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Essay: Facadism

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Preserving the outside of a building while gutting within is making a travesty of the listing process

Facadism is nothing new. Almost a century ago Herbert Baker cheerfully demolished John Soane’s Bank of England but rebuilt his own massive version behind retained sections of his predecessor’s impregnable walls. But the sacrificial offering of a single remnant of an older building, usually a street elevation and never more than skin deep, has suddenly reached epidemic proportions, turbo-powered in London at least by escalating land values.

The agreement to retain a facade is, for the key players, a get out of jail card. It may come at the very end of a long wrangle but eventually the developers receive their planning permissions, prettily iced with listed building consents, the architects can relax and get on with the job (the demolition contractors and engineers having already done the trickiest bits) which leaves the marketing team and estate agents free to egg up the ‘heritage’ angle and clinch sales. Meanwhile the local activists have retired exhausted, or have moved on to ready themselves for the next battle of nerves. And – this is the trump card – all this means that the number of listed buildings saved from demolition appears to be continually rising.

In Liverpool, currently buoyed up on a wave of optimism and civic pride, its centre enjoying World Heritage Site status, the development of Heaps Rice Mill might have seemed to be an ideal opportunity to set residential, commercial or retail units within a handsome industrial complex in Liverpool 1. But the actual story is a fast-moving chain of actions all too familiar in the over-heated and mildly hysterical property market (‘buy a piece of East London Heritage,’ plead the hoardings around the former Queen Elizabeth Hospital for Children on the Hackney Road, though hardly a sliver will survive despite the sales pitch about homes ‘woven into’ the retained facade). At Heaps Rice Mill, destined to be a £130 million luxury residential development, only a last minute listing in the summer prevented total demolition. With the building’s Grade II designation in the bag, the local campaigners gained new confidence only to be met by the developers’ threat to withdraw entirely if they were forced to retain the entire building. And so, in November 2014, the local objectors were faced with harsh reality. Heaps Rice Mill had been ‘saved’, the developers got their square metres intact and as a result nothing of the mill would survive but a facade, a bit like a child’s sticking plaster with Dennis the Menace grimacing over the wound.  

Such stories point to many human and systemic weaknesses: cynicism, flawed processes and, perhaps, a measure of naivety. How could a handsome group of Victorian warehouses, no distance north of the Pierhead, the Albert Docks and the city centre, be left unprotected, considered such an encumbrance that clearance would appear to be the only solution?

In London, a warehouse on Blossom Street within the enormous Norton Folgate redevelopment scheme on the fringes of the City awaits the same fate as its Liverpool counterpart, together with several other modest neighbours within the local conservation area. City centres everywhere in Britain are filling with fragmented buildings, little more than disconcerting, disconnected film sets. In Hull, the UK City of Culture 2017, the stone frontage of the former medical school has been pasted on to a bulky brick residential development, like a vintage luggage label on a new suitcase. The result is scarcely literate; neither acceptable architecture nor responsible conservation.

How could a handsome group of Victorian warehouses considered such an encumbrance that clearance would appear to be the only solution?

Such remnants have no structural integrity. They inevitably suggest the ‘feeble and lifeless forgery’ that William Morris warned against in his resounding 1877 Manifesto for the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. Authenticity, the element that all intact buildings carry with them, something of their own time, of their making, born of wear and tear and even adaptation, can be argued and worried over but is always worth consideration.

When Ian Nairn roamed the land in the 1960s and 70s, furiously waging war on inert planners and incompetent local politicians, both in print and on TV, listed buildings were being summarily demolished for civic improvement or high fallutin engineering schemes, or just left to deteriorate. There appeared to be no alternative. Now it begins to look as if this rash of one-dimensional listed buildings has been conjured up by wilful misinterpretation of the very guidance devised and modified over the decades to protect and enhance the historic fabric.

When Westminster planners drew up their guidance for the Middlesex Hospital site off Goodge Street 10 years and a couple of financial crashes ago, they ensured that the chapel be retained, and popped Nassau Street and a single residential building (10 Mortimer Street) on to their shopping list. They survive, if adrift, on the perimeter of what became Fitzroy Place. At Bishopsgate Goods Yard, another immense development being assembled on the City fringe, the planners remind applicants that ‘historic continuity and recognition of a site’s past history are important components of creating a successful sense of place’. Planning briefs set the tone and planning guidance the context.

In 2013, the ways in which listed buildings were to be described changed quite fundamentally, to include more detail of the readily identifiable parts of a building. Equally, substandard elements can more easily be omitted; so, in theory at least, a listing can now apply to just the facade.

The facade business (strange spawn of the demolition trade) has its own rich literature, countless manuals and online information about how to support a fragile frontage on a forest of stanchions and props. The technology is developing fast, the expertise is sharpening up, but at least the more brazen structures of the mid 20th century – Brutalist buildings especially – still stand or fall, tout court. Where facadism is concerned, I take the William Morris line: better by far the best of the new than a travesty of the old.

Gillian Darley is a writer and broadcaster, and co-author of Ian Nairn: Words in Place

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Readers' comments (1)

  • Easy enough to write a few words about honesty etc. In the real world society in many cases correctly prefers to cling on to vestiges of history. Planning committees often reject adventurous designs, and the heritage lobby has a great deal of power. Compromises are engineered. Clients want planning permissions not years of argument. Listed building are often hard to remodel especially when customer led demands for modern services have to be met. Just knocking things down to be seen to be "honest" is not exactly sustainable other than in the very long term (and many modern buildings will not be making it into the long term as they are cost engineered to short life spans).

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