The Ethics of Facadism

Pragmatism versus Idealism

Robert Bargery


A stabilised facade of the Theatre Royal, Bath  
Redevelopment behind a facade at the Theatre Royal, Bath  

Facadism in its most commonly understood sense involves retaining the facade of a (usually historic) building that is deemed to have some architectural or other cultural value and building afresh behind it. The term may also be used to refer to the rebuilding of an historic facade with new materials, possibly in an altered form that meets current floor-to-floor height requirements, or, in the case of a new building, the construction of a facade in a style (usually historical) which fits in with the prevailing style of its surroundings, but bears little or no relation to the spaces behind.

So much for definitions. What then is the problem? Is it really necessary for the facade of a building to reflect what is going on behind? Equally, where it is not possible to retain a building in its entirety, and the loss of at least its interior is unavoidable, why shouldn’t the exterior be saved? On one level, after all, retaining an historic facade seems sensible, as it retains fabric of public or cultural value and allows the developer carte blanche, or something like it, to develop private space that meets his own immediate requirements. The controversy arises, of course, from the lack of relationship between interior and exterior. This may be thought to highlight the loss of purpose of the historic building, to draw attention to its essential redundancy. But the problem goes deeper than that. At its heart it is about rationality.

Rationality has been a powerful thread in 20th century architectural thinking and has strong antecedents, in a philosophical sense, in the 19th century. A rational relationship is expected between all parts of a building. Buildings should be designed from the inside out; form should follow function; the exterior should be a logical expression and extension of the interior. On this view, buildings are indivisible totalities; the spaces behind the facade belong to the facade, windows serve interior spaces, and doors lead to entrance halls and circulation arteries like staircases and passages. The facade is the outward expression of the anatomy and organisation of the building. At its most extreme, there is in this view a quasi-religious quest for revealed truth. Engineers, once content with hiding their lights under bushels are now often among the most evangelical proponents of rationalism: Tower Bridge, for example, has the structural simplicity of a Meccano set, so why turn it into a stone-clad gothic fantasy? By logical extension we arrive at the view that truthfulness and rationality lead of themselves to beauty. Thus Virginia Woolf on Docklands warehouses:

The aptness of everything to its purpose, the forethought and readiness which have provided for every process, come, as if by the back door, to provide that element of beauty which nobody in the docks has ever given half a second of thought to. The warehouse is perfectly fit to be a warehouse, the crane to be a crane. Hence beauty begins to steal in.

  Architect's model of new theatre interior
  Architect's model showing the new 'egg theatre' at the Theatre Royal, Bath

What the rational view considers to be unacceptable is what Hogarth, in his Analysis of Beauty, called ‘leading the eye a wanton chase’. He was referring to the winding paths and serpentine lakes of the 18th century English garden, where the picturesqueness and irregularity of the garden form seem at odds with the classical angularity of the house.

Facadism is about leading the eye a chase, wanton or not. Certainly, it creates a tension between what is perceived and what is real. Yes, an unavoidable sense of absurdity creeps in when a facade is left adrift, shored up by scaffolding, awaiting a new building behind it; and yes, the eye, attuned to expect some relationship between fenestration and interior space, is disturbed when fluorescent lights reveal an historic facade to be fronting nothing more than vast open-plan offices. Facadism does offend against the purely rational. It involves deliberate obfuscation. At its most basic level, facadism is not really truthful.

Do we care? Possibly, if we are rationalists and utilitarians. But if less stress is placed on the holy grail of architectural integrity, if buildings are seen partly as theatre and sculpture – and some of the severest mid-20th century architecture is best appreciated as sculpture – then facadism may make more sense. We may begin to think of rigid integrity as constricting, suffocating, injecting a morality which is alien to the English temperament. Robert Byron, reviewing the modernist MARS exhibition at the New Burlington Galleries in 1938, said that ‘over-emphasis on functionalism threatened to swamp the whole architectural idiom’. In a similiar vein, Jonathan Meades, writing recently about Brighton, noted:

Fashions in building design are as ephemeral as fashions in thought or polity. What, astonishingly, has not proved ephemeral is the conviction that architecture must be plodding, earnest, serious, morally-rooted. Brighton has suffered as much as anywhere from the puritanically wrong idea that buildings should work, that they should primarily be functional. Successive generations of Brightonian aesthetic midgets have spent more than a century and a half not learning from the Pavilion’s geometric delinquency and from the Regency’s propensity for legerdemain that building can and should be theatrical, exhibitionistic, illusionistic, lighthearted, camp, edgy. Build thus – as Frank Gehry and Piers Gough propose to – and the gap between the physical and the ideal is closed.

