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On Facadism

December 31, 2017
by the gentle author

This was commissioned by The Architectural Review and is available in print in the current issue

Precast ‘brick’ panels arrive for the Fruit & Wool Exchange development

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 architecture which threatens to turn London into the backlot of an abandoned movie studio. If walls could speak, these facades would tell tales of bad compromises and angry developers who, dissatisfied with the meagre notion of repair and reuse, are driven solely by remorseless greed.

Meanwhile, bullied into sacrificing historic buildings of merit, cowed planning authorities must take consolation in the small mercy of retaining just a facade. The result is that architects are humiliated into creating passive-aggressive structures – gross hybrids of conflicted intentions that scream ‘Look what you made me do!’ in bitter petulant resentment.

At present in Spitalfields, we are presented with a text book example of such an affront – the London Fruit & Wool Exchange, a high quality building of 1927 by architect Sydney Perks, enhanced by wooden parquet floors, careful detailing and significant craft elements throughout. In recent decades, it was home to more than a hundred independent business employing local people. This redevelopment was forced through against the unanimous wishes of Tower Hamlets’ planning committee by the former Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, and before construction commenced it was pre-let to single tenant, Ashurst an international legal corporation.

Axis Architects, working for the developer Exemplar, retained only the frontage of the building with its stone cornice and brick wall. Currently, precast panels of ‘bricks’ and ‘stone’ are being hung on the steel structure that sits behind it. These panels of bricks have an artful irregularity designed into them and an attempt is being made to match the tone of the cast ‘stone’ with the actual stone on the fragment of the earlier building. Yet these panels are already becoming chipped and damaged even as they being put in place and no-one is fooled by this patronising approach to co-ordinate the old and the new. Indeed, the conflict between these elements manifests the conflict of interests that produced this ungainly chimera.

‘A kind of authenticity’ is the language of British Land’s oxymoronical attempt to sell facadism in the publicity for their proposed Norton Folgate office development by Stanton Williams, where they show an image of the front wall of a nineteenth century warehouse pasted onto the lower floors of a towering office block as if it were a Penny Black glued onto a Jiffy bag. This misguided notion assumes there might be fifty-seven varieties of authenticity, when ‘authentic’ is not a relative term – something is either authentic or it is phoney.

I fear Spitalfields is quickly becoming the epicentre of facadism in London, with the recent completion of Sir Alan Sugar’s shameless redevelopment of The White Hart, dating from 1240, into a cylindrical tower block designed by Rolfe Judd with just the outer wall of one of London’s most historic taverns stuck on the front.

Meanwhile up the road in Bethnal Green, The Duke of Cambridge, dating from 1823, has had an aggressively modernist steel and glass building forceably inserted into the shell of its dignified brick structure by architect Guy Hollaway Associates on behalf of Heath Holdings. Such is the conflict between the old and the new, you can almost feel the humiliation and pain of the original building. The ugliness of the outcome is a pertinent slap in the face, reminding us how blatantly any concern for architecture is being sacrificed in this approach. This disastrous hybrid is an unfortunate totem of where we are now, an object lesson for architectural students of what not to do, and we may be assured future generations will laugh in horror and derision at the folly of it.

Sticking a new building behind the shell of the former building in this manner is a pitiful way to go about things. It is not worthy of the term architecture. As resources grow ever less, the practice of sacrificing good quality buildings for cheapjack disposable replacements cannot be justified. The default choice must always be to repurpose and reconfigure existing buildings. Some of the greatest of our cathedrals and country houses are the outcome of this approach to architecture, palimpsests in which the history of the building’s evolution can be read by the perceptive viewer.

In every case, it is paramount that attention be paid to any structure as an architectural whole, rather than simply sticking a new shed behind an old facade. Taking existing buildings and reworking them sympathetically to serve new purposes requires much more sophisticated thinking from architects and developers than is in evidence in these hideous structures which manifest the lamentable plague of façadism that blights our age.

