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The Facades Of Spitalfields

August 31, 2022
by the gentle author

As part of Open House – in collaboration with House of Annetta and Assemble – I am leading guided walks to view the façades of Spitalfields on Friday 9th September at 2pm, 4pm & 7pm.

In my walk, I shall be exploring the histories of local buildings that have been façaded, explaining why it is happening and what it means.

Each walk lasts an hour and tickets are free but you need to reserve your place online. Click here for tickets

Tours commence outside the Metro Bank on the corner of Bishopsgate and Liverpool St, and end at House of Annetta in Princelet St.

My book THE CREEPING PLAGUE OF GHASTLY FACADISM combines a gallery of London’s most notorious facades with a humorous analysis of facadism – the unfortunate practice of destroying everything apart from the front wall and constructing a new building behind it.

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.

British Land has demolished 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 is now a Metro Bank

The former Great Eastern Railway stables in Quaker St is now a Hub Hotel

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


9 Responses leave one →
  1. Alex Knisely permalink
    August 31, 2022

    Façadeism ! I encountered it first in 1975, in Philadelphia, where the Penn Mutual insurance company had retained the white marble front of its headquarters against the black glass front of the high-rise-tower new headquarters — illustrated in the linked article. How marvellous, I thought, that it was not torn down altogether. How marvellous, I thought, this chance to remember the old vividly and newly with every glance at the architecture of the new.

    It is not preservation. It is, as the article comments, a consolation prize. I am for preservation rather than consolation. But when money talks, one listens.

  2. Lewis Jones permalink
    August 31, 2022

    Also of interest are the blackened 1846 wash houses in Old Castle Street.

  3. Milo permalink
    August 31, 2022

    ‘A kind of authenticity.’ What bright spark came up with that line? These facades only serve to remind you of what has been lost, they have no value in themselves, they are a sop. Yes, yes they are better than nothing but only just and what’s even more rankling (if that’s a word) is it gives these developers the opportunity to say over their cigars and brandy that they did their bit for conservation. B*****ks to that.

  4. Cherub permalink
    August 31, 2022

    There was a lot of this happening in Madrid when I visited friends back in 2003. I was a bit fascinated by it as I had never seen it before.

  5. August 31, 2022

    Commercialism disguised as sensitivity. How disingenuous. It makes my morning coffee sour.

    My husband once worked for Norman Foster, years ago, before I met him (my husband, that is, not Norman Foster. I have never had that ‘pleasure). I thought that Foster’s was supposed to be the paragon of architecture, the ‘black cape’ of black capes. That *thing* that they have proposed is completely out of scale with regard to the environment, and considers the vernacular not at all. It sits there like a malignant craft dropped from space by a hostile invader. Sensitivity? Not a jot. It is an abomination.

  6. Cheryl permalink
    August 31, 2022

    “something is either authentic or it is phoney.” Amen. Context is everything and without it, that which is left loses its meaning. I have seen instances where a portion of a building remains and is skillfully and sensitively integrated with a new structure, and thereby given new life, but these examples are few and far between. Mostly they are unsuccessful and end up diminishing both the old and the new. Thank you for the thoughtful discussion.

  7. Ann V permalink
    August 31, 2022


  8. Nanna permalink
    September 5, 2022

    This “phenomenon” is so depressing. And what a waste.
    It has also spread to Copenhagen.

  9. Marcia Howard permalink
    September 8, 2022

    I look at all of this in despair

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