Recycled Spaces, Cultural Oases

Before this semester, I narrowly associated recycling with plastic bottles, aluminum cans, and paper boxes—but have, over the past few months, encountered a myriad of beautifully recycled buildings. Studio ALTA, a contemporary dance theater a few blocks away from my homestay, exists in what used to be a paper factory; Kasárna Karlín, another multi-function cultural and creative hub in Prague, occupies long-abandoned army barracks. The Trans Europe Halles, a continental network of cultural spaces, is founded on the goal of reclaiming industrial spaces for the arts.

Even beyond their lovely post-industrial aesthetics, these spaces fascinate me for their founders’ abilities to look at crumbling, forgotten buildings and see their potential—not to mention that the reuse of space conserves the energy required for new construction, and that the cultural spaces give back to their communities in ways that the commercial developers who might otherwise occupy the space do not.

A few weeks ago, I was given a class assignment to ask or investigate a question through creative work—and so I chose to investigate the process of conceiving the second life of a building. I wanted to challenge myself to design a hypothetical remodel of an existing space, and I found one just a block away from my residence: a run-down shell of a Functionalist-style building—that is, the same architectural style as Prague’s National Gallery, gleaming just a few blocks away—with some signs of recent construction. As the space was enormous, I imagined that I had been granted permission to remodel just a portion of the building—drawing from the plans of Haus Der Statistik in Berlin to allocate 20 percent of the building for art, culture, and community development. I constructed a small paper model of the space I had chosen and drew conceptual floor plans of how I would use the space: a theater, a workshop, an indoor garden.

To investigate the process by which architects imagine the second life of abandoned buildings, I created a model of the Bubenská building near me, and a hypothetical floor plan for what the building could become.

Only after completing my drawings, I decided to research the history of the building I had chosen. To my surprise, I found that the building—which is called “Bubenská”—has in fact been a public cultural space in the past, including contemporary art galleries and performance spaces. That era of the building’s life ended just a few years ago. The recent construction on Bubenská, which I have been watching progress day by day, is to convert the building into commercial offices and retail—following recent trends of gentrification in the Holešovice neighborhood.

The fate of Bubenská is not unusual. Studio ALTA, which has supported local arts and culture for over ten years, will likely lose its space to commercial developers in 2020. Kasárna Karlín only opened a few years ago, but exists on an agreement for temporary use: ten years from now, the space will be returned to the government, and likely also be sold for development.

Bubenská was built in 1935, and remains a masterpiece of the Functionalist style. The building has previously been both an industrial office and a cultural hub — and is under construction to become a commercial space.

I have not yet decided how this new understanding colors my interest in recycled spaces. As a thespian, I have an appreciation for ephemeral artwork: at least in that instance, I can find temporality beautiful. But do communities, governments, the artists themselves, or anyone have the responsibility to keep these cultural spaces alive? Does the adaptive reuse of space for cultural outlets help communities by providing a gathering space for self-expression, or do these spaces attract to neighborhoods the same corporate developers that ultimately destroy them? It is a question that I am not prepared to answer, but hope to continue to explore.

Featured Image: To my pleasant surprise, after a few hours of studying in Studio ALTA’s “Living Room” cafe, the space also housed a free concert.

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