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The Facades Of Spitalfields

July 6, 2019
by the gentle author

In today’s extract from my forthcoming book, I explore the rash of facades that has erupted in Spitalfields.

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 still need a few more investors for my book, so if you would like to know more please write to me at . You can also support the book by preordering and you will receive a signed copy in October when it is published.

Click here to preorder your copy

Please suggest other London facades I should include.

The facade of Paul Pindar’s House in the Victoria & Albert Museum

Spitalfields is quickly becoming the epicentre of façadism in London. Confronting these examples daily has become such a source of disquiet, it has lead me to consider the nature and meaning of these curious transformations that have taken place before my eyes.

At first in Spitalfields, there was only the facade of the Cock A Hoop public house in Artillery Lane, two nineteenth century front walls punctuated by window openings, standing at angles to each other like a book cover propped open. They stand six feet in front of the new building and their windows do not coincide with the windows behind. Only the steel props which stabilise the facade connect the old and the new.

Although this was a troubling sight, it was the facading of the London Fruit & Wool Exchange in Brushfield St in the heart of Spitalfields that truly shocked me. The destruction of a high quality building from 1927 was forced through by the Mayor of London against the wishes of the local council and offices for small independent businesses replaced by an international legal corporation. This was followed by the destruction of the White Hart in Bishopsgate which traces its origins to 1246 and was replaced with a cylindrical office block rising over the front wall of the ancient tavern. Currently a dignified stable block to the north of Spitalfields in Quaker St, constructed by the Great Eastern Railway in 1888, is being reduced to its exterior wall that will contain a new chain hotel. This building had previously been occupied by local businesses too.

As I write, British Land is demolishing more than eighty per cent of the fabric of their development site in a Conservation Area in Norton Folgate, a former ancient liberty to the west of Spitalfields. Again this was forced through contrary to the wishes of the local council who were overruled by the Mayor of London. More than forty separate premises spread across several streets are being reduced to a handful of large corporate offices with floor plates extending the width of a city block. Only the facades of a few distinctive buildings within this medieval quarter will be preserved as evidence of an urban landscape that developed over centuries. ‘A kind of authenticity’ is the developer’s oxymoronical language to sell this approach. As if there were fifty-seven varieties of authenticity, when ‘authentic’ is not a relative term – something is either authentic or it is phoney.

Now that I am surrounded by façadism on all sides, a certain pattern has become evident. Historically, Spitalfields evolved as a place outside the walls of the City of London where small trades could benefit from the proximity of wealthy customers while paying cheaper rents for workshops. Yet equally the City has been an ambivalent influence. It has been a consistent source of violence in the subjugation of its less powerful neighbour and policies enacted in the City commonly have implications in Spitalfields. When Jewish people were forbade from trading in the City in the twelfth century, they started a market outside the walls which trades to this day as Petticoat Lane Market.

Over the centuries, violence has always had a hand in the creation of the identity of Spitalfields. When Henry VIII ‘dissolved’ the Priory of St Mary Spital which gives its name to the place, he distributed the properties among his friends and turned the gardens and orchards into his artillery ground. When the Great Eastern Railway cut across the north of Spitalfields in the eighteen-thirties, thousands were forced from their homes crowding into nearby streets. It was the same pattern when Commercial St was cut through in the eighteen-fifties – bisecting the parish from north to south – in order to carry traffic from the docks which the City of London wished to divert from its own streets. And again when the railway was extended south across the west side of Spitalfields to Liverpool St, residents were forcibly evicted and their homes demolished.

The construction of Liverpool St Station entailed the destruction of Paul Pindar’s house, a lavish renaissance mansion built in Bishopsgate to house the extravagant collections of Queen Elizabeth’s envoy to Constantinople, Sir Paul Pindar. The headquarters of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings sits nearby in Spital Sq upon the site of the medieval priory and in their archives are letters written in the late nineteenth by architect CR Ashbee pleading with the railway company to save Pindar’s mansion or at least integrate it into their new building. Many of the sentiments and arguments rehearsed in his letters will be familiar to those campaigning to protect historic buildings from destruction today.

In the event, only the frontage of Paul Pindar’s house was saved by the Victoria & Albert Museum in South Kensington where it sits to this day as a poignant relic, the earliest Spitalfields facade – both a reminder of earlier world and a strange precursor of things to come. I can only speculate at the how those in the future will view the museum’s recent acquisition of a fragment of the frontage of Robin Hood Gardens, an idealistic attempt at social housing in East London in the sixties.

