The role of heritage in modern building design

16 Aug 2017

As countries become more urbanised, the demand for better infrastructure is placing greater pressure on cultural heritage.

But heritage buildings have many features sought in contemporary work and public spaces and can be successfully integrated without losing their historic significance.

Macquarie Capital Executive Director Will Walker believes heritage can be a useful guide in designing modern buildings that build a sense of community and breathe new life into surrounding precincts.

If you look at environments such as parliaments and civic areas from a hundred years ago, they were designed in ways that make people connect."

He says features such as central lobbies and light wells that are found in many historic buildings can be maintained as a way of bringing people together.

"If you look at environments such as parliaments and civic areas from a hundred years ago, they were designed in ways that make people connect," he says.

"They have some really good basic architecture that can be used today. Buildings in the last 30 to 40 years have been overshadowed by technology to some degree. There are some principles around history and heritage that I think we need to bring to bear."

The global transition to service-based economies is placing new demands on cities to deliver better infrastructure and amenities to support their growing populations.

70 per cent of the world's population is expected to live in urban centres by 2050, with urbanisation rates already as high as 89 per cent in Australia, 82.4 per cent in the US, 81.6 per cent in Canada and 79.6 per cent in the UK.

The challenge for authorities is to plan cities that embrace connection and allow for the easy movement of people, goods and ideas.

George Phillips, Practice Director of TKD Architects, says this does not have to come at the expense of heritage architecture.

He says adapting a heritage building for modern use involves retaining some of the strengths of historic architecture – such as robust construction, high ceilings and central areas of congregation – and mixing them with contemporary features.

"If you're designing an office, you want plenty of natural light, open planning, flexibility of workspaces, visual connectivity and opportunities for interaction between different parts of an organisation," he says.

"It's about allowing all those activities to occur within an historic shell."

Phillips says done in the right way, adaptations of historic buildings or construction of new buildings within heritage precincts can help bring new life and activity to the streets around them.

New buildings can be designed in ways that might contrast with the historic buildings around them but complement the overall historic significance of the place.

They can be opened up to pedestrian activity and include features such as modern retail, lifestyle or other public spaces that attract people to an area and provide them with a reason to engage. There is also a wider economic benefit, with heritage attractions playing a key role in an area's tourism appeal.

In the Australian state of New South Wales, for example, cultural and heritage tourism was worth $12 billion in 2016.

Tzannes Director Alec Tzannes believes organisations should be designing buildings with their future heritage value in mind.

"Showing time and history through physical artefacts really does create a much richer way of living," he says.

"Not many people wish to walk around brand new environments that are one dimensional in time. They want to enjoy a mixed environment which has a range of ages and times and styles."

This approach contributes to greater environmental sustainability and enhances the identity of cities and the precincts within them.

As urban populations continue to grow, the importance of creating such meaningful spaces will not diminish and each new design has the potential to enhance the function of a place as well as its historical significance.

Building modern cities: Find out more