We must stand up to the creeping plague of facadism, an infection spreading across the developments of London
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 that threatens to turn London into the backlot of an abandoned movie studio. If walls could speak, these 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 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 textbook example of such an affront – the London Fruit and Wool Exchange, a high-quality building from 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 businesses employing local people. This redevelopment was forced through by the former Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, against the unanimous wishes of Tower Hamlets’ planning committee, and before construction commenced it was pre-let to a 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 are 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 oxymoronic attempt to sell facadism in the publicity for its proposed Norton Folgate office development by Stanton Williams, where it shows an image of the front wall of a 19th-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 57 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 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 forcibly inserted into the shell of its dignified brick structure by Guy Hollaway Architects 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 fewer, 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 trend of facadism that blights our age.
Photographs courtesy of The Gentle Author