Fidelity and Freedom in the Theory of Adaptive Reuse

Thinking with T.S. Eliot and Walter Benjamin


  • Koenraad van Cleempoel Hasselt University



This essay contributes to the emerging theory of adaptive reuse of architectural sites by borrowing vocabulary that relates to the transposition between architecture and translation. Three aspects seem relevant in both disciplines: (1) carrying over meaning with respect for (2) tradition and (3) craftsmanship. In the process of adaptive reuse, buildings often receive a new program entailing shifts of meaning; hence the analogy with the art of translation. In addition to this negotiation of meaning, an attitude to tradition is also a valuable lens to approach this transposition between architecture and translation. In particular the dialectic process between fidelity and freedom. Walter Benjamin’s essay The Task of the Translator (1921) and T.S. Eliot’s Tradition and the Individual Talent (1919) offers richness and accuracy to the growing vocabulary on adaptive reuse. The essay illustrates this argument by looking at the remodeling of a 1859 prison into a Faculty of Law of the University of Hasselt in Flanders. The case study wants to illustrate this process of making both the original and the translation recognizable as fragments of a greater language. The enclosed typology of the prison was changed into an open, urban-oriented faculty of law. It shows us how memory can be both a generous database as well as a selective process. How memory and oblivion are two essential conditions for architecture to negotiate with heritage.

Author Biography

Koenraad van Cleempoel, Hasselt University

Koenraad van Cleempoel lectures in art history and architectural history at the Faculty of Architecture and Arts in Hasselt University (B). He graduated from the Warburg Institute studying Renaissance astronomy in relation to material culture. In 2017 he ran a seminar ‘Materialised Knowledge ‘ at the Art History department in UCBerkeley. His current teachings and research In Hasselt (B) deal with theoretical aspects of adaptive reuse; in particular the fragile continuity between past and present, for example by looking at contemporary interventions in heritage sites. In 2019 he co-authored with Bie Plevoets the book Adaptive Reuse of the Built Environments. Concepts and Cases of an Emerging Discipline (Routledge). He coordinates the research group Trace that is also running a master program on aspects of adaptive reuse. Iconography in relationship to changing meanings in remodeled buildings is his current research project.


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