If facadism is an ethical issue, that is largely because it has found itself in the middle of an intellectual collision between what might loosely be termed progressive rationalists on the one hand and pragmatic conservatives on the other.

In an English context, pragmatism is always likely to come out on top. To take a dogmatic, absolutist approach – either a strictly rational one that demands an unwavering relationship in architecture between interior and exterior, or a conservationist-based one that regards facadism as an unacceptable bastardisation of historic buildings – is bound to lead to its own absurdities. Facadism is, after all, an inherent muddle. Given this, the terminology itself is a little suspect. The ‘ism’ suffix suggests a coherent philosophy; accordingly, it used to be reserved for religions, political movements and universal themes – matters of some consequence. Putting ‘ism’ after facade has given the whole question a supposed importance out of all proportion to its real weight. In fact, there is nothing very systematic or coherent about it. In England it has simply been, on the whole, a pragmatic response to circumstances.

b/w photo of flying buttress at St Paul's  
Flying buttresses at St Paul’s Cathedral, hidden by a parapet  

Take the Georgian age, in some ways this was the apogee of expressive architecture: Palladianism, in principle, perfectly embodies a logical relationship between interior and exterior. But even so, the Georgians often placed great emphasis on the facade, sometimes neglecting the structure of the building as a whole (a particular gripe of Pevsner’s). They were perfectly comfortable with facadism; Jones and Nash were exponents. It was relatively common practice to titivate and regularise a facade to correspond to the vogue for classical proportions and harmony, with the result that quite a few apparently Georgian houses are in fact much older.

Medieval and Tudor timber frames are masked by beautifully-proportioned brick fronts, but the classical proportions on show are not systematically carried through to the inside. This is facadism as makeover. The facade is a mask, an exercise in superficial dissembling. And the practice has carried on more or less ever since; just as Aston Webb refaced 18th-century Buckingham Palace in dry early 20th century classicism, so plenty of 1950s and 1960s blocks have been stripped back and refaced with a softer skin, their rawness toned down to correspond to late 20th century taste.

So facadism has a long and impressive pedigree. And what is often overlooked is that it is a facet of many wholly new designs. Deception is part of the architect’s art. Look at the pinnacle of British architectural achievement by Britain’s greatest architect, Sir Christopher Wren. St Paul’s Cathedral is in part an exercise in facadist deception. The flying buttresses that support the building are masked by a parapet wall above the aisles. This offended Banister Fletcher. The 12th edition of his History of Architecture, dating from 1945, goes so far as to suggest modifying St Paul’s in order to correct the solecism. The recommended solution is to punch holes in the parapet wall to reveal the buttresses, which merely confirms that rationalism and extremism are often comfortable bedfellows.

What of 21st-century architecture? Its practitioners are often among those most censorious of facadism, but their moral outrage comes dangerously close to hypocrisy: in much contemporary architecture, facadism, or what amounts to facadism, is effectively introduced from the outset. Ever since the invention of the curtain wall, a good deal of new-build involves the hanging of prefabricated facade panels off a standard steel frame holding up a standard floor plate. As a result, what is nowadays built behind a facade is almost inevitably at loggerheads with the facade. It is at loggerheads structurally, for example where reinforced concrete supports masonry. It is at loggerheads spatially, for example where an open-plan layout is set behind a facade of hole-in-the-wall windows that imply a cellular organisation of space. And it is at loggerheads formally, because the roof is often not regarded as an integral part of the building and additional floors are built within mansards that bear no relation to the facade.

