We are changing our view of the resources at our disposal. We are moving towards more responsive buildings: ones that sense our movement, or respond to daily or seasonal changes in light and temperature. The idea of intelligent buildings is starting to make everyday sense. You walk into a space and the light comes on; you walk towards an escalator that starts moving…

We live in a world where visions and communication are really important: we need to inspire people about retrofit. As architects we rely on advocacy and persuasion. Clients may have all the good intentions in their mission plans, but getting them to understand the implications of their own commitments is another thing.

Just think of the construction challenge of working with people in situ. There’s nothing boring about such project management! Imagine being in a building while it changes around you. It’s a dramatic thing to be the conductor of: there’s glamour in it.

We have to transform the world around us, while we live in it.

Sunand Prasad is a Founding Partner at architects Penoyre & Prasad.

Photos: Penoyre & Prasad; iStockphoto / thinkstock

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