What the History of Diocletian's Palace Can Teach Us About Adaptive Reuse

The 2,000-year-old Croatian fort holds innumerable lessons for today's urbanists.

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How will the city of tomorrow adapt and reuse the city of today? I don't think we ask that question broadly enough, and our day-to-day, property-specific incrementalism can easily overshoot the greatest lessons from history. A hometown case in point transported me from Seattle to Croatia for inspiration about why we should think beyond limited geographies, time frames and lifetimes when we discuss urban redevelopment options.

Recently, the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Seattle-based Preservation Green Lab made urbanist media headlines (including Emily Badger's Atlantic Cities story) with a report stating the environmental benefits of green retrofits of historic buildings, as compared to new, state-of-the-art, energy-efficient construction. A local church restored as townhouses joined the list of intriguing Seattle adaptive reuse projects typical of national trends.

Almost simultaneously, Seattle Times columnist Nicole Brodeur described a protest-free goodbye to a neighborhood icon in my Seattle neighborhood. A 112-year-old repair garage and offices (demolished last Friday) will soon become the nostalgically named Pike Station, comprised of new townhouses, complete with a courtyard and intermixed retail.

Courtesy: Seattle Pike

The purported upshot of the local story, that the building had a good life and the new use is commendable, is clear in the headline: "Sometimes it's OK to let an old landmark go."

How did our predecessors handle these issues in simpler times, when reuse was a practical necessity? What can we learn from those stories? As our surroundings evolve, can we create incentives and inspiration for transformational places that are sustainable in form, function and attention to the past?

When considering these questions, there is one place that deserves a hard look: Split, Croatia. Amid the old town center and ruins of the retirement palace of the Roman Emperor Diocletian, adaptive reuse is obvious. Split is a place which began as something different from what it is today, yet lives on in the new clothing of another age, more juxtaposition than reinvention. I was lucky enough to first visit Split in 1968, in the old Yugoslavia, and to return many times in the years that followed.

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It's not a stretch to say that its impressionable story explains my legal work in urban redevelopment. There, the survival and reuse of historic elements tell a valuable tale of sustainability.

Shortly after 300 A.D., on the site of Split's town center, workers completed Diocletian's Palace. Diocletian was the first Roman Emperor to voluntarily abdicate, and retire in the modern sense; he viewed the palace as a purposeful respite from power in his home region, possibly for medical reasons.

After Diocletian's death, the palace was first a refuge for exiled imperial family members. Then, after destruction of the nearby Roman city of Salona by the Avars and Slavs at the beginning of the 7th century, the palace became a shelter for fleeing citizens, later a medieval town, a Renaissance regional center, and eventually a major city, with core elements of the palace still prominent today. Thomas Swick's essay, "Croatian Pop" captures the spirit of Split best:

I slid through more right-angled alleys that deposited me into an hallucination: a sunken square hemmed in by antiquities. The delicate remains of a colonnade filigreed one side, and the skeletal façade of a temple, now buttressed by brick... Spotlights dramatized the age-blackened columns, giving the scene a crumbling magnificence, while the cafe tables spread across the peristyle provided a jarring contemporary note. So that welded onto the indoor/outdoor motif - niches and statuary under the stars - was the even more compelling one of ancient and modern: teenagers flirting on ruinous walls; couples drinking in the shadow of the gods. It was like stumbling upon a cocktail party in the Roman Forum.

How was this scene created? In essence, the palace, which spanned almost 10 acres, contained enough elements of classical urbanity—including the gridded crossroads of a military camp (the ancient castrum and its standard roads, the decumanus and cardo), as well as several ceremonial spaces and religious structures—that when repopulated after the destruction of Salona, it became easily adaptable to what we now consider urban uses.

This unintentional convertibility shows an interesting evolution over time. A mausoleum became a cathedral, the cardo became the winding medieval street that remains today, the crossing of the decumanus and cardo at the peristyle (a classical courtyard below the Emperor's apartments) became a baptistry, public square and historic urban center, and the Emperor's apartments became the structural framework of a residential area.

Due to this fascinating progression, Split has drawn visitors for hundreds of years. The Scottish architect Robert Adam profiled its unrivaled preservation of Roman architecture in 1764, through collected drawings, viewable here, often acknowledged as inspiration for the Georgian architectural tradition of parts of London, Bath and Bristol.

In the last century, many excavations and publications by local and American teams have admirably documented the palace's history and transformation (including the often cited work of Jerko and Tomas Marasovic). In a 1970 book, the Marasovic brothers advocated a universal message in the context of continuing investigation, discovery and restoration to "ensuring...renewed function within the context of a modern urban community."

The confluence of past and present discussed here is not often mentioned in the American dialogue. This is a missed opportunity. I believe that visiting Diocletian's Palace and reflecting on how the old can blend (and, in fact, be adapted to suit) the new provides incomparable perspective.

This can add value to today's discussion of familiar building restoration approaches, or even already innovative, largely replacement-style redevelopment of areas like a former military base, an airport (e.g. the former Stapleton Airport in Denver), or an institutional campus. The scale of adaptation in Split confirms how humans can be at home and enriched by large-scale incorporation of the past.

A National Geographic Center for Sustainable Destinations summary of Split hints at the potential lessons:

There was little in the way of organized tourism around the ruins—--there was an outdoor café in the middle of them. However, I found this integration of the historic and the contemporary to be quite pleasing.

 

Family life exists amid shops, restaurants and bars, with more recent wayfinding signs summarizing venues at the head of narrow streets. Swick aptly continues:

But what really distinguishes the complex today is not its size or its symmetries but its fantastic utilitarianism. It is not just that people now gather where Praetorian Guards once strolled, but that they live here. In what must stand as one of the world's, if not first, at least most spectacular instances of adaptive reuse, the citizens of Split blithely built their dwellings within the palace.

In other cities, some historic urban cores survive, and there are many examples, from Istanbul to Venice to Jerusalem. Old towns, often within formerly defensive walls, become functional, large-scale artifacts, some evolved urban areas and some tourist meccas. In contrast to Split, they were always, first and foremost, cities or towns.

Moving forward, we should design and regulate in a way that the inadvertence described here becomes more purposeful, enabling sustainable reuse on a broader scale. Examples include zoning and building code provisions that anticipate land assembly and not property-by-property approaches that allow for convertible uses in buildings, a robust mixture of old and new materials, and the outright recognition that both public and private spaces can realize new uses over time.

Lenders, often the true drivers of development, should understand the benefits of such reactivated places. Indeed, some states and cities have policies encouraging the concept of adaptive reuse.

Throughout history, cities have fulfilled central cultural, economic and religious roles as both centers of settlement and qualitative measures of human habitat. To reinvent them (or juxtapose the best of the past), we need to know where we have been and where we are going, at more than a building scale.

 

About the Author

  • Charles R. Wolfe is an attorney in Seattle, where he focuses on land use and environmental law and permitting, including the use of innovative land use regulatory tools and sustainable development techniques.