The City Space

Cultivating Urban Understanding


Old is New: Inside a Brewery Turned Office Park


Few urban features make my heart beat faster than a really well-done repurposement project. It’s not so much because I like old-style buildings (although I do), but because I value the positive environmental, cultural and social impact that repurposement has on cities. By transforming a former factory, church, or even gas station* into a new space you cut down on the amount of materials that you would normally need to create a completely new building and you often also undergo the important process of getting an old, potentially dangerous or toxic building up to health and safety codes. Renovation can also preserve iconic spaces and the designs of generations past. This is particularly valuable since historic methods of building often create more lasting, resilient structures which can still benefit us today. Finally, renovation is an important method for creating value and vibrance in an area that might previously have been empty or abandoned.

Thankfully, warehouses transformed into condos or offices are practically a normal feature in most American cities nowadays. Drive through any historic downtown and you’ll find trendy lofts built inside old printing presses or granaries. But there’s so much more you can do with an old building no longer being used for its original purpose. I shared some ideas in this post regarding an empty community center/church down the block from my apartment. The sky (or ceiling) is really the limit when it comes to transforming historic spaces. I’ve seen homes inside old churches, accordion shops inside old White Castles, and elementary schools inside old strip malls.

I want to share a particularly beautiful and well executed repurposement project today. Milwaukee has been the “Brew City” for more than 150 years. Many famous, global beers like Miller, Schlitz and Pabst Blue Ribbon got their start here, paving the way for many more craft breweries to dominate the scene today (including Lakefront, Milwaukee Brewing Company and more). While a few of the large beer producers still have their headquarters here, most have moved on to bigger facilities or transferred ownership, leaving large factories behind. In other cities, perhaps these factories would be knocked down or left to become gigantic racoon palaces, but not here.

When the Schlitz factory closed its doors in 1982 after being sold to the Stroh Brewing Company, a decision had to be made. Wanting to preserve this historic structure but undoubtedly struggling with how to convert such a massive space (40 acres) into something functional, developers eventually settled on an office park to fill the campus anew. Continue reading

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What Makes a Building Work?


One of the shops down the street from me is getting a new façade. The place is boarded up right now, but every day I see construction workers hammering and sawing away inside, giving the building what promises to be a refurbished appearance in a few weeks. I don’t think about architecture very often, yet a project like this gives me pause. It’s the same feeling I get when I stumble across a particularly stunning structure in the middle of the city—a feeling of wonder and curiosity about that decisions that go into the creation of that building. It causes me to consider: what makes a building work?

With such a diversity of architecture in our cities—from hundred-year-old schoolhouses to drab apartment complexes to shiny, new stadiums—I’m struggling with how to best tackle this question, so I think I’ll approach it from the opposite angle first: What indicators can we find that a building isn’t working? Sometimes we recognize instinctually that we don’t like a particular building, from the outside. Perhaps it dominates the street in an overbearing, shadowy manner, or its architecture is so jarring as to be ugly. Or maybe we notice the opposite: It’s a building that seems aged—and not in the charming, historic sense but in the broken-down, outdated, dusty sense. From the interior, we can also perceive the dysfunctionality of a structure. Take, for example, the office buildings that I’m sure we’ve all spent too much time in—the ones located in office parks on the edge of town. As soon as you walk in, you’re met with dark wood or glass paneling, misplaced tropical plants and some strange, awkward piece of artwork. Besides the plants, everything is basically the same color and seems to be arranged in such a way as to make you more depressed with every step, never offering the eyes anything pleasant or attractive to land on. You ride the lonely, claustrophobic elevator up to the eleventh floor where you find bland, carpeted hallways and the ever-present hum of an HVAC system—perfectly mirroring the hallways on every other floor. This building is boring, dreary and monotone. It was built forty years ago for businessmen in maroon suits and it has little relevance now. Continue reading