The concept is attractive. Taking advantage of an existing superstructure and utility conduits, developers can simply add new units on the sides and top of a residential building. In theory, this can save money, preserve the original building and create new housing in areas where housing tends to be in short supply and high demand.
In practice, parasitic architecture often ends up being a controversial aesthetic experiment, wherein buildings of historic value have their exterior facades debased – or enhanced, depending on who you ask – with odd protuberances. Or it finds expression in “adaptive reuse” projects that rely on public subsidies to create overly expensive additional housing units.
A classic example of parasitic architecture blazing a path into the aesthetic frontier of urban design is the Museum of Military History in Dresden, Germany. In this case, a 135-year-old stone building had grafted onto its square, classical façade a massive steel and glass triangle that juts skyward like the prow of a ship. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea. A Wall Street Journal architecture critic compared the new section to “a piece of shrapnel freshly fallen from the sky.”
Enthusiasts proclaim the beauty is in the incongruity, but the practice has many detractors. During the 1980s, architects saved the facades of many historic Washington, D.C. downtown offices and built superstructures behind them – spurring critics to refer to them as “facade-omies.”
There are plentiful examples of historic public buildings expanded with ultra-modern structures. The Pablo Serrano Museum was tripled in size in 2011, when a massive, Tetris-like conglomeration of irregular black cubes was grafted onto the top of an existing, much older building in Zaragoza, Spain. In Moscow, a luminous, futuristic bubble of translucent polygons was grafted into the space between two much older buildings, creating offices while leaving clear the road underneath.
These expansions dramatically increase square footage without increasing the footprint of the original building. But they’re not cheap. How a residential project in Beirut added 13 luxury units to a 1920s mansion exemplifies what architects encounter. As reported on the architectural website InHabitat, “The SOMA team created a plan to cantilever BOBO’s steel exoskeleton and concrete core over the protected home by excavating six floors below the gutted home, leaving the historic façade intact.”
Steel exoskeletons. Six story excavations. These buildings are high-end, avant-garde statements. But to the challenge of cost-effectively increasing the available housing in densely populated cities, they’re more like thought experiments than solutions.
If one steps back from the artistic exercise and instead prioritizes function, it seems that adaptive reuse might offer more affordable options. Why not add a few floors to an existing building and create new housing without having to start from scratch? Wouldn’t that save money?
Unfortunately, no. In California, the state and local governments have granted billions of dollars in subsidies to developers to convert aging urban structures into modern residences, but the per-unit price for these projects has consistently exceeded the construction cost of new homes and apartments. A newspaper investigation provides comprehensive evidence to support this.
“Last year, Sacramento officials announced an extreme makeover for the Capitol Park Hotel, the century-old building just a few blocks from the Golden 1 Center and K Street restaurant scene, that would bring life to a dilapidated building with newly renovated rooms for the homeless,” the Sacramento Bee reported in September 2020.
“The project has been hailed as an important step to house Sacramento’s homeless population. But transforming the Capitol Park Hotel will come at an extraordinarily high price to taxpayers and the nonprofit groups involved in the project,” the Bee continued. “The cost to redevelop the Capitol Park Hotel is more than $445,000 per unit for apartments that will be tiny – about 250 square feet. … If it stays on budget, the project will come to $1,100 per square foot — more than double the square-foot price to build a luxury home … .”
This is not an isolated case. Across California, a confluence of factors have made housing unaffordable, with adaptive reuse perhaps the most unaffordable housing of all. These factors include excessive building codes imposed by a state Legislature convinced that if they mandate enough solar panels, smart meters, appliances, faucets and electric fixtures, R-60 insulation, triple paned windows, and so on, California will turn into a green utopia.
They include punitive permit fees, and approvals delayed for years, from myriad agencies whose requirements conflict with each other and change constantly. They include endless litigation from well-funded environment pressure groups that exploit the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA).
And, sadly, they include an opportunistic complex of politically connected developers, public bureaucracies, and powerful “nonprofits” that have sprung up to milk this dysfunctional system for tens of billions of dollars of public funds with almost nothing to show for it apart from more homelessness.
As a solution to the housing shortage, parasitic architecture has an obvious appeal. But as a cost-effective solution, reality intrudes in the form of a regulatory environment that imposes a suite of restrictions that double or triple the cost of construction, especially for adaptive reuse projects.
As an aesthetic adventure, however, parasitic architecture is a vibrant new category of modernism, with provocative installations all over the world. Western cities should explore its potential.
Edward Ring is a co-founder of the California Policy Center and the author of “The Abundance Choice: Our Fight for More Water in California.”