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Architecture in Reverse (or Architecture by Subtraction)
The third in a series of articles by Jill Stoner, Professor of Architecture, University of California, Berkeley

Image of a Nova Scotia home with a shared porch where a room has been removed. The main house is  in the foreground; the cottage is on the left. Nova Scotia house showing shared porch where room has been removed. Main house in foreground; cottage at left. Photo by author. Several years ago I acquired a very old farmhouse on the shores of Nova Scotia. The original house was a Canadian Maritimes version of the Cape Cod form but had been expanded twice — each addition a room-sized piece attached to the main body like segments of a tail. The first thing I did after buying the house was to remove one wall (the wall facing the sea) and the roof of the first addition, thereby severing the second addition from the main house and establishing an open space between them. This amused the local fishermen; to them, it appeared that I had foolishly made the house smaller. But I saw this transformation differently: one house with too many rooms is now a house plus a guest cottage, with a shared deck sheltered from the wind by the one remaining wall.

We are accustomed to seeing real estate disappear, sometimes accidentally and sometimes intentionally. A flood wipes away large swaths of a city; a local agency decides to clear blighted blocks for “redevelopment.” When we (or nature) demolish, we usually intend to rebuild. Emptiness is seen as an absence of value, and our real estate culture has conditioned us to quantify our architectural products in several ways—by square footage, the number of rooms (and bathrooms!), or monetary value. Adding on to our dwellings has always been equated with adding value; the removal of part of a structure will always diminish at least one of these quantities. Subtraction, however, can often add value that cannot be easily measured.

Back in the era of urban renewal, such subtraction was done wholesale, as with the infamous demolition of the 33 Pruitt-Igoe towers in 1972. These days the process is more selective, with one building at a time granted the permit and the funding to be erased from its site. And a new approach to demolition is replacing the wrecking ball: in some cities, entrepreneurial contractors have recognized that carefully deconstructing buildings salvages valuable materials and offers job training opportunities for those entering the construction workforce. An argument can be made that taking things apart is the best way to learn to put them together; instead of loading our landfills with debris, this industry is combining social entrepreneurship with neighborhood improvement.

An even more innovative typology may be emerging — the partial deconstruction of single-family houses that have been foreclosed on or even condemned. One noteworthy example that combines economy and innovation is developer Charles Scaravelli's bold conversion of several condemned two-story houses in Cleveland. Demolishing a house can cost approximately $10,000; for the same amount, Scaravelli removed a large part of the second floor, transforming the conventional dwellings into dramatic loft spaces and making them more marketable. The concept has garnered enthusiasm and support from Cuyahoga Land Bank, and Scaravelli has several more projects underway. These houses, originally built for families with children, can now appeal to an entirely different demographic: single professionals and even empty-nesters who appreciate the drama of the larger space and have no need for several bedrooms.

This paradigm can provide an alternative to houses with in-law or rental units or garage-like workshop spaces. Embracing this model might then provide space for neighborhood industries — not only artists but also carpenters, designers, bakers. Architecture may indeed be backing away from the ethos of bigger is better and leaning instead toward the creative use of space. Producing space by removing stuff yields immeasurable qualities around which we can continue to innovate, experiment, and dream.

So lets not write off those foreclosed developments just yet; demolition is final, and even deconstruction may be one step too far. A careful assessment of any structure’s future use is not a matter of “preservation” in the traditional sense; rather, it is an ecological model of urban progress.