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Technology, History, and Place

Tag: adaptive reuse (Page 1 of 2)

Mike Mulligan, Mary Anne, and History of Technology

It turns out that one of my favorite children’s books growing up is a story about history of technology, although I didn’t realize this until I was an adult.

The book is Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, written by Virginia Lee Burton in 1939. In the book, Mike Mulligan owns an anthropomorphized coal-powered steam shovel named Mary Anne. For years, Mike and Mary Anne had been at the top of their game, digging canals, building highways, and excavating the foundations for skyscrapers. But then along come newer, fancier shovels powered by diesel, gasoline, and electricity. Mike starts to have trouble getting work for Mary Anne, because old-fashioned steam shovels are no longer wanted at construction sites.

Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel cover

The cover of Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, by Virginia Lee Burton. © Houghton Mifflin Company.

Mike Mulligan and Mary Anne

Mike Mulligan with his steam shovel Mary Anne.

Gasoline, electric, and diesel shovels

The new gasoline, electric, and diesel shovels that replace steam shovels.

Mike Mulligan and Mary Anne outside a construction site with "No Steam Shovels Wanted" written on the fence.

Mary Anne and Mike Mulligan, out of work and out of luck.

At length, Mike finds a job digging the foundation for the town hall of Popperville, a small town a long ways away from the big cities. At the end of the job, Mary Anne gets stuck in the basement of the town hall, because Mike had neglected to leave an exit for the steam shovel in his his haste to dig the foundation. Mary Anne ends up staying there and being repurposed as the boiler for the heating system of the building.

Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel is a story of technological change and adaptive reuse. The introduction of gasoline, diesel, and electric shovels represents technological change. With the newer, higher-tech shovels available, steam shovels come to be seen as obsolete and undesirable.

What to do with obsolete technology? One solution is just to throw it away. That happens to many other steam shovels; on one page of the book, Mary Anne and Mike look down in horror into a ravine where other steam shovels have been dumped to go to rust. “Mike loved Mary Anne,” the book says. “He couldn’t do that to her.”

Mike and Mary Anne looking down at junked steam shovels

Mike and Mary Anne looking aghast at junked steam shovels, the sad fate of many obsolete machines.

A technology considered obsolete in a high-profile market might still be useful in a marginal market. I have written plenty about how supposedly obsolete technologies like ox-driven plows and VCDs live on in the Garo Hills of northeast India (or at least did ten years ago). In the same way, Mike could find work for Mary Anne in a small town, Popperville, after being pushed out of higher-profile markets like canal-building and skyscrapers.

At the end of the book, Mary Anne finds a more meaningful retirement than rusting to oblivion: as a steam heater in the Popperville town hall foundation that she dug. This is an example of adaptive reuse – finding new uses for old things that can no longer be used for their original purpose. Adaptive reuse provides a sense of continuity and is an example of what Kevin Lynch calls “wasting well.”

I would like to think that I first learned the value of adaptive reuse from Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel as a child. Whatever the case, adaptive reuse is a value worth learning, for children and adults alike.

Mary Anne serving as steam-heater for the Popperville town hall.

In her new role as steam-heater for the Popperville town hall, Mary Anne has lost her treads and the red walls of her cab, but she retains her front boom and anthropomorphic bucket, creating a sense of continuity and a reminder of her past life as a steam shovel.

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The ex-churches of Quebec

Quebec was colonized in the 17th century by France, a country that remained largely Catholic even as England, northern Germany, and other parts of Europe were turning Protestant. Like the mother-country, Quebec became Catholic. Protestants were not even allowed to settle there. Only after the British takeover of Canada in the mid-18th century was Protestantism even tolerated in Quebec.

In much more recent times, Catholic Church membership and attendance have dropped off sharply in Quebec, and many congregations have had to close their doors. The availability of deconsecrated church buildings has given rise to some intriguing examples of adaptive reuse. On a recent visit to Quebec, I saw one church that had been converted into a restaurant and another that was a fitness center. Neither use really makes sense to me, because they do not take advantage of the single large, enclosed space that is a hallmark of churches.

Decline in church membership is only one reason why churches might be converted to other uses or torn down. Another is urban redevelopment, which is carried out with particular ferocity on the land-hungry island of Montreal. Churches—along with many other buildings of historic value—disappear and are replaced by new construction.

But they don’t all disappear without a trace. On the corner of Viger and St. Denis streets, there stands a lonely church tower without a church. This is the tower of Trinity Anglican Church, built in 1865 and demolished in 2011 to make room for a giant new hospital, University of Montreal Health Centre. The tower was rebuilt in 2016, using the original stones. Even as the city is redeveloped, this memento of the past has been retained.

The reconstructed church tower of Trinity Anglican Church, next to University of Montreal Health Centre.

