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On Photographing Facades

October 4, 2019
by the gentle author

I write about the experience of photographing facades in today’s excerpt from THE CREEPING PLAGUE OF GHASTLY FACADISM

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Eighteenth century house in Norton Folgate facaded by British Land

I am grateful to you the readers who alerted me to examples of façadism across the capital this summer, sending me on ‘façade safaris’ to compile the collection of trophy specimens which comprise my book. This photographic quest took on its own life and I must confess I sometimes took guilty delight in discovering those bizarre examples which offered the most photogenic possibilities.

Evidently, when the discussion takes place between developers, architects, planners and conservationists a certain nuance enters the debate too. It is in the nature of human beings to seek compromise when negotiating. The questions arise – ‘Surely it is better to keep the façade at least?’ versus ‘What is the point in keeping just the façade, why not get rid of the old building entirely?’ Yet this is looking at the question from the wrong direction. The real question that should be asked is ‘What is the point in keeping just the façade, why not simply keep the whole building?’

I hope my pictures clarify this debate by demonstrating how wrong the practice of façadism is and how, in each case, the original building should never have been destroyed. I defy anyone to look at this gallery of notorious façades in my book and not be appalled.

These have been years of accelerating development in the capital, with old buildings vanishing and new buildings appearing as the city transforms before our eyes. This environment has allowed the creeping plague of ghastly façadism to spread almost invisibly across the capital, while the attention of the populace has been distracted by the exotic new buildings emerging on the skyline. By their nature, these subtle reconfigurations are less visible than the more obvious visual changes even if the implications are no less significant.

When the façade of a building is preserved, there is a sense that the reality of the change of use of the site is denied, even if the mutation of the building is obvious.

The prevalence of façadism has coincided with the growth of digital culture and our fascination with the virtual as an alternative to the temporal world. When someone walks down the street with a mobile device in hand, they are not paying any attention the buildings or the world around them. People delight to curate their social media with attractive images of themselves, their friends and their pastimes, without much regard to whether or not this is a true picture of their lives.

In all societies, it is the purpose of culture to mediate between appearance and reality. It suits many people not to look too closely at the world around us and exist within a bubble, ignoring inconsistencies and believing half truths. My book is written at a strange moment when the most successful politicians are also the biggest liars. When old buildings speak to us, they tell troubling stories of past aspirations, of deprivation and of struggle, of industry and of privilege. I can understand how it can be easier to live with the surface of history and to ignore the changes that are happening around us in the present day. Façadism suits our times very well, it is indeed – as British Land claim – our ‘kind of authenticity.’

6 Palace Court, Bayswater Rd, Hyde Park, W2

Dating from 1892, this elegant mansion facing Hyde Park was de- signed by Carlos Edward Arthur Ryder in the style of the Aesthetic Movement and built by Holloway Brothers. It comprised four storeys plus mansard roof with gable pitched dormers, and a chamfered bay and arched recessed third floor, with attractive terracotta window dressings throughout.

Buckingham Gate, Westminster, SW1

This terrace of Grade II listed town houses opposite Buckingham Palace was probably designed by Sir James Pennethorne, c.1850–55. They are faced in stucco with Italianate details, comprising four tall storeys plus basements and dormered mansards. Each house is three windows wide with large Doric columned porticos and recessed plate glass sashes.

American Embassy, 30 Grosvenor Sq, Mayfair, W1

The American Embassy London Chancery Building was designed by Finnish-American architect Eero Saarinen and constructed in the late fifties, opening in 1960. A gilded aluminium eagle by Theodore Roszak, perched on the roof with a wingspan of thirty-five feet, distinguishes this London landmark.

The building has nine storeys, of which three are below ground. Grade II listed, it is considered to be a classic of modern architecture in the twentieth century.

The United States paid a peppercorn rent to the Duke of West- minster for use of the land and, in response to an American offer to buy the site outright, the Duke requested the return of his land confiscated after the American Revolutionary War, namely the city of Miami.

Only the façade of Eero Saarinen’s building stands now, pending redevelopment as a luxury hotel.

The Anti-Gallican, 155 Tooley St, Bermondsey, SE1

The Anti-Gallican Society was founded around 1745 in response to the perceived cultural invasion of French culture and goods. The Society flourished in the Seven Years’ War of 1756–1763 and the Napoleonic Wars of 1799–1805, persisting through the nineteenth century.

Dating from before 1822, this pub retained its xenophobic title until it closed in 2006, before succumbing to a nameless office development in 2011.

Empire Cinema, 56–61 New Broadway, Ealing, W5

The Empire Cinema was designed by John Stanley Beard in an Italian Renaissance style. It was one of a pair of near identical theatres which were built by Beard for Herbert Yapp in 1934. The other was in Kentish Town and both were taken over by Associated British Cinemas (ABC) within a year of opening. Each had façades dominated by eight tall columns with a double row of windows between the inner six, and seated 2,175 people on two levels. The Empire closed in 2008 and was demolished in 2009 when the doors were installed in its counterpart in Kentish Town to replace ones lost over the years.


“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

7 Responses leave one →
  1. Jill Wilson permalink
    October 4, 2019

    How true! Your comment about how façadism reflects the dishonesty of our times is bang on, and the metaphor could also be extended to include the current craze for dishonest plastic surgery: an artificially ‘young’ face on a old body looks just as ridiculous as an old facade on a new building…

  2. Richard permalink
    October 4, 2019

    Hi GA

    The creep is spreading to Zone 4 Suburbia: The Chestnuts Nursing Home in Wanstead was knocked down over a year ago and has had its Victorian facade kept in vertical limbo for most of year, delay unknown. Cranes now on site: 63, E11 2PR
    The new build will dominate the old!!! I guess it was kept to match the next door nursing home!
    Keep well!


  3. October 4, 2019

    It looks really odd when the new building sticks out above the original front of the old building. Like it’s been stuck on by a child creating a townscape out of cut outs for a scrapbook collage

  4. Jim McDermott permalink
    October 4, 2019

    I agree with 99.8% of what you say, GA. But the only thing wrong with what they’re doing in Grosvenor Square is keeping the facade. Listed or not, that particular building has far too many Vietnam War-era associations. The site should be levelled and landscaped.

    I hadn’t suspected the Duke of Westminster of having a sense of humour, by the way.

  5. Sheila Crowson permalink
    October 4, 2019

    Not just London. Plans to leave just the frontage of Reading Gaol built in 1844 , famous for the incarceration of Oscar Wilde are afoot; it was a immortalised by Wilde’s poem The Ballad of Reading Gaol, which was written following his release from the prison in 1897 after he had served a two-year sentence for gross indecency. There must be alternative choices to keep it, rather than pulling it down to leave only the facade. Reading does not have much of its architectural history left. The jail will probably be pulled down for more flats and business premises, of which Reading already has a surfeit.

  6. October 5, 2019

    This is happening in Montreal as well….sadly most people don’t care !!!

  7. October 11, 2019

    i saw the banksy boxed up and crated hanging from a crane from the back of the old Foundary i wobder if its heading to a gallery or to be stuck back on a new partment building or wework thats sure to be filling that space near old street soon.

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