Fitting a new ‘brick’ panel onto the Fruit & Wool Exchange

Repair to damaged cast ‘stone’ panel on the Fruit & Wool Exchange

Facade of the Fruit & Wool Exchange

The White Hart (dating from 1240), Bishopsgate

The Duke of Cambridge (dating from 1823), Bethnal Green

Toynbee Hall

In Gracechurch St, City of London

In Smithfield

Tottenham Court Rd

British Land’s proposal for Norton Folgate – ‘A kind of authenticity’

You may also like to take a look at my earlier feature

The Creeping Plague of Ghastly Facadism

39 Responses leave one →
  1. Brigitte permalink
    December 31, 2017

    Seeing that pic of the unloading of the pre-cast faux brick panels is the final straw for me -Ye gods!

    GA: Thanks for writing such a brilliant blog – your history posts are one of my “go to” places when the 21st century is just too much to bear.
    Best Wishes for 2018

  2. December 31, 2017

    Facadism is the architectural/aesthetic equivalent of Hannibal Lecter peeling off his victim’s face and wearing it as his own.

  3. December 31, 2017

    What ghastly travesties of architecture. Valerie

  4. December 31, 2017

    I hate architects and greedy developer’s there all a bunch of wankers ,the city of London is getting ruined ,just think we are stuck with these awful buildings for years and years ,the 2 old pubs f in bonkers ,

  5. Nigel permalink
    December 31, 2017

    It is so painful just to look at the photos; it would be even worse to actually visit any of these sites and see the destruction that has been wrought on these beautiful buildings in the name of “Progress!”

  6. Daron Pike permalink
    December 31, 2017

    The London Fruit & Wool Exchange is a disgrace of a building with its vertical hanging facia brick; Axis Architects, Exemplar and Boris please be duly ashamed of yourselves. It’s an opportunity missed for what could have been a great renovation in an historic and cultural area of London’s east end. I actually think I prefer the multi-story car park that used to stand in Whites Row.

  7. Claire Sancroft permalink
    December 31, 2017

    Thank you Gentle Author for being the voice of reason in these surreal times.

  8. December 31, 2017

    They threatened to do this to two buildings in my town over the years but it was merely a ruse. The facades of the old coop building and the old firestation were left to rot beyond repair before they were demolished and replaced by modern buildings, one in a ‘classical’ style.

    Seeing how it pans out when it goes ahead is interesting but bizarre, especially Alan Sugar’s office block, which looks like a stick of toffee emerging from the wrong wrapper. I guess the facades serve as reminders of the dreadful compromise between finance and history. It ain’t quite right.

  9. Robin clark permalink
    December 31, 2017

    Reminds me of Vera Duckworths stone cladding in Coronation Street

  10. December 31, 2017

    In agreement here. It is highly passive-aggressive, also patronising. Either leave it or remove it – I understand the need for redevelopment and the fact that London completely changes its clothes every 30 years or so – but don’t give a nod to those who protest. Most importantly, think very hard before you build.

  11. December 31, 2017

    Could not agree more with this eloquent piece. Facades are not just soulless they are bodyless. A sad and disrespectful way to treat our city’s beautiful buildings.

  12. Richard Smith permalink
    December 31, 2017

    Dear GA I share your view of ‘Facadism.’ What an abomination it is. Is it an attempt by architects to come to terms with the devastation they are visiting on the city? A means perhaps of apologising but in fact rubbing salt into the wound?

  13. December 31, 2017

    I saw something like this happening in Westminster – across Buckingham Gate from the palace – in September, and wondered what was going on. This explains it.

  14. December 31, 2017

    Boris Johnson, and Ken Livingstone before him, have a lot to answer for and neither will be well served by historians of the future.

    Standing up to developers now requires somehow finding a way to support beleaguered Planning Department officers whose professional integrity is DAILY under siege from internal council consultees (Housing Strategy a lot of the time) and externally from Govt demands for increased capacity and densification in Local Development Plans.

    My London of the 1970’s and 80’s is barely still there as the very soul of it is ripped out to turn it into one vast airport lounge with fewer & fewer distinguishing marks allowed to remain that identify it as LONDON – as that visible thread of time from Londinium onwards. It breaks my heart.