This practice of tacking a front onto large floor plans is effectively built-in facadism. The facade is essentially a separate, freestanding element that is developed in isolation, or theoretically could be. Its organic connection with the interior is limited; when the steel frame of the building is erected, it is anyone’s guess what prefabricated panels will be added. They could be classical in detail, as at Juxon House near St Paul’s, or they could be beautifully-detailed glass, as at the new Bowring Building next to the Tower of London. So facadism, in all but name, is ingrained in modern architectural thinking. This radically diminishes the force of the modernisers’ argument against retaining historic facades; doing so, after all, is simply a modified form of conventional architectural practice.

Built-in facadism has become more common as historicism has spread, in reaction to the mid20th century lack of architectural ornament. Most contemporary classical buildings are exercises in this kind of facadism, because so few clients – and next to no commercial clients – want a building that is classical through and through. If they want a classical facade, they almost certainly do not want the space inside to correspond to it. What is left is instant facadism, where the richly modelled, articulated facade bears almost no relationship to the large, open-plan floors behind them. But it also needs to be borne in mind that what began life as strictly rational designs have also generally been diluted over time. Buildings are living organisms. Insides are hacked about, rooms divided, partitions installed, uses changed. Retention of the facade by itself is no more than the reductio ad absurdum of this continuum, the final divorce of front and insides. It is often only the last step in a breach that has been developing for years, or even decades, often pretty much since the building was built. Façadism is hardly ever, in other words, the sullying of a perfect relationship.

  Georgian brick facade of earlier timber framed villa
  Braybrooke House, Cathedral Close, Salisbury - a timber framed house re-faced in the Georgian period with a polite, brick facade

Looking at facadism pragmatically, as a response to conditions, is also helpful in addressing current concerns about sustainability and environmental protection. These lie at the heart of contemporary ethical dilemmas, more so than questions of aesthetics or architectural integrity. Put crudely, demolition is wasteful. English Heritage has estimated that demolition and construction account for almost a quarter of total annual waste produced in the United Kingdom. Largely because of the quality and lifespan of the materials used, a Victorian house is almost £1.00 per square foot cheaper to maintain and occupy each year than a house built in the 1980s.

Existing buildings, including their facades, represent an investment of capital and energy. Given this, it may well be that a high-quality stone facade is worth keeping: it is durable, it improves with age, it requires little maintenance. Replacing it with a new facade may add to the developer’s short-term costs but is likely to increase the lifetime costs of the building.

If facadism is acceptable in principle and is not inadmissible on moral or ethical grounds, what key practical considerations should apply, since clearly not every facade, or even most facades, will be kept? Pragmatism suggests that each case should be judged on its merits.

The first consideration is quality. In simple terms, the best facades should be retained, even if their relationship to the interior has lessened over time and the facade is the chief element of the historic building to survive. The Coutts development at the west end of the Strand, where Gibberd in the 1970s retained the Nash facades, is a an example of a 20th century architect sensitively acknowledging the high-quality legacy of a forebear, as is Michael Hopkins’s work at Bracken House in the City of London. If facades are especially valued for cultural, aesthetic, or even sentimental reasons, there ought to be space in our thinking to retain them. A listed building should not be de-listed solely on the grounds that its interior has been lost.

It is true, of course, that some retained facades are so distinctly ordinary that one is left wondering what pass we have reached, that we could not have designed something better. Often, of course, we could have, but unadventurous planners have prevented its expression, as for example in Fenchurch Street in London, where Richard Rogers’ sparkling Lloyd’s Register of Shipping languishes absurdly behind a bland retained facade, denied a relationship with the street. Just a few yards away, Rogers has successfully incorporated the facade of Edwin Cooper’s Lloyd’s building into his own ‘Hi-Tech’ Lloyd’s building, but here the retained facade is subordinate, as it should be. Or as it should be, at least, when the new architecture is of such high quality.

