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Vacant buildings can have second life with reimagining, Ohio State professor says

Knowlton School’s Phu Hoang researches ‘modern ruins’

Vacant buildings and lots that blight cities across the United States and around the world can be transformed into multipurpose spaces that can benefit communities and the environment, according to research by Ohio State University Professor Phu Hoang.

“Each [vacant space] is a gap in the community social fabric,” said Hoang, head of the Architecture section at Ohio State’s Knowlton School. “What can be done to repair these gaps, while also focusing on the community that is living there?”

Hoang offered solutions during a March 20 presentation at the Knowlton School. Hoang’s presentation was part of the school’s spring Baumer Lecture series.

Phu HoangHoang discussed projects that he and Rachely Rotem, an Ohio State associate professor of architecture, have designed in cities around the world through MODU Architecture, the collaborative they founded. They outlined their design principles in their new book, “Field Guide to Indoor Urbanism.”

The term “indoor urbanism” describes an innovative approach to integrating manmade structures with the surrounding natural environment, said Ashley Bingham, assistant professor of architecture.

“Their research and design projects serve as… blueprints for transformative actions,” Bingham said of Hoang and Rotem’s work.

The honors that Hoang and Rotem have received include the 2017 Founders’ Rome Prize in Architecture. Hoang said their work in Italy included a project in which they designed new uses for abandoned construction projects in a small Sicilian town.

“These projects are considered modern ruins,” Hoang said. “We would rethink them as weather rooms and indoor cities.”

Rather than failed building projects, Hoang said he and Rotem saw the unfinished structures as venues that, with a little ingenuity, could serve as community gathering spaces.

“Is this open-air architecture or is it semi-interior landscape or is it a covered plaza?” he said. “In our vision, it was all of these, and we tried to reimagine them as a new kind of commons… spaces that would provide more connections to the outdoors.”

Hoang and Rotem’s research in the United States addresses urban areas in need of revitalization.

Their research encompassed “vacant buildings in post-industrial cities on the East Coast and also the Midwest, looking in Detroit, Pittsburgh and Newark, New Jersey,” he said.

Based on their research, Hoang and Rotem created an initiative called Second Life. The design concept consists of “mini-buildings”: free-standing, modular structures that can be quickly assembled and relocated to other sites, whether within a building or open lots.

Mini-buildings require fewer building permits than traditional construction projects, saving time and reducing operating costs for communities and organizations that seek to use them, Hoang said.

“We started to ask, ‘Is there something new we can do with these vacant buildings?’” he said.

Mini-buildings can be adapted to various weather conditions, using “off-the-grid” heating or cooling methods such as heat-retention walls and shade pavilions, Hoang said.

“We have always argued that the environment was always part of architecture,” he said.

The Second Life initiative can provide communities with options to reinvent overlooked or underutilized sites as affordable and adaptable spaces, Hoang said.

“We’re trying to design places for people to spend time, to connect and not separate,” he said. “The real impact of design is that it’s a practice of extreme optimism.”

For information about upcoming Knowlton School lectures and events, visit the school’s website.

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