    What is being built now will read to the future as a time of deeply compromised values and loss if confidence that brought about a weird monkey see, monkey do imperative that was about messaging cojones in an increasingly competitive and loopily materialistic era. The skyline messages hysteria to me now. How to calm it?

  15. Richard Portman permalink
    December 31, 2017

    Ouch! Get that shirt off me!
    I thought these things only happen in America!
    Facades indeed!

  16. December 31, 2017

    this is just vandalism on a monumental scale.its just like trigger telling us he has the same broom but has replaced the head and handle 10 times.those building do not now survive no matter what the money people tell us they have destroyed yet another part of our london heritage.shame on them .and i mean shame.

  17. Sally Baldwin permalink
    December 31, 2017

    This is SO painful I weep.

    Here in the US, we have the “alternate facts” of the current, disastrous administration; and you, dear cousins and friends, have “a kind of authenticity.” What a low point we’ve reached.

    In sorrow,
    Belfast, Maine

  18. Helen Breen permalink
    December 31, 2017

    New Year’s Greetings from Boston,

    GA, thank you for sharing your ongoing concern about appropriate restoration/preservation in the East End and throughout London. This travesty with the desecration of the Fruit & Wool Exchange is particularly offensive given its proximity to Hawksmoor’s Christ Church.

    And again, I learned a new word – palimpsest, “a manuscript page, either from a scroll or a book, from which the text has been scraped or washed off so that the page can be reused for another document.”

    I look forward to reading your daily posts in 2018 …

  19. Jules permalink
    December 31, 2017

    Perhaps amongst the facades a working replica of the Tyburn tree should be erected for the disposal of all those architects and planners who have sold their shrivelled souls to neo-liberal mammon ?

  20. jane gardner permalink
    December 31, 2017

    Oh my heart weeps for London. Not against modern architecture, actually rather love it but this is not architecture at all and the architects involved know it. But someone has to do the dirty job presumably?

  21. Peter Gray permalink
    December 31, 2017

    What are you doing to my city, you money grabbing bastards! May you rot in the hottest corner of Hell.

  22. Barbara McHugh permalink
    December 31, 2017

    Absolutely dreadful. They are destroying these beautiful old buildings, part of every Londoners heritage. Hate them!

  23. December 31, 2017

    Good to see this important piece is also in print in The Architectural Review as it deserves wide exposure. Reminded me of two occasions walking past Toynbee Hall, the first in 2016 when I was shocked to see the wrecking ball swinging, and then last summer seeing the sliver of historic facade held up by a blue metal structure, surreal against a clear sky.

  24. Juliet Wrightson permalink
    December 31, 2017

    What a depressing end to the year but thank you for giving such detail. I had no idea that that was all that was left of Toynbee Hall with its great history.

  25. Sonia Murray permalink
    December 31, 2017

    Our history is being destroyed for profit. What is left of Toynbee Hall is horrific – Gran’s brother taught there. I remember the quiet dignity of the beautiful refectory. Thank you, Gentle Author, for rousing public indignation about the devastation being wrought on the London I once knew.

  26. pauline taylor permalink
    December 31, 2017

    Thank you GA for another brilliant piece on the subject of facadism, it is a shocking and disgraceful ‘face’ of the corrupt times that we live in and future generations are being made to suffer for it. The mere mention of Boris Johnson’s name in this context makes me feel physically sick, what he has been responsible for with regard to planning applications leaves very little to the imagination We all, I am sure, can see how the developers have been given the go ahead for these appalling travesties of architecture.

  27. Gary Arber permalink
    December 31, 2017

    Facadism is not a new thing, I first saw it when on a visit to Bath in the 1980’s

  28. December 31, 2017

    Toynbee Hall is a fine example facadism. They are now property developers hiding behind the facade of a bogus charitable status.

  29. stephanie permalink
    December 31, 2017

    Think this comment captures Facadism so goose pimply well:

    Jim McDermott PERMALINK
    December 31, 2017
    Facadism is the architectural/aesthetic equivalent of Hannibal Lecter peeling off his victim’s face and wearing it as his own.

    It also is a Brutal Consequence of an Anachronistic Urban Philosophy/Economic – We have to evolve towards creating city centres for diverse residential communities with a BALANCE of commercial and human properties and supportive infrastructure.

