Facadism: Pandemic of urban life or hard pill to swallow?

Facadism: Pandemic of urban life or hard pill to swallow?
Turf Club Hotel façade, North Melbourne – Photo by Julia Frecker

Written By Julia Frecker

There is a creeping trend of facadism that began permeating cities the world over in the 80’s. Since then, Melbourne has succumbed to such a trend with the gutting of heritage buildings to be swamped by their modern extensions. It is a contentious issue, but should we be accepting heritage in any form? Is this form of faux heritage the future of heritage preservation?

Heritage preservation in planning often feels akin to a cyclical game of cat and mouse. With the cat and the mouse roles changing from council to developer to public in a steady turn over. Any attempts to retain heritage can spark debate, but failure to do so sparks just as much.  There are many forces at work for heritage preservation in Victoria, from local heritage polices, overlays, neighbourhood character to the Heritage Council Victoria and Melbourne Heritage Action. All forces working to preserve as much heritage as possible. It is a subject that can really get peoples hackles up as it is so complex, particularly as our definition of heritage is ever-evolving as the building styles around us rapidly change.

One of the more contentious issues with heritage is facadism. Already rife in the cities of London, Toronto and Seattle, old buildings are being gutted and fixed with new modern extensions. Facadism is the act preserving the front of a heritage building and implanting a modern design behind or on top of the outward facing facade. It does have the impression of a last-ditch attempt to preserve heritage, seemingly at any cost. 

Facadism: Pandemic of urban life or hard pill to swallow?
Hearst Tower, New York – Photo by Leonard J. DeFrancisci

The opinions out there, whilst varied, are commonly negative towards such a movement. Often the remaining facade derisively likened to the carcass or skin of a butchered animal, reducing the once grand heritage edifice to a taxidermy animal. It is often seen as faux heritage, as it leaves only a thin veil of the original building but is still classified as preservation. For conservationists it is a nightmare, and facadism here is described as “the dirtiest word”. However, not everyone is a conservationist and to the regular person it might not be such a big deal. Certainly, someone whose life work is to preserve beautiful buildings, a façade creation would frighten to the very core. New and old stitched together on the streetscape like the building form of Frankenstein’s monster. However, for the average Joe or Jane, should we be celebrating heritage preservation of any type as the streets around us change so rapidly? Maybe facadism is the sacrifice we have to accept for heritage and urban intensification to go hand in hand. 

The City of Port Phillip disagrees, wholeheartedly. The City of Port Phillip encompasses Albert Park, Balaclava, Elwood, Middle Park, Ripponlea, South Melbourne, St Kilda, St Kilda West and some parts of St Kilda East, Windsor, Port Melbourne, Southbank and Melbourne itself. It’s a big and important local government area connecting the city to the sea. The LGA’s new draft heritage policy is looking to avoid facadism altogether. 

It reads: 

“Avoid ‘facadism’ where demolition results in the retention of only the façade and/or external walls”

Their new heritage policy has now concluded public consultation, and any feedback is being included into the draft as we speak before consideration for Planning Scheme amendment in early 2020. 

The new policy is framing heritage differently, explaining that:

 “Heritage significance relates to the building as a three-dimensional form”

Therefore, it is upon this interpretation of heritage that they hinge their decision for discouraging façade development. While façades help to create uniform street frontages of similar building styles, there are still features of a building within and around it that contribute to its heritage listing or grading. Therefore, City of Port Phillip is cracking down on facadism and favouring the retention of the whole building, not just the part that faces outwards. It is an area that is heavy with heritage overlays and many buildings are listed on the Victorian Heritage Database, so there is a lot of history that they are desperately trying to preserve. 

Its proximity to the City of Melbourne and the rife facadism happening there must’ve ruffled some feathers and scared some people in the City of Port Phillip enough to stop facadism in its tracks. There are some intense examples of facadism in the City of Melbourne. The former Turf Club Hotel is no longer slinging beverages but is towered by its behemoth glass extension rising from the heritage façade of the well-loved pub. There are other examples, including the currently under construction Paragon Development which is retaining the façade of the Celtic Club on Queen Street.

Facadism: Pandemic of urban life or hard pill to swallow?
Celtic Club façade development – Paragon Towers by Beulah International
Facadism: Pandemic of urban life or hard pill to swallow?
Façade retention of the Celtic Club, a glimpse into the process of façade development. Capture from Nearmap as of January 2019.

