The Creeping Plague of Ghastly Facadism
|The Creeping Plague of Ghastly Facadism, The Gentle Author, Spitalfields Life Books, 2019, 120 pages, 49 colour illustrations, hardback.|
Since August 2009 the Gentle Author has produced a blog every day of the week about life in Spitalfields. Many of the pieces are profiles of East Enders relating their stories and being introduced to the wider community. From time to time the blog is supplemented by books about the remarkable culture of East London – its history and architecture – which are elegantly designed and illustrated.
The subject of ‘The Creeping Plague of Ghastly Facadism’ first featured in the blog, but the book goes further, highlighting how this disease has spread rapidly across London’s conservation areas in recent times, sometimes even infecting listed buildings. The book begins with the author observing: ‘As if I were being poked repeatedly in the eye with a blunt stick, I can not avoid becoming increasingly aware of a painfully cynical trend in architecture which threatens to turn London into a backlot of an abandoned movie studio’.
He goes on to castigate planning authorities that accept the retention of a historic building’s facade while allowing the rest to be demolished and replaced. Such profligate release of embodied carbon is neither responsible nor sustainable. But, as the author’s photographs demonstrate, the disembodied facades propped up with scaffolding or dominated by grotesque new developments also cause aesthetic harm.
Those who have been in the building conservation profession for some years will recall PPG15, ‘Planning and the Historic Environment’, which was replaced when the less prescriptive National Planning Policy Framework was introduced. In the section dealing with alterations and extensions to listed buildings PPG15 specifically condemned preserving facades while gutting and reconstructing interiors. So why are these hybrid structures now so frequently permitted in London and elsewhere?
The Gentle Author draws attention to the recent wave of development driven by overseas investment, combined with the government’s policy on zero-rating VAT for new construction while taxing renovation and repair of existing buildings. Conservation areas, particularly around the City of London and the West End, have thus become battlegrounds, where developers seeking wholescale redevelopment reach a compromise with councils or the Mayor of London to keep the facade, in the process evading the payment of VAT. Taking note of the current political notion that truth is open to alternative interpretation, the author ironically comments that ‘facadism suits us very well, it is our kind of authenticity’.
Most of the book is taken up with a well-illustrated gazetteer of facadism cases. One was a winner of Building Design’s Carbuncle Cup; another was the former American Embassy, designed by Eero Saarinen and Grade II listed. But the author leaves the most outrageous example to the end: the former Duke of Cambridge in Bethnal Green. This handsome Victorian pub was gutted to create apartments and suffered the indignity of a ‘Reglit’ glass box exploding out through the roof in the most inappropriate manner imaginable.
With an ingenious double-folding cover that satirises the ‘plague’, and other humorous touches, the book makes a compelling case for putting a halt to this epidemic before our streets become mere film sets.
This article originally appeared as ‘Life on a film set’ in Context 168, published by the Institute of Historic Building Conservation (IHBC) in June 2021. It was written by Peter de Figueiredo, reviews editor, Context.
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