    What kind of architectural skin is bubbling on the boiler for the Whitechapel Foundry? Toynbee Hall – A So Apt Gravestone to an age when philanthropy and civic pride were valued.

  30. Carolyn Dugdale permalink
    December 31, 2017

    Thank you GA for sharing this article. I have been troubled for some years by the disgraceful activities of investor/developers – aided and abetted by the Mayor of London and local councils – in despoiling and degrading the London streetscape. This valuable article identifies some truly egregious examples of the absolute disregard for any sense of civic responsibility – let alone aesthetic considerations – which holds sway over the whole of Greater London now. Each is a block in a wall of ugliness inflicted on Londoners who no longer seem to have any meaningful say in what happens to their streets and to their public spaces. I would be interested to know if there are any organisations or groups trying to fight against this and – if there are – to find out how to support them.

  31. Michael Harkins permalink
    December 31, 2017

    The disparate architectural elements are jarring to the eye and an affront to one’s aesthetic sensibilities.

    One does not know whether to laugh or weep.

    Simply disgraceful, this is…

  32. Sheila Crowson permalink
    January 1, 2018

    Some people know the price of everything but the value of nothing! Money talks loudest, doesn’t it?

  33. Andrew Boddington permalink
    January 1, 2018

    Facadism was a battle fought in the 70s and 80s, and so it underlines the bad practice even more that is has returned. To all writers and those contributing to the arguments: dig out the arguments used then, for they are still as valid. Although some of those involved have died, there are still many experienced writers and fighters alive. Councils, government, developers and architects are more cynical and slick than then, so there is much to be done to make the public aware and what is going on.

  34. Peter Holford permalink
    January 1, 2018

    It’s the blatant dishonesty of the developers and the gullibility of the planning authorities that beggars belief. The facade is often kept simply to persuade the planners that the ‘brilliant’ new building can proceed because it is hidden behind that facade. Johnson, the wrecker, should be locked in the Tower.

  35. January 2, 2018

    All praise to you and to The Architectural Review for publicising this dreadful pervasive blight. Perhaps , as well as continuing to campaign, you could post some innovative and pleasing examples of recent commercial and social architecture to cheer us up.

    Perhaps a street poster campaign of before and after images would spread the message – a task for Alan Sugar’s apprentices?

  36. the gentle author permalink*
    January 2, 2018

    The current issue of Architectural Review has some successful examples of architects working to reconfigure old buildings in sympathetic and imaginative ways.

  37. Marcia Howard permalink
    January 8, 2018

    Parts of this post and images are so depressing. There is some wonderful ‘new’ architecture in London, but retaining some of these facades like this is farcical and an insult. The blame has to lie in the Local Authorities planning departments and Developers ignorance and greed. There are many good Architects who must cringe at what is happening on their doorsteps, but who trying to make a living is going to turn down a lucrative assignment. It’s enough to make this non-drinker take to the bottle!

  38. June 3, 2018

    PA/18/01285/NC | Request for an Environmental Impact Assessment ….. for a commercial development comprising up to 50,000 sqm GEA (gross external area) of office (Class B1), retail (Class A1-A5), non-residential institution (Class D1) …… The proposed development area will be across 19 storeys and two basement levels. The application includes demolition of some buildings currently on the site with the intention to retain sections of the existing building facades along Whitechapel High Street and Commercial Street, r…….| 2-6 Commercial Street, 98-105 Whitechapel High and Canon Barnettt Primary School

  39. John McHale permalink
    November 30, 2019

    This whole practice is a criminal application of the subversive technique of repurposing [le détournement] first given theoretical expression by avant-garde artistic groups in Paris throughout the 1950s. According to these Letterist and Situationist groups, language and urban space could be endlessly re-used, re-directed, deflected, re-contextualized, re-configured and re-ordered away from the purposes for which they were originally intended in order to unlock their emancipatory potential. Via a slew of particularly insidious architectural sleights of hand, facadism ensures that nothing much changes, that the market stays in charge and that the iron heel of economic exploitation gets one upgraded boost after the other.

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