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My Facade Safaris

July 15, 2019
by the gentle author

I have been scurrying all over London to photograph examples of facadism suggested by readers for inclusion in my forthcoming book. I call these expeditions ‘facade safaris’ and, as you can see from my collection of trophies below, I shot some prime specimens.

THE CREEPING PLAGUE OF GHASTLY FACADISM combines a gallery of the most notorious facades and a humorous analysis of facadism - the unfortunate practice of destroying everything apart from the front wall and constructing a new building behind it – revealing why this is happening and what it means.

I am still seeking a couple more investors for my book, so if you would like to help please write to me at spitalfieldslife@gmail.com . You can also support the book by preordering and you will receive a signed copy when it is published in October.

Click here to preorder your copy

Please suggest more London facades I should include.

Corner of Berwick St & Broadwick St, Soho

Whenever you see an old facade with a new structure behind it, this tells you that a building of distinction once stood there that could not simply be demolished and the compromise which arose was to keep the front wall. None of these facaded buildings should have been destroyed, but it happens because the economic forces driving redevelopment are greater than the legislation to protect what exists already. The recent rise in façadism is a barometer of how far the power balance has shifted away from conservation towards redevelopment. The result has been the loss of too many important and attractive old buildings that once enhanced our city and their replacement with generic monoliths.

No-one believes the original building still exists because the front wall still stands. There are a few examples where an attempt has been made to hide the join but, in my experience, this is a fiction that developers do not strive to maintain. Mostly, retaining the facade is an unwelcome condition of planning permission when their preference would have been complete demolition. Abnegating responsibility, the developers either complain that they were forced to keep the front wall or occasionally boast that they retained the period features, while the local community grieves that a beloved building and landmark has been destroyed. Nobody really wins and the uneasy physical form of the buildings manifests the tensions which arise in such compromises.

The front wall alone can never be a sufficient replacement for the loss of a building. Even the assumption that it could be raises questionable notions about how we experience the urban landscape. Cynically, it implies we perceive the world as mere surface and it does not matter if what is behind changes, as long as the superficial appearance is preserved. Yet a facade becomes a mask when it conceals a building’s change of use – from a philanthropic institution into luxury flats or from a public building into a corporate headquarters – distracting our attention from the reality of the transformation.

Unsurprisingly, architects dislike the requirement of incorporating an existing facade into a new building, which may have been conceived in the hope of fulfilling their own design without such compromise. Yet too often financial subservience overrides self-respect in these cases. No wonder the treatment of the facade is often perfunctory and the resentment is visible. These circumstances explain the strange discontinuities in this hybrid architecture where sometimes a gap is inserted between the facade and the building, and the architectural styles of the facade and the new building are often at odds with each other. It is disappointing when architects pay so little attention to the architectural whole and the rest of us have to live with these grotesque monsters that confront us only with what we have lost.

This curious phenomena first came to my attention when I was shown a facaded nineteenth century office building near Smithfield in the nineties. Only the exterior shell had been retained. The developer had increased capacity by replacing high-ceilinged Victorian offices with low-ceilinged modern workspaces. Consequently, the new interior structure did not coincide with the exterior walls, which meant that floors bisected windows.

At the time, it was merely an isolated curiosity. I observed this early indication of a world out of joint with the innocence of an unwitting protagonist in a science fiction drama who ignores the first sign of a warp in reality that will grow to engulf the universe.

Union Hall, Union Street, Borough, opened as Surrey Magistrates Court in 1782, facaded for offices in 2005

Bayswater Rd

Queen Elizabeth Children’s Hospital in Hackney, established 1867, closed in 1996 and facaded for luxury flats in 2014

Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society in Upper Tooting Rd built in 1923

Archway Rd, Highgate

Staycity Aparthotel, Blackheath Rd, Deptford

UCL student housing in Caledonian Rd, winner of the Carbuncle Cup 2013

Replica of the facade of Gaumont Cinema 1914 built in 2018 in Pitfield St, Hoxton

Ludgate Hill

Sainsbury’s, Townmead Rd, Fulham

The Westminster Arms, Praed St, Paddington, since 1869, facaded in 1989 by the Metropole Hotel.

The exterior cover of the book…

…which opens to reveal the title.

CLICK HERE TO ORDER A COPY OF THE CREEPING PLAGUE OF GHASTLY FACADISM

10 Responses leave one →
  1. July 15, 2019

    Absolutely ghastly. It reminds me of a song by Melanie Safka back in the seventies, where she sang ‘ you’re building the halls with the outer walls though you haven’t got a thing within’. Valerie

  2. Sally Bernard permalink
    July 15, 2019

    Something awful has happened opposite Regents Park, where part of a crescent has been swept away. Whether they have retained a facade there I dont know. Rarely pass that way any more.
    Fantastic idea you have and I truly hope the book succeeds. It needed to be written.
    Many good wishes , so enjoy your blog.
    Sally Bernard.

  3. July 15, 2019

    Utterly dreadful and depressing….”generic monoliths’ indeed.

  4. Joeanne permalink
    July 15, 2019

    The Bacchus public house in Hoxton
    Is another listed building they should not have touched
    Yet they built behind it and then put modern front but kept a small part
    It’s a tragedy what they are doing

  5. July 15, 2019

    How horrendously ugly!
    What a shame to see this architectural purgatory.

  6. Jill Wilson permalink
    July 15, 2019

    How depressing your safari must be! But I hope that the book will help stop the creeping plague…

    I think the Caledonian Road excresence is still one of the worst. As a designer I can’t understand why the architects don’t seem to be making any effort at all to make the new buildings relate to the ghastly things they are building behind the facades – the Gaumont cinema above being a classic example of this!

    As usual my gut reaction is a great big GRRRRRRRRRRRR!!!!

  7. Anne Scott permalink
    July 15, 2019

    I cannot decide which one is the worst…

  8. Kristine permalink
    July 15, 2019

    It is so disheartening to see this happening. It’s as if someone acknowledges that the very buildings they are destroying are worth preserving but greed has gotten the better of them so they’ve come up with this half-hearted attempt to save some of the building. One positive thing I’d like to note, the cover design for the upcoming book is really clever and nicely designed.

  9. Juliet shipman permalink
    July 15, 2019

    In most cases I would rather see the building pulled down that see it suffer such indignities.

  10. July 16, 2019

    Some worse than others. The Queen Elizabeth Hospital a little better than the others perhaps?

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