A newer proposal is located on Melbourne’s famous Hosier Lane, the next target for facadism. The proposal, prepared by Urbis for Bruce Henderson Architects is currently being advertised but is heavily contested by the Melbourne Heritage Action (MHA). Given the skinny nature of the famous lane, such an extension might not be a major burden on the sight lines of the hundreds of tourists that traverse it each day. Regardless, there is action at the MHA to rally troops to object against the newest facadism proposal for the City of Melbourne.

Facadism: Pandemic of urban life or hard pill to swallow?
Hosier Lane - Renders by Bruce Henderson Architects
Facadism: Pandemic of urban life or hard pill to swallow?
Hosier Lane - Renders by Bruce Henderson Architects

Curiously, within Clause 22.04 of the City of Melbourne planning scheme it reads, that for Heritage places within the Capital City zone:

Much of Melbourne’s charm is provided by its older buildings, which, while not always of high individual significance, together provide cultural significance or interest, and should be retained in their three-dimensional form, not as two-dimensional facades as has sometimes occurred. 

However, such proposals are slipping through regardless.  

Facadism is a heavily contested topic, and often I personally don’t know where I stand. The most prominent issue with facadism is that, when it is executed there is no relationship between the façade and its extension. It is a weak compromise for the retention of heritage, a meagre facade swamped by monsters of glass and sleek concrete. When the contrast is so great, it is making a mockery of the heritage building that has been swept aside, huddled under a 26-storey mass. Extensions that bear little relation to the façade are jarring and often laughable. Whilst, it is important to distinguish between the two styles, and avoid reproductions, often the extension is so contrasting in colour and material and not appropriately set back, any respect for the façade is lost. 

Facadism also acts as a green light to more modern extensions, as the stripping of just one heritage building can begin to alter an entire precinct. It is all well and good for the City of Port Phillip to decide to avoid facadism altogether, but in terms of building grains, the City of Port Phillip is vastly different to City of Melbourne. Maybe facadism is the only way forward for true inner-city areas. There definitely is room for more sympathetic developments that don’t overpower or patronize the remaining heritage façade, one example being the Hotel Lindrum development on Flinders Street.  

Facadism: Pandemic of urban life or hard pill to swallow?
Hotel Lindrum proposal – Bates Smart

As buildings are popping up at a rapid rate, how do we retain inner city heritage and still encourage intensification? It is an issue sweeping big cities of the world who are clinging desperately to urban heritage. Should more areas of Victoria be following in the footsteps of the City of Port Phillip and be discouraging facadism altogether? Or should we be celebrating the fact that heritage is still being preserved, and accept its preservation however meagre? It certainly is a debate that now is more critical than ever. 


Julia Frecker

Julia Frecker

Julia Frecker is a guest content contributor at Urban.com.au. She is working in the planning sector and enjoys writing about planning, sustainability and environment as a way of combining her passion for the industry and a love of writing. She has a particular interest in urban greenery and food systems and the role it plays in cities around the world.

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rohan storey
Facadism certainly isnt good heritage practice, though in some cases, like a single level factory, maybe the external walls are all there is, but it would be far preferable to preserve some internals of the building as well - for instance, the front two rooms are preserved on most terrace houses. But then with these larger scale proposals, the developers want the tower to be quite close to the street, and therefore to the facade, and so we get 'bad' facadism, where the new is so much larger than the old, and looms right over it, and theres clearly only one thin wall left of the original, perhaps with a bit of return wall on one side. So the issue isnt so much should we preserve only the walls, but that the taller development should be set further back. CBD rules mandate a 5m setback from the street, but that wouldnt be enough to prevent domination most of the time, it needs to be 8 or even better 10m - and that should be the starting point for preservation. So if its a small site and a setback like that makes it undevelopable, then either demolish completely, or have no development. Still plenty of sites to round. I would also add that the City of Melb guidelines that a building should be kept 'in its three dimensional form' has been interpreted to mean 'keep two or three walls so it looks vaguely three dimensional' not three dimensional as in keeping a depth of the building, which is what was meant, but being unlcear, has been interpreted away. Amazing what good planners working for developers can argue, and be successful.
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