Façadism: a Solomonic compromise
It’s hardly a new practice, building upward when a city can sprawl no further. Arguably, it’s as ancient as walled cities, where development real estate was at a premium. Even without models and maps, it’s not hard to imagine something Seussian: towers of blocks upon mismatched blocks of dwellings, and workrooms, and mercantile shops.
But in a world where development and redevelopment are big business—and one where developers work hand in glove with environmentalists and conservationists—why cleave the back off an old building and tack a new one awkwardly in its place? It’s like a mash-up of bad plastic surgery and an Apple theme on an Android product, a Frankenbuilding.
While Frankenbuilding feels more apt, the practice actually goes by the name façadism. Although it came to my attention via a British blog for Spitalfields, UK, façadism is well known in US, too. It’s been used to rebuild sections of Washington, D.C., New York, and Seattle, to name only a few.
A quick scan of the literature shows that commentators explain façadism as a compromise between developers and preservationists. Some argue the practice should be accepted as good urban design, even if it’s undeniably bad preservation (see, e.g., The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties which don’t permit façadism). According to Urbandesign.org, urban design “is about making connections between people and places, movement and urban form, nature and the built fabric.” Since maintaining a portion of the “built fabric” makes a connection between people and places, past and present, I’ll go so far as to say façadism isn’t bad urban design. But with monstrosities like 57 Stamford Street and Altolusso Tower as examples, I absolutely won’t say it’s good.
In her dissertation, Architecture of Compromise: A History and Analysis of Façadism in Washington, D.C., Kerensa Stanford Wood observes that the traditional argument—bad preservation or good urban design—is reductive. Rather, façadism must be seen as “a reflection of a city’s values, history, and development; ultimately, it’s transformation” (8). It should be studied in “relation to the politics and tensions between preservation, development, and government” (Wood 8).
That would seem to be obvious, especially to a medieval art historian trained to understand material culture as a product of its time, its artist, its place—in context. I’m used to looking at: structural accretions to buildings, like Gothic era completions of Romanesque cathedrals; decorative retouching like Rococo gilt and swirls on Renaissance interiors; and defacement or incorporation of monuments in support of cultural assimilation. Even if I wish I could have seen Hagia Sophia before the minarets were added and the dome mosaic of Christ Pantocrator removed, I nevertheless embrace the changes as historically valuable in their own right.
On that logic, I’m forced to concede the value of façadism as monumental testament to late 20th century political and design history. If I’m being intellectually honest, I have to admit to a certain fascination with the visual rhetoric of façadism. It immediately calls to mind “skinning” as associated with website themes, game engines, and decals for phones, tablets, and computers. Courtesy of Oliver Wainwright, art and architecture critic for The Guardian, I also can’t help thinking about Disney’s version of skinning—the endless replication of the idea of theme park, the basic rides, made new by the application of another “design skin”.
While Disneyfication is a term scholars love to throw around without defining it, it certainly applies to the idea of preserving history via kindly-demeanored metonymy of the sort seen in Frontierland and Epcot. And Wainwright’s onto something with respect to façadism, which purports to preserve the character of a place by retaining its “skins”. Spitalfields, for example, now seems a Disney version of its former self, the egregious examples of setback façadism calling to mind more common uses of the word facade: mask, front, and ultimately, a lie.
I’d be remiss not to point out that there’s a certain amount of magical thinking here, too. Pilgrims used to bring ampullae filled with blessed oil or water home from the sites they visited. Often, the ampullae were impressed with images associated with the site. Like postcards and photographs and snow globes today, the ampullae helped the pilgrim relive the experience. More than that, though, they enabled the pilgrim to bring the holy site to their homes (and presumably sanctify their villages by equally magical contamination). The underlying “magical thinking” is that a piece of a thing contains the properties of the whole (cf. saint’s relics).
Even allowing for the ways façadism fascinates, it produces much “loathsome yet appalling hideousness” (Shelley 173). Some particularly well-executed examples achieve a kind of hybrid beauty, but façadism still boils down to a Solomonic compromise; and like carving a baby in half, it’s a messy and ultimately untenable solution.
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Shelley, Mary Wollstonecraft. Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. Boston: Cornhill, 1922. Web.
Urban Design. The Center for Design Excellence, n.d. 8 Feb. 2016.
Wood, Kerensa Stamford. “Architecture of Compromise: A History and Analysis of Façadism in Washington, D.C.” Diss. Columbia U, 2012. Web.