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Origins Of Facadism

September 27, 2019
by the gentle author

In today’s extract from my forthcoming book THE CREEPING PLAGUE OF GHASTLY FACADISM I explore the origins of facadism, the bizarre architectural fad that is currently blighting the capital.

I now at halfway and need to raise another £2,400 to publish my book next month, so I ask you to empty your piggy banks and tip out your sixpences. Click here to help

You can also support publication by ordering a copy in advance for £15. Click here to preorder

I was always familiar with suburban houses adding porticos to enhance their status, cathedrals adorned by elaborate gothic west fronts and country houses evolving with the fortunes of successive generations through the addition of larger and grander classical façades. Some of the greatest of our cathedrals and country houses are the outcome of this approach to architecture, palimpsests in which the building’s evolution can be read by the perceptive viewer. In the past, new frontages were added to old buildings to modernise them or increase their importance. Yet in my time I have witnessed the in- verse – the removal of the former building and the retention of the façade.

The origin of façadism lies in the myth of the Potemkin Villages along the banks of the Dnieper River, built to impress Empress Catherine the Great on her visit to the Crimea in 1787 by her former lover Field Marshal Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin. Allegedly, painted façades with fires glowing behind were constructed by Potemkin when he was Governor of the region to give the Empress, sitting in her barge, the impression of Russian settlement in contested territory only recently annexed from the Ottoman Empire.

How appropriate that this story is without any convincing provenance and may contain no more reality that the façades it describes. Although this tale was likely invented by Potemkin’s political rivals, the legend of the Potemkin Villages has passed into common lore as a means to discuss notions of falsehood, whether architectural or ideological. Yet in the twentieth century, this fiction became a reality as successive authoritarian powers constructed façades to serve their nefarious purposes.

The Theresienstadt concentration camp was used by the Nazis from 1941 as a way-station to the Auschwitz death camp. When the Danish Red Cross insisted on an inspection in 1944, façades of shops, a cafe and a school were constructed as part of a beautification programme which succeeded in convincing the inspectors that nothing was amiss.

During the fifties, North Korea built Kijongdong as a model village designed to be seen from across the border in South Korea. The propaganda message was that this was an affluent settlement with a collective farm, good quality housing, schools and a hospital, but the reality was that these buildings were empty concrete shells in which automated lights went on and off.

In a strange enactment of the Potemkin Villages, when Vladimir Putin visited Suzdal in 2013, derelict buildings were covered with digitally-printed hoardings showing newly-built offices of glass and steel. Similar printed hoardings are often to be seen in London with images of the buildings behind, sheltering them from public view while the practice of façadism is underway.

You might conclude that these grim authoritarian precedents would discredit façadism as an acceptable practice entirely, yet it was legitimised by postmodernism at the end of last century. Irony and discontinuity were defining qualities of postmodern architecture, permitting architects to play games with façades and fragments of façades without any imperative to deliver an architectural unity. The ubiquitous façadism of today is the direct legacy of this movement, except now it is enacted without inverted commas and licensed as orthodox in the vocabulary of contemporary architecture.

Grigory Aleksandrovich Potemkin (1739-91), after Johann Baptist von Lampi the Elder

Drawing by Bedřich Fritta, a prisoner at Terezín, depicting the ‘beautification’ of the ghetto-camp undertaken by the SS before the Red Cross visit in 1944

Kijongdong, a Potemkin village built in North Korea as a model settlement designed to be seen from across the border in South Korea

Digitally-printed facade fitted to hide dereliction for Vladimir Putin’s visit to Suzdal, Russia, in 2013

An example of postmodern facadism

Imminent facadism at the former Royal London Hospital, Whitechapel

Imminent facadism in Norton Folgate where British Land are retaining only the front piers of the Victorian warehouses

Facadism proposed by Sir Norman Foster for the corner of Commercial St


“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 Gentle Author presents a humorous analysis of facadism – the unfortunate practice of destroying an old building apart from the front wall and constructing a new building behind it – revealing why it is happening and what it means.

As this bizarre architectural fad has spread across the capital, The Gentle Author has photographed the most notorious examples, collecting an astonishing gallery of images guaranteed to inspire both laughter and horror in equal measure.

You may also like to take a look at

The Creeping Plague of Ghastly Facadism

5 Responses leave one →
  1. Jill Wilson permalink
    September 27, 2019

    Fascinating stuff! I hadn’t heard the Potemkin story before.

    Good luck with the rest of the fundraising…

  2. C Woodward permalink
    September 27, 2019

    I admire your tireless blogs to which I’m a subscriber.

    A very small correction:
    I think “Sir” is better, but:
    Norman Foster is a Baron, so “Lord or Baron Foster (of Thames Bank)”
    His practice is called “Foster + Partners”

    Hope this helps


    Christopher Woodward

  3. Linda Granfield permalink
    September 30, 2019

    I see the Royal Ontario Museum made your photo features this time.

    The ‘growth’ attached to the lovely old building is called ‘The Crystal.’
    By some.
    The rest of us in Toronto call it ‘The Carbuncle.”

    So poorly has the addition been received (it was built as the new front entrance) the Museum has re-opened the original museum entrance, on the old and lovely original portion of the ROM.

    We take all the small victories we can get!

  4. Peter Holford permalink
    October 1, 2019

    I was in Moscow last year for the World Cup and the practice of digital printing of facades onto canvas to conceal substandard buildings was very much in evidence. I’m not sure how many visitors failed to notice such a crass deception.

  5. Adéle Daws permalink
    February 16, 2020

    Congratulations of publishing your book!

    I bought a copy and it’s brilliant yet heart wrenching to see all these beautiful buildings being ripped apart. There are some excellent examples I’ll be using as case studies for my dissertation. Can’t wait to go visit these sites.

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