Jee Liu on Applying Subtle Design to Adaptive Reuse

At the core of WallaceLiu’s projects is a design practice called adaptive reuse. In the age of the quest for sustainability, adaptive reuse is becoming more of a necessity for city-makers worldwide.

All around the world, we will face the same issue. We cannot keep on building more concrete, that’s not the solution. So we have to think creatively about what we've already got.
Jee Liu, WallaceLiu

WallaceLiu is a young architectural practice founded in London. Established in 2014, it gained international acclaim for its visionary adaptive reuse approach to architecture and landscape design. For the past few years, co-founders Jamie Wallace and Jee Liu have been working between China and the UK, completing several major commissions in Chongqing, a province located in southwest China.

Chongqing Industrial Museum | Photo courtesy of Etienne Clement
Chongqing Industrial Museum | Photo courtesy of Etienne Clement
The result - a space that doesn’t intervene with the local landscape but subtly fits into it, enhancing the distinctive ambiance of the post-industrial site.

Their most recent project, Chongqing Industrial Museum, was completed in late 2019. The stunning complex emerged from the remnants of the former Chongqing Steel Works. The architects reused existing input across various scales — from materials to textures, colors, and aesthetic features. The result is a space that doesn’t intervene with the local landscape but subtly fits into it, enhancing the distinctive ambiance of the post-industrial site.

Methods of adaptive reuse began making appearances in architectural practices around the 1980s. As an alternative to the traditional, extractive throwaway economy and in order to cut down waste accumulation, architects designed in ways that would keep materials in constant use.

Yannan Avenue Park | Photo courtesy of WallacLiu
Yannan Avenue Park | Photo courtesy of WallacLiu

Adaptive reuse is conspicuous in another one of their studio’s projects that coincidently happens to be in Chongqing — Yannan Avenue, a regenerated highway with space allocated for pedestrian promenade, areas for leisure and neighbor interactions. Jee Liu presented both projects at reSITE 2019 REGENERATE, and described the logic of the transformation as “a very radical design but with very subtle language, which is very hard to achieve on the ground. Because they want more icons, that's the general commercialized demand”.

Indeed, adding simple elements such as natural-looking greenery, clusters of lounge seats, informal play facilities and canopies to the existing infrastructure helped turn it into a lively part of the neighborhood.

It's very hard to push forward the conservation adaptive scheme anywhere, in China and in London.
Jee Liu, WallaceLiu

Despite global trends of sustainability, it is still hard to challenge the construction industry’s deep-seated practices, as Jee admitted during the panel discussion "East Meets West" at reSITE 2019. From her experience of working between the two continents, “it's very hard to push forward the conservation adaptive scheme anywhere, in China and in London”. Nonetheless, there are signs of change that signal the adaptive reuse scheme might slide into the mainstream in the near future.

Jee Liu, WallaceLiu presents the studio's latest projects at reSITE | Photo courtesy of Tomáš Princ
Jee Liu, WallaceLiu presents the studio's latest projects at reSITE | Photo courtesy of Tomáš Princ

Jee Liu’s partner, and co-founder of Wallace Liu, Jamie Wallace also joined the panel discussion at reSITE 2019. He believes adaptive reuse is prompted not only by the quest for sustainability but also a universal tendency towards preserving the heritage. As he put it, “there’s a kind of value change in society where places value their heritage." According to Jamie, this is the shift that causes that “the vast majority, if not all of China’s cities, are procured speculatively and there’s money in heritage now.” If society begins recognizing the history embodied in architecture, it sees the sense in allocating the budget for its preservation.

They were the people that feel nothing has left, there's not enough memory left, everything is gone.
Jee Liu, WallaceLiu

Jee also noted the Chinese generation that “have a particular relationship with the cultural revolution [of the 60s and 70s]" had begun to look at things retroactively poignantly stating "they are the people, the generation that made the most money in the wave of up-growing, ‘cause they were the ones that go 'let’s just do it' — nothing else matters, head down and make money right now. But now they are about to approach the last end of their career and they were the people that feel nothing has left, there's not enough memory left, everything is gone.”

She believes a new generation of architects and the rise of adaptive reuse is also bolstered by the cultural phenomenon of growing nostalgia that followed decades of expansive development. Jee Liu and Jamie Wallace spoke at reSITE 2019 REGENERATE.

Chongqing Industrial Museum | Photo courtesy of Etienne Clement
Chongqing Industrial Museum | Photo courtesy of Etienne Clement

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