Tuned to Destruction?
Everyday tuning can help maintain and improve buildings, but in the worst cases it can even lead to the building having to be torn down.
“Tuunaus” in Finnish is what we call minor activities to fix or modify objects, clothes, vehicles or even the built environment. It is commonly considered a simple, harmless grassroots pastime allowing an individual effortlessly to make a small but decisive difference in their everyday environment, whether at home or in public spaces. There is no direct equivalent for the word in English, yet it might best translate as “tuning (up)”. In the best cases, tuning can help highlight the value of a building or an environment during temporary use or underscore the particular architectural details and values of a building and the diversity of its potential uses.
Tuning fits mentally into the same box as regular maintenance, which is absolutely essential for the continued survival of the building stock. As far as the built environment goes, tuning is usually beneficial, as it incorporates principles of maintenance, repair and the circular economy. However, there are types of tuning lurking in the margins that are actually harmful.
Tuning may cause loss of the values and essential characteristics of a building, for instance if a repairer with a passion for “building archaeology” strips off the historical layers of a building right down to the frame. New surface materials installed in the tuning process may damage the older structures if there is an inadequate understanding of how the structures deal with moisture, for instance. Surfacing materials with plastic-based bonding agents, or artwork such as murals or graffiti, may cause severe damage due to moisture or deformation in brick and log structures.
Sometimes tuning may lead to the replacement of building parts or structures that are still perfectly functional. Replacing the windows in the main building may seem attractive if, say, the old windows could be reused to build a shelter or a greenhouse on the same plot. Replacing a tiled roof may seem like a good idea if there is use for the old tiles in the garden or as paving for a pathway. Or perhaps it would be nice to use the old external cladding to build a terrace or a shed. In all these cases, the sole motivation for dismantling old structures is to gain raw material for a tuning project.
Tuning may also be used as a sales pitch, with the change(s) implemented responding to a current trend or a simple desire for something new. In these cases, we often talk about refashioning, restyling or updating the look. This may involve things like tacking decoratively carved eaves onto a 1940s post-war type building to make it look older or slapping beige rendering on a 1980s brick house to make it look younger. Refashioning may include swapping out interior doors or fitted cabinets, knocking down interior walls or cutting new doorways into them, regularly described in interior design magazines as “simplifying the maze-like floor plan”. The danger with this sort of tuning is that architectural historical values may be lost at the expense of following the trends of the day.
Tuning Alters Perceptions
Tuning the environment outside your home may come across as political action or civil activism. Buildings that have long stood unused and neglected by their owners and buildings in temporary use are prime targets for tuning. If the aesthetic ideals of local tuning enthusiasts and those of the powers that be do not match, the tuning may be dismissed as vandalism, and instead of brightening up the urban landscape, the result may be in the area being perceived as run down and condemned. If folksy tuning is seen as decay, then the tuning may actually undermine the chances of the site being preserved.
Indeed, the aesthetics of a tuning process may in itself serve as an excuse for tearing down the entire building. A style of tuning seen as dodgy may not only cause a slow decline in reputation but also become commonly associated with grounds for demolition when the right of the general public to tune up a building is carnivalised in arts events held in condemned buildings. Creating art in a building that is scheduled for demolition plays on the very idea of the gallery space being of a temporary nature and of making use of – and further adding to – the dilapidated state of the building. This coarseness fuels the image of the transitory nature of the art and of the inevitable fate of the building. When art is created on the very surfaces of a building, the art itself renders the building more decrepit and decayed. This aesthetic approach and the related images of transitory existence would not easily be accepted as fixtures in the cityscape.
Recycling events where parts of buildings that are still standing are removed and distributed or sold off are a similarly carnivalised process as in the aforementioned arts events. Neither the recycling nor the art in and of themselves constitute grounds for demolishing the building; in both cases, the decision to tear down the building has already been made. These events do, however, often appear as a sort of appeasement for the demolition itself, since tearing down a building often prompts local resistance. Nevertheless, it should be said that recycling events might also help boost local building conservation and tuning at the locations where the recycled building parts end up.
Tuning Requires Limits And Love
Useful tuning improves the usability of a building, helps maintain it and highlights its cultural values. Destructive tuning does the opposite. The problem is not so much the tuning itself but a lack of skill or negative images prompted by the tuned-up appearance of the building, obscuring its architectural and historical value. The problems with tuning stem from the immense variety of working methods and aesthetical goals involved, personal preferences and how we interpret the built environment to understand how it can and should be used, repaired and preserved.
Tuning is akin to repairing in that before beginning such a project one should familiarise oneself with the cultural and technical features of the building in question. This requires skill, understanding and – as with raising a child – limits and love. Once we recognise the essential characteristics and limiting parameters, tuning can strengthen and enrich the built environment. As such it is a tool that even architects should include in their professional toolkit. ↙
Architect, DSc (Arch.), and university instructor interested in the values and significances of the existing building stock.
Architect and building conservator, recently dived into the research of art.