Wild Air

On Adaptive Reuse

May 6th, 2012

In the world of architectural preservation, they call it “adaptive reuse.”   Simply stated, the concept is that of preserving and restoring a built structure, but adapting it to a modern purpose.   For example, an old power station in London was structurally restored and converted into the Tate Gallery.  

In the organ world, we have always done this.   Fortunately, we have a few organs that can be completely restored and maintained exactly as they were originally built.   These instruments, which must be musically and mechanically worthy in the first place, must also serve the needs of their owners for restoration to be feasible.   In most cases, the owners are churches, and the organ must support worship.   Even in these instances, though, it is rare to find a church that is willing to hand-pump the old Hook for every service!   Even adding an electric blower is an example of adaptive reuse.   The instrument is changed (slightly) to make it useful and acceptable in a modern context.

Consider again the comparison with a historic building.   If the building is to be used, it must have up-to-date electrical wiring, new elevators, ADA-compliant bathrooms, and code-compliant entrances and exits.   As well, some changes to interior partitions might be necessary to make the building useful for modern tenants.     In a pipe organ renovation project, it is possible to preserve the sound of an instrument while replacing tired or outdated mechanical portions.   Knowing WHAT to save and WHAT to replace is the trick.   And, just as the architect may expand an old structure or make needed interior changes, the organ builder may suggest adding, replacing, or repurposing tonal elements of an instrument to make it better serve its purpose, whether in worship or concert situations.

Of course, the more that is changed, the more the resulting organ will differ from the original.   One expert has claimed that an organ that has been rebuilt twice is no longer representative of its original.   However, what this expert has missed is that an organ’s “history” STARTS when it is built, and CONTINUES throughout its life.   This is not to condone the cheap butchery of organs, such as happened in the mid-twentieth century when “experts” decided that what “muddy” old organs needed was a good dose of high mixtures.   We know, for instance, of a fine Romantic organ that  was “improved” by removing the celeste and replacing it with an overvoiced mutation.   Hateful!

As in the world of architecture, pipe organ renovation is often a question of adaptive reuse.   This requires sensitivity to the original, understanding of how it should be revised, and a conservative approach.   Doing too much is sometimes  much worse than not doing enough.

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