The reconstructed church tower of Trinity Anglican Church, next to University of Montreal Health Centre.

The Gothic church tower has been integrated into the glassy facade of the hospital.

The Gothic church tower reflected in the glassy facade of the hospital.

The backside of the tower is used for bicycle parking.

The backside of the tower is used for bicycle parking.

The story of Trinity Anglican Church is inscribed in the reconstructed steps below the doorway.

The story of Trinity Anglican Church (in French) is inscribed in the reconstructed steps below the doorway.

Vanishing Montreal blog has pictures of Trinity Anglican Church shortly before and during its demolition.

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Old Delhi’s walls and gates

The remains of the fortifications of Old Delhi don’t make it onto most tourists’ itineraries when they visit the city. This is understandable, because Old and New Delhi have a range of world-class tourist attractions – such as the Red Fort, Qutb Minar, and Lutyens’ Delhi – which overshadow the city walls. But as I have found on several visits to Delhi, exploring the remains of the fortifications can be a rewarding experience. From my visits to the gates and walls, I have learned about urban planning, military science from several eras, and adaptive reuse.

Old Delhi was founded in 1639 by Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, who wanted to move his capital to a more suitable location than Agra, which was experiencing problems with drainage, overcrowding, and erosion. The original name of Old Delhi was Shahjahanabad, after the city’s founder. The centerpiece of Shahjahanabad was the Qila Mubarak (Blessed Fortress), now known as the Lal Qila or Red Fort. The fort stands on the eastern side of Shahjahanabad, with its back to the Yamuna River. It served as the royal palace and center of the Mughal government. To the west of the fort, an area of about 1,500 acres was enclosed by city walls built of stone rubble. The walls were broken by eight main gates and several lesser portals.

The walled area of Old Delhi still retains its historic identity. It even has its own postal code, 110 006, and it is colloquially referred to as “Delhi-6.” Only fragments of the walls and four of the eight main gates remain, though. On the southern side of Old Delhi, Ajmeri Gate, Turkman Gate, and Delhi Gate still stand on little plots of land, disconnected from the historic walls and surrounded by their own fences and gates.

Left to right: Ajmeri Gate, Turkman Gate, Delhi Gate.

Left to right: Ajmeri Gate, Turkman Gate, Delhi Gate.

Stretching eastward from Delhi Gate are some sections of the old city wall. One stretch of the wall is preserved in a city park, Ekta Sthal (Place of Unity). Only the outer side of the wall is protected, though. The inner side backs up to an alley, and there are several encroachments and illegal constructions built on the historic wall.

Backside of preserved wall segment in Ekta Sthal.

Backside of preserved wall segment in Ekta Sthal.

View from ramparts of Delhi's walls.

View from ramparts of Delhi’s walls.

One ramp up to the battlements hasn’t been encroached upon yet, and you can climb up and have a look around. From here you can see a round tower built in front of the wall. The tower doesn’t seem to match the style of the rest of the wall – and it shouldn’t, because it was built by the British in the nineteenth century. It is a Martello tower, designed to hold cannons and serve as an outer defensive post. The British built Martello towers all over their world empire in the nineteenth century.

Walkway to Martello tower.

Walkway to Martello tower.

Martello tower ruins.

Martello tower ruins.

Northeast of Ekta Sthal and the Martello tower, sections of the city wall now serve as retaining walls beneath more modern construction.

Remaining city wall serving as a retaining wall.

Remaining city wall serving as a retaining wall.

The longest stretches of surviving wall are on the north side of Shahjahanabad, around Kashmiri Gate. Parts of the city’s fortifications are still attached to Kashmiri Gate. Unlike Ajmeri, Turkman, and Delhi Gates, the surviving structure of Kashmiri Gate wasn’t built until the nineteenth century. The gate was constructed in 1835, and then in 1857 it was expanded to have two portals. A bastion next to the gate is built in angular star-fort style, a form of construction that was introduced to India by the British.

Kashmiri Gate, Delhi's only gate with two portals.

Kashmiri Gate, Delhi’s only gate with two portals.

A European-style bastion next to Kashmiri Gate.

A European-style bastion next to Kashmiri Gate.

Sections of city wall still stand on both the east and west sides of Kashmiri Gate. The sections on the east side are protected from encroachment by a metal fence. The sections on the west are not protected at all. Holes have been punched in the walls here and there. The arches under the battlements are used for stabling livestock and storing hay and building materials. When I visited the unprotected section of wall, I didn’t feel comfortable playing tourist and snapping picture after picture. I felt the same way that I would feel taking pictures of a stranger’s house. The walls are historic landmarks, but they are also places where some Delhiities live and work.

One of the preserved sections of wall near Kashmiri Gate.

One of the preserved sections of wall near Kashmiri Gate.

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