This is an important point. The most sustained recent assault on facadism came with the Revise PPG15! campaign in 2002, led by Rogers himself, together with Richard MacCormac and Richard Coleman. It is perfectly possible to understand their frustration when transparently mediocre buildings are kept as urban wallpaper. But what comes across, even from the illustrations they themselves use to support their case, is that facadism often fills a vacuum caused by a lack of truly satisfying modern alternatives. Whenever we see a building demolished, we expect something worse to replace it, and with some justification. Facadism may stifle architectural opportunities, but the onus must be on architects to provide, consistently and reliably, buildings that are rich enough to engage the senses and repay repeated attention, in the way that all good art does. The poor quality of much modern design provides the oxygen that sustains facadism, and for that architects have only themselves to blame.

Until a richer architectural vocabulary is developed, facadism will continue to be used as a lazy way out. And indeed there can be a good deal of laziness in facadism, particularly the kind that preserves mediocre facades. For the developer, it may be an easy escape from controversy, an act of vacuous piety designed to absolve him from the sin of demolishing a good building that should have been saved in toto. This was particularly true in the interwar years. Since then, the laziness has more often come in not thinking hard enough about a building and relapsing into a soft option. Is the existing structure behind the facade really too dilapidated to save? The answer is no, almost never. Is it acceptable for planning authorities to pretend that the old building is still there and at the same time rake in higher business rates they get from larger buildings with higher rateable values? Again, probably not. Facadism that simply gives aggressively commercial development a sheen of respectability or allows planners to deceive themselves that they are preserving heritage is often the product of lazy, complacent thinking, and it is no bad thing to be jolted out of it.

Modern facadism at Royal Victoria Dock, London  

Once architectural quality is dealt with, a second practical consideration is contextual value. Some facades may have no especial intrinsic merit but may contribute significantly to a townscape or streetscape. This is most often true of classical facades, simply because the canons of classical architecture respond to hierarchies in public space. Thus the giant order was not as a rule approved for domestic buildings; but if a domestic building was on a public square, such as the Place Vendôme in Paris, the public function of the building took precedence. In other words, the building is seen primarily as a composition whose public face derives from its context. Some facades do indeed have a public role that is more important than their private role as an envelope to the building behind. Indeed, so much have facades been seen historically as part of the public sphere that in Paris and Brighton they were sometimes built to complete a public space - and stood for several years on their own before a developer came along and put up a building behind them. If we have lost that sense of facade as pure theatre, it is partly because, as Jonathan Meades says, we have a diminished sense of theatricality; but it is also because the private has become more important than the public, and public space is less valued. Neither is necessarily a good thing.

A third consideration is retention of architectural unity. There are certain contexts that are so powerful that if new development were permitted, facadism would be not only justifiable but the only sane option. It would be impossible to take one element out of the facade of Bedford Square in London or the Royal Crescent in Bath, for example, without wrecking the composition; and so if development were undertaken in either place, it would be conceivable to do so only behind the retained facade of one or more units. This sort of facadism is unlikely to be controversial, and was commonly practised after wartime bomb damage.

What emerges from all this is that facadism is not for idealists and arch-rationalists. But offending against idealism and rationalism is no great hardship, given our national predilection for pragmatism. And if for some reason we wish to avoid facadism, it is by no means a corollary that facades should be demolished. After all, another way around the problem – a way of protecting architectural integrity, indeed – is to retain at least a room depth behind the facade, so that windows continue to relate to room spaces. This would mean adding a new building to a cut-down old building rather than trying to relate the new building to a facade alone; it would avoid the continuous open offices with regimented fluorescent lighting that are seen at dusk behind a long facade, where previously there were cross-walls with parapets above the roof line, chimneys and a cellular structure expressed through a subtle vertical rhythm in the facade.

And if the facade really is all that can stay, we might insist on the new building being properly related to and integrated with the retained facade, correctly-placed cross-walls included. Façadism works least well when windows evidently lead through to nothing, when their lack of relationship to anything behind them is betrayed by mirror glass, or blanked-out windows, or even a view of the sky. It is an unhappy compromise, but perhaps in future we should seek to avoid it by keeping more, not less, of the historic building.



The Building Conservation Directory, 2005


ROBERT BARGERY is secretary of The Georgian Group and was previously head of policy and research at the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment.

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