The Rise of Facadism

It’s been described as ‘ghastly’, a ‘creeping plague’ and a ‘painfully cynical trend in architecture that threatens to turn London into the backlot of an abandoned movie studio’.

We are of course talking about facadism, described as the practice of preserving the front of an existing building and constructing an entirely new building behind it and in London, it seems as if the practice is rife, for example:

National Provincial Bank, Threadneedle Street EC2 – designed by John Gibson in 1863 as London’s largest banking hall.

The Cock & Hoop Public House, Artillery Lane, Spitalfields E1 – Thomas Lloyd was recorded as the pub’s first landlord as early as 1805. After closing for good in 1908 it was incorporated into Providence Row Night Refuge and, in 2006, converted into student housing for LSE.

London Fruit & Wool Exchange, Brushfield Street E1 – designed by Sidney Perks in 1927 as a state-of-the-art auction room complete with parquet floors and significant craft elements, it is now home to an international law firm.

465 Caledonian Road, N7 – a warehouse built by Mallett, Porter & Dowd in 1874 and subsequently winner of Building Design’s Carbuncle Cup in 2013.

College East, Toynbee Hall, Wentworth Street, Spitalfields E1 – designed by Elijah Hoole and built in 1884-5. Previously facaded in the 1970s, it’s next job is to provide a front for a block of flats.

Former Unitarian Chapel, Stamford Street, Blackfriars SE1 – designed in 1821 by Charles Parker, the architect of Hoare’s Bank in the Strand, the Grade II-listed hexastyle portico fronts a nondescript apartment block.

18 Broadwick Street, Soho W1 – the decorative brick inlay declares the building to have been constructed in 1886. Originally a bakery then a chemist, it is now tenanted by media companies for voice-over, film and music businesses.

How many do you know? How many have you looked at and thought, ‘nice’ and how many have you looked at and thought ‘not nice at all.’

For or Against?

Facadism (sometimes known as ‘adaptive reuse’) appears to be a genuine Marmite concept. At best it’s historical preservation in a disposable world, at worst an abomination.

If it’s done poorly with little regard for what went before, it can be considered as an architectural Frankenstein. ‘Tasteless, mismatched and ostentatious’ so says an article on the US-based reliance-foundry.com website but if it’s done correctly – whatever ‘correctly’ means – it can be an effective bridge between the old and the new, retaining the historical significance of a building but reconstructing the interior to meet modern standards and more importantly, modern needs.

Mostly seen in rapidly-developing cities where the requirement for new buildings outweigh the ability – and cost – of conserving and redeveloping older buildings, cities such as Toronto and Sydney actively encourage the practice whereas Paris (unsurprisingly) and Melbourne actively discourage it.

In cities where space is an increasingly valuable commodity and the preservation of old buildings is a cost-inefficient proposition, facadism allows for the partial conservation of architecturally and historically significant buildings.

Facadism is Nothing New

While it is deemed nothing more than vandalism by certain elements of the preservation community, facadism isn’t a new idea and the practice, writes Joe Lloyd in iconeye.com, ‘is not necessarily terrible in principle. The transmutation and adaptation of buildings over time is a fundamental part of architectural history. Many of Europe’s great monuments, palaces, bridges and cathedrals are the subjects of repeated accretion and refashioning.’

But, he continues, ‘The problem with Britain’s present rash of facadism is that the results are so often lazy and cheap, patchwork solutions rather than visionary repurposing. They give architectural firms a free hand to produce their most mediocre work.’

Worst of all, ‘beneath the polished brick facades of these abominable chimeras hides an alarming implication: that much contemporary architecture is so banal and soulless that the veneer of the past needs to be plastered on top.’

An interesting viewpoint straddling both sides of the fence, shared by Toronto-based Chris Borgal, an architect specialising in historic restoration projects and co-founder of Goldsmith Borgal & Co. He says ‘The reuse of existing building forms has been a tradition that has gone on for over a thousand years’ since the most important aesthetic portions of a building are the areas in the public sphere, such as the building face, but, he continues, ‘Because the remainder of the building will only be used by a smaller number of individuals, the rest of the building tends to be thrown together in a slapdash way.’

Pros and Cons

There are, of course advantages and disadvantages of adaptive reuse and architectural facadism.

It saves capital, helps to reduce the wasteful process of demolition and reconstruction and reduces landfill (at their peak, over 30% of landfill sites are comprised of building waste). It also reduces the carbon footprint required to transport materials to the site and build and, as we’ve mentioned, it goes some way to preserving the architectural heritage of a major city.

However, the against lobby, which includes preservationists, heritage groups and those calling themselves ‘anti-facadists’ believe, according to a dissertation written by architectural designer Paul Milburn that ‘the background history and original character of a building are forever lost. One belief is that older buildings should be handled with more care and respect for sentiment, instead of just tampering with it for quick cheap money-making schemes. Conversationalists say that developers use facadism as a poor excuse for preservation, which can also be regarded as another form of vandalism. Some extremists would go as far to say the historical landmarks are becoming fakes and nondescript in result.’

To Conclude…

The conclusion is that there is no conclusion. The pros and cons of facadism will continue to be debated and the passion on both sides of the fence is so deep-rooted that neither group will budge, at least they haven’t yet…

Incidentally, we are currently marketing up to 14,000 square feet of fantastic space in Hobhouse Court in St James’s which will be ready very soon and it has a retained façade on the Suffolk Street side. Come and have a look, you never know, you might like it…

Talking of space, if you have a property enquiry we can help you with, contact us today on 020 7629 1088 or info@bdgsp.co.uk.