The wonder is how, through the centuries, Spitalfields has thrived as a working community in spite of the violence enacted upon it. As if an indomitable spirit of survival arose that found its expression in the resourcefulness of the residents. Yet the generation of such a culture relies upon the provision of cheap workshops and housing.

For the most part, the façadism that has been imposed upon Spitalfields in recent years enables the transformation of buildings which once provided multiple spaces for small local businesses into a handful of large offices for international businesses in the financial industries, and chains. The bizarre and awkward appearance of these structures speaks of this discontinuity, reconciling elements that do not belong together. In short, the facades of Spitalfields are indicative of the corporate takeover of spaces forcibly imposed upon the neighbourhood while maintaining the superficial appearance of a continuum of use.

Yet these new structures are not intended to have longevity. History tells us that Spitalfields is a consistently mutable place where the influence of the greater world always makes itself felt. When Henry VIII’s soldiers ‘dissolved’ the hospital and priory of St Mary Spital, turning out the patients from infirmary and Augustinian brothers from the precinct, it must have seemed like the end of days. But the world always moves on and, a century later, the Truman Brewery opened and the Spitalfields Market was established by royal charter, endeavours whose legacies shape the neighbourhood to this day.

There is no doubt that limited resources will increasingly effect how buildings are constructed. I hope it will demand greater reuse of existing structures and less destruction. London already has examples of buildings that have been facaded more than once. Maybe the facades of Spitalfields will outlive their current forced marriages to find themselves in more sympathetic relationships with buildings yet to be conceived.

We can only dream of this future but we can be certain that this grotesque contemporary practice will not endure.

The former Cock A Hoop tavern in Artillery Lane

The former Fruit & Wool Exchange in Brushfield St

The former White Hart in Bishopsgate

The former Great Eastern Railway stables in Quaker St

British Land are currently demolishing more than 80% of the fabric of their Norton Folgate development site which sits entirely within a Conservation Area

British Land describe the impending facadism in Norton Folgate as ‘a kind of authenticity’

Norman Foster’s proposal for a facaded tower at the corner of Commercial St in a Conservation Area

The exterior cover of the book…

…which opens to reveal the title.


12 Responses leave one →
  1. Julian Woodford permalink
    July 6, 2019

    The link to Paul Pindar’s House is a brilliant stroke.
    No prizes for guessing who negotiated the development of the Great Eastern railway and Commercial Street through the Bethnal Green slums… Joseph Merceron! He’d definitely have been a master facader if he was around today!

  2. Jill Wilson permalink
    July 6, 2019

    GHASTLY indeed – especially the laughable facade in Artillery Row…what were they thinking??

    I hope your book will raise awareness of the horrible façadism which is happening all over the place at the moment, and bring the architects back to their senses.

    Good luck with getting the rest of the investment GA – I think it could be one of your most important books yet!

  3. July 6, 2019

    British land? More like ‘British tossers’ ,how do they have so much power ,they just look at profits not ugly buildings,i hate architects , and greedy developers

  4. July 6, 2019

    I am totally appalled by the monstruosity suggested by Norman Foster. But the façade of Paul Pindar’s house is wonderful. Thank you.

  5. Helen Breen permalink
    July 6, 2019

    Greetings from Boston,

    GA, best of luck in your quest to expose the insanity of facadism. That was an interesting tidbit about Spitalfields traditionally existing beyond the City’s wall to serve its needs. Well said:

    “The bizarre and awkward appearance of these structures speaks of this discontinuity, reconciling elements that do not belong together. In short, the facades of Spitalfields are indicative of the corporate takeover of spaces forcibly imposed upon the neighbourhood while maintaining the superficial appearance of a continuum of use.”

  6. Laura Williamson permalink
    July 6, 2019

    In a list of poor and highhanded decisions (unwanted garden bridges, illegal water cannon) the Norton Folgate situation is outstanding as a key part of Boris Johnson’s legacy as Mayor. It is shameful.

    I also do not know why Norman Foster could possibly think that the conservation area around Commercial Street would be improved by a Borg cube hovering over it.

