Why We Shouldn’t Demolish with Williams Burton Leopardi
Demolition versus the retention of historical buildings stirs contentious debate. We speak with Williams Burton Leopardi director David Burton and associate David Handsaker about the merit of preservation.
As a core part of their practice – having purchased and developed a dilapidated relic as a testament to their commitment to heritage preservation – Williams Burton Leopardi are advocates for abstaining from demolition. After years of remaining unoccupied, the Darling Building sat within the heart of the Adelaide CBD and was an opportunity to combine passion and principle for the studio. “Beyond the ecological dimensions, heritage buildings carry an embodied energy at the cost of legacy,” Williams Burton Leopardi director David Burton says.
“Every brick and every beam tells a story of craftsmanship and of the hands that shaped it, and we wanted to pay an appropriate homage to that notion through our work on the Darling Building,” David Burton says. “Retaining our heritage buildings is not just an act of respect, but an undeniable sustainability imperative.” Serving also as their own studio space, the building is a manifesto capturing their overall approach. “Our reverence for heritage is deeply embedded in our design ethos – it’s not just a nod to tradition, but it helps map a seamless interweaving of old and new,” Williams Burton Leopardi senior associate David Handsaker says.
In much the same way as any contemporary building reflects technology and innovation – allowing for certain façade systems, spanning lengths and cantilevers, they also act as a reminder of the stages leading up to the present. “Each building is an ode to the proportions, textures, handcrafted techniques and access to the materiality of another time,” David Handsaker says. “Learning to add to that, instead of taking it away, is part of the challenge and something that we do intuitively – the focus is on doing less, with more.” While some stylistic approaches, being more ornate or detailed, ignite different nostalgic connections, erasing others not deemed as well-liked can affect a relationship to place.
“Our reverence for heritage is deeply embedded in our design ethos – it’s not just a nod to tradition, but a seamless interweaving of old and new.”
– Williams Burton Leopardi Associate David Handsaker
By having open conversations with clients and developers about the embedded value of character-rich spaces, there is also a preservation of belonging that occurs through familiarity. “Most of the time, the authenticity and depth of a story of place lies in the imperfections, and it is through the marks and scratches that time physically leaves on a building that connects to a reverence of time.” Acknowledging that the architect’s role lies both with the present and the future, there is a responsibility to also integrate the past as a core part of the professional duty of care.
With a portfolio that spans much of Adelaide and the surrounding suburbs and rural areas, therein also lies an understanding of the city’s identity. Adelaide is known for its preserved parklands and a reluctance to overdevelop; an intentional approach to advancement without demolition. “Our bond with heritage isn’t merely formal; it has formed more part of our approach overall – how can we do more, by disrupting less,” David Handsaker explains, adding that it’s “Adelaide’s architectural narrative that has also driven much of our commitment to heritage, understanding its importance in the process.”
“By replacing as little as possible, we minimise the ecological footprint of construction, while preserving the historic continuum as part of a larger cultural legacy.”
While there inevitably will always be the push for progression, with that urge for newness also needs to come a deeper understanding and balanced approach to integrating past and present; ensuring heritage is honoured in the same way an architect would hope their current work is preserved in future. And if the role of the architect is only to replace the work of those prior, how can architects envision their ideas having a positive influence on the future world?
“We want to champion the coming together of old and new where we can, as nothing can replace or imitate the imperfections of an aged and storied building. It is in these nuances that the soul of a place exists…”