Facadism the laziest and most unsatisfying form of preservation is causing irreparable damage to Spitalfields and to London

Possibly the laziest and most unsatisfying form of ‘preservation’ is the current fad of preserving the facade of an old building, only to completely gut the interior and replace it with an entirely new modern building.

It’s been done badly so many times you’d think that at some point people would figure out that far from preserving the character of an area, it does more to destroy it.  Ghostly facades of buildings which once brimmed with character become just that, ghosts.  A constant reminder of what we could have had if we’d been a little bit more imaginative and a little bit more challenging.

A topic which has been highlighted for some time by the popular Spitalfields Life blog they recently published a post featuring some of London’s worst examples here.  The examples shown are from all around London showing that it’s not just an East End problem.

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On the corner of Artillery Lane and Gun Street there’s not even been any attempt to incorporate this ghostly facade.  If ever there was an example of tick box conservationism this is it

Norton Folgate Destruction

The issue is coming to light once again in the East End of London, where in the former liberty of Norton Folgate, a rare remnant of the East End’s industrial past is to be knocked down and replaced with a modern office block.  Retaining the facade of the old warehouse there will be nothing beyond the front door and yet another little bit of East End history becomes consigned to dust.

The Norton Folgate development of course is controversial and we covered the plans when they were first announced in 2014.  There is massive local opposition to the scheme which will completely destroy an area which is of significant historical interest.  It backs onto a group of magnificent Georgian houses which were almost pulled down themselves in the 70’s by the same developer, British Land.  That scheme only failed because some audacious squatters moved into the properties and wouldn’t move and thank goodness they did.

It’s even more controversial because despite the plan being rejected by the local council, a mayoral dictat from Boris Johnson has resulted in the council’s decision being overturned.  It’s a travesty of due process, the likes of which Vladimir Putin would be proud.  One man having the power to overturn the decision of elected local representatives is surely a complete mockery of the democratic process.

1886 Warehouse on Blossom Street norton folgate

The warehouse on Blossom Street in Norton Folgate built in 1886, it is proposed that only the facade is retained.  The choice could of course be made to renovate and convert this building into period living spaces or offices.  That’s not what British Land and Boris Johnson want to do though.  They’d rather gut it and build a purpose built modern office block behind its facade.  Oh for a bit of imagination…

Facadism mistakes in Spitalfields

Around the corner from Norton Folgate is the Fruit and Wool exchange.  Opposite Spitalfields market, the once grand building is now just a frontage propped up with wooden posts.  On Leonard Street meanwhile, a rare brick built warehouse building dating from the 1800’s has been torn down, all except for the frontage of course and, quite randomly, a section of wall that plays host to a piece of street art from the popular artist, Stik.

Meanwhile the same is happening on Bishopsgate where an old house has supposedly been preserved except that it hasn’t, it’s been completely gutted leaving just the frontage to gaze soullessly onto Liverpool Street station.

Anyone who needs any further confirmation on how bad this fad of facade saving can be need only look on Artillery Row where the remnants of a decorative facade can be seen. It’s so bad however that it’s not even attached to the building and is completely separate to it.  It looks out of place, uncertain and like someone has played a bad joke.

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This facade on the corner of Gun Street and Artillery Lane has been done so badly that it’s almost as if someone has played a bad joke.

All in all it’s a highly unsatisfying way of supposedly ‘preserving’ the history of the area.  It’s a lazy way of going about things and with a little effort some of these buildings could be renovated and become highly desirable places to live and work.  If you need to see any examples just look at the streets around Blossom Street and Fournier Street which now boast some of the grandest buildings in the City yet which were all once at serious risk of getting knocked down and having a 70’s block built in their place.

To quote the Spitalfields Life blog, Spitalfields has become a battleground where not since Henry VIII’s time has more of an effort been placed into destroying the history of an area. The Norton Folgate development is at the heart of a fight to try and save the character of Spitalfields from people who have no interest in culture, no interest in history but every interest in making a profit and in taking the easiest way in which to do so.

To learn more about what else could be done with the scheme and an alternative vision of the Norton Folgate area have a look at the Spitalfields Trust site who have come up with some plans which conserve the integrity of the area.  To keep up to date with all the happenings regarding this and other developments follow the excellent Spitalfields Life blog and have a look at the recent letter they sent to the Secretary of State here.

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The wall to the left is the remnant of the Fruit and Wool Exchange overlooking Spitalfields Market

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The back of the facade which is the only part left of the old Fruit and Wool Exchange

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Devonshire House on Bishopsgate

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It’s hard to imagine the resultant building being anything more than highly unsatisfying as it attempts to incorporate this old frontage