  7. Eric Forward permalink
    July 6, 2019

    I agree with Laura’s comments that Boris Johnson’s decisions (as Mayor of London) are shameful and an indictment to his (in)ability to lead in any form. I did support the garden bridge but his implementation of the cycle lane network was ill thought out, which is incredible considering he is a keen cyclist. To override Tower Hamlets’ authority for various planning proposals also showed a lack of consideration and respect. Everything he does shows no thought. His success as Mayor can largely be put down to riding the crest of a wave into the Olympics. I’ve voted Tory most of my life, but this man can’t even put his socks on the right way. I’d say I hope we’re never given the option of having to vote for him, but the alternative is someone who wants to reinstate Fox hunting!

  8. Malcolm permalink
    July 6, 2019

    It takes a certain type of psychopath to come up with idea of destroying historically important buildings and then installing a carbuncle within the skin. This is akin to the actions of a parasite, a tapeworm or a parasitoid wasp that lays its eggs inside a caterpillar. But there are other wasps which are hyperparasitoid and these creatures will lay their eggs in parasitoid wasp lavae. Such should be the fate of developers, such as the pantomime Dame known as Lord Sugar and the gurning buffoon Boris Johnson who gave the go-ahead to the mass destruction of London’s history. British Land are beyond parody, they are simply greed incarnate and their seemingly unstoppable demolition machine is simply turning old buildings into gold – a strange, twisted version of alchemy. Sadiq Khan has done nothing to stop this vandalism, indeed he appears to promote and sanction just as much destruction by dint of the never ending construction of useless cycle lanes that drive traffic to a standstill, thereby aiding the fecundity of the very noxious fumes he dreams of eradicating. But then common sense and simple scientific fact are difficult concepts for self-interested idiots to comprehend.
    There is still one more-or-less intact original medieval Bishopsgate mansion still standing, albeit no longer in Bishopsgate. This is Crosby Hall, built in 1466 and formally home to Richard III, Sir Thomas More and Sir Walter Raleigh, among others and after being threatened with demolition was dismantled and moved piece by piece to Cheyne Walk in 1910. It was once open to the public but is now a private mansion owned by Christopher Moran, who bought it when the GLC sold it off in 1986.

  9. Peter Holford permalink
    July 6, 2019

    Will we look back and wonder how our society ever let a venal charlatan like Boris Johnson near to any form of decision making that affects us all. And the process isn’t finished yet!

    People I have spoken to from other countries are astounded that he is being allowed to wreak such damage on our country.

  10. Robin s Call permalink
    July 7, 2019

    Ghastly. I just don’t see the logic behind not refurbing those beautiful old beams and leaving the freakatecture for Berlin Germany or somewhere

  11. Ron Bunting permalink
    July 7, 2019

    So BoJo was the mayor responsible for over riding local council decisions? What i can see happening is the Dubai-ing of London where massive loans are taken out to try and out do others in the race towards the bottom of the barrel of Taste.
    Having seen plenty of examples of office development in my life time,I am surprised that alleged smart money people are still building offices .
    This is the age of the connected “device’ ,So the use of an office is hardly warranted today except to massage the egos of the board members.
    And as office development takes space originally used a dwellings,the numbers of folks inhabiting the area around the office diminishes so business fail and disappear leaving vast empty areas of City space,often only filled when the Drones(sorry,office workers) walk to the car park,bus stop,catch a taxi or the train either leaving the hives or going to their allotted cells in said hives.

  12. Alexandra Rook permalink
    July 9, 2019

    The ghost of Pindar’s house should haunt every planning consultant, officer & planning committee. Facadism sounds very close to Fascism & maybe is. When I first rounded the corner of Artillery Row & saw the facade held off the blandness of what lay behind I was literally staggered; I’ve always ‘felt’ the old East End in these narrow streets & now with the horror of Norton Folgate the wreckage has run riot. Thankfully Smithfield will be repurposed by the Museum of London… Facadism makes me feel physically & psychically sick
    in the pit of my stomach; it is such an impoverished response & failure of imagination I’d rather not be left with the reminder of an intact building with all the meaning it held. It’s not as if a new facade of worth was erected over an older one as the graceful Georgians managed with Tudor buildings that you know & can see are still nestling behind.
    I feel the same about the lopping of London plane trees back to stumps; it’s ignorant, banal, ugly, even cruel.

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