Facadism and the City: the veneer of age disguising brash modernity

115 Wentworth St, Spitalfields, London, E1 6TB. Pic. Francisco Ibanez Hantke, Unsustainable Structures 3 (2017)

Like many cities of ancient origin, London’s landscape is predicated on the old being enveloped by the new. The ancient Roman wall which once defended Londinium is scattered around the border of the ultra-modern financial hub of the City of London; what was once a medieval plague pit, is now Aldgate Underground Station.

But what happens when you try to disguise the brand new, with a thin veneer of the old, so a false illusion of age and continuity hides a brash modernity. In architectural terms, that is called ‘Facadism.’

Façadism is the practice of destroying everything of a building except its front wall and constructing a new building behind it which is not structurally connected to it. But instead of preserving heritage, it creates tension between traditional and contemporary architecture, according to some critics. Others liken it to a film studio, where scenary represents reality.

“As if I were being poked repeatedly in the eye with a blunt stick, I cannot avoid becoming increasingly aware of a painfully cynical trend in London architecture which threatens to turn the city into the backlot of an abandoned movie studio…The practice of sacrificing good quality buildings for cheapjack disposable replacements cannot be justified.” In his newest book ‘The Creeping Plague of Ghastly Façadism’ Spitalfields activist The Gentle Author dissects and points to the many humorously horrific examples of façadism popping up in Tower Hamlets and the rest of London.

Francisco Ibáñez Hantke, an architect and photographer whose series ‘Unsustainable Structures’ touched on façadism in East London, told Eastlondonlines: “Façadism seems to be at first sight an altruist practice, a reasonable way of retaining the memory and character of an area, while also redeveloping old constructions and bring them to modern accessibility, fire, and environmental standards.”

Hantke added: “Facadism is expensive. The resources spent to retain facades will be used by developers as an argument to not building social and affordable housing, as well as not contributing enough to public infrastructure.”

Hankte’s ‘Non-Structures’ series was created for the London Festival of Architecture. It presented London “as a spectacle of constant conflict, negotiation and flux…trapped as these buildings and sites are between the boundaries of architecture and ruin, planning and chance, process and product.”

Clemency Gibbs, a researcher focusing on façadism in London since 1970 at The Bartlett, University College London, agrees with The Gentle Author’s scepticism: “I do not think that the current situation is sustainable. The finished products of facadism projects are usually the materialisation of unsatisfactory compromise between conservationists and developers, mediated by the local authority. Most examples trivialise the built heritage, employing it as a place-making tool. A lack of sensitive design means that more often than not the two structures are not in dialogue with each other.”

Indeed, Historic England, the public body who act as guardians for listed buildings, told Eastlondonlines: “When considering proposals to leave only the façade of a historic building… it is not usually something we would support.”  However, they are ultimately an advisor, and, in all cases the local planning authority is the decision maker on the fate of listed buildings. 

Two examples from Spitalfields in The Gentle Author’s book particularly stand out.

The Cock and Hoop. Pic. The Gentle Author, Creeping Plague of Ghastly Facadism.

The Cock & Hoop, on Artillery Lane in Spitalfields, was a renowned drinking hole dating back to the early seventeenth century until closed in 1908. It was converted into LSE student halls in 2008. 

Another example is what was the London Fruit & Wool Exchange on Brushfield Street. The 1920s auction house was famous for its careful and intricate craftsmanship throughout – its roof simulated sunlight on cloudy days. 

London Fruit & Wool Exchange. Pic. The Gentle Author, The Creeping Plague of Facadism

So, why did we start turning historic buildings into soulless shells?  Gibbs told Eastlondonlines: “The trend emerged in the 1970s, likely in response to the perceived shortcomings of modernism’s urban design and development strategies, and a renewed interest in conservation and traditional/human scale architecture.”

Importantly, as well as the community losing heritage sites, residents, particularly those who are economically disadvantaged, are being pushed out.

Gibbs told Eastlondonlines: “Often, the buildings that are being demolished house local small businesses, i.e. Fruit and Wool exchange in Spitalfields, and are being replaced with buildings that house either luxury housing or large corporations.” 

Hantke added: “Facadism is not a practice that is good or bad per se, but needs careful thought and implementation otherwise can have the contrary effect. Saving a facade does not automatically save a neighbourhood. It should be done in very specific cases…. can be easily used…for cynical heritage conservation hiding the real interest of financially driven development projects.”

The reason why façadism is particularly prevalent in Spitalfields and Tower Hamlets, according to The Gentle Author, is because of the encroaching expansion of Canary Wharf and the City.

Grosvenor St, Mayfair, London, W1K 3JX. Pic. Francisco Ibanez Hankte ‘Unsustainable Structures 7’ part of the ‘Non-Structures’ series (2018)

With all of this in mind, the practice seems like another cog in the wider trend of uneven regeneration and gentrification which is sweeping across East London.

Indeed, Professor Iain Borden, architectural historian and Vice-Dean Education at The Bartlett, University College London, told Eastlondonlines: “Gentrification often ensures or encourages the removal of the people who have lived in the area. First come the artists, academics and those in outsider culture, they’re like the shock troops who make it trendy, then it’s galleries and bars. And then come the bankers, and by them moving there they destroy the very thing and area they hope to enjoy.” 

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