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The Historic Façade

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New buildings are usually proposed for reasons of development gain but people remain attached to old buildings because of familiarity, sense of historical continuity, and sometimes even for showing a level of craft and attention to detail unthinkable now. The perfect developer/architectural product would have all the development gain of a new building combined with the perception management of an old one but unfortunately it’s not possible for a new building and an old building to occupy the same space. This doesn’t stop people from trying.

St. Peter’s Evangelical Lutheran Church beneath New York’s 1977 Citicorp Center development (now 601 Lexington Avenue) is not an historic church. It’s a rebuild as the church didn’t want to relocate or, if the air rights were to be sold, to have the structural columns of the new development passing through it.

The only historic continuity is one of presence on the site and, for parishioners, this is no small thing. The structural solution proposed by structural engineer William LeMessurier seemed like a good idea at the time but, aesthetically, what we have is a Juxtapose of shapes united only in their occupying different parts of the same column of air.


Atelier Hapsitus’ 2010 proposal for the BLC Headquarters in Beirut manages to conceptually combine an old building and a new building into a new thing but it’s not a nice thing. I have trouble thinking of dumping on a building as a sign of respect.

Mario Botta’s 2010 Galleria Campari in Milan is a new building built above the company’s former headquarters.


It says all the right things about respect for the history of the company and is a superior example because the two parts Conflate to not only produce a new thing but one that has a little bit of Fortunato Depero craziness about it. Botta knew what he was doing.

The new building bridges the old without columns penetrating like they do in this next project that adds two more floors to an existing building on London’s Cornhill. The section explains what’s going on. A separate steel structure rests on basement pads which, being where the former vaults still are, in turn rest on serious concrete. From there up rises what was termed an umbrella structure of significant steel from which the uppermost two floors are suspended.

It’s major trauma for the building, but the net effect is to produce development gain without neatively impacting the façade or the streetscape.

These same tradeoffs between development gain and perception management can be seen in Wuma Street, the historic centre of my new home town Wenzhou. Here’s four views of the recently pedestrianized precinct.


There’s some fine looking buildings from circa 1930 and a balance has tried to be found between under- and over-restoration. I was walking around the area with a local historian friend the other day and we went inside this next building from 1933, the former headquarters of the Wenzhou Chinese Merchandise Company. He told me the original building had been timber frame behind the Western-style stone, brick and stucco facade, but now it is concrete frame with the same Western-style stone, brick and stucco facade. I must have made some remark about authenticity because my friend said, “It’s not a problem – we just think of it as real.”

Over the next few days, I did think that the building’s only existence had only ever been as a facade fronting an expedient structure so, apart from that façade now being an historic one and no longer modern, nothing has changed and everything’s as real now as it ever was.

Did it really matter? Alberti’s Santa Maria Novella is a facade fronting an interior. The other elevations are no great shakes. Besides, design and quality materials are expensive so why not use them sparingly and to greatest effect only where it counts?

This point was not lost on the postmodernists


and, accordingly, postmodernism had little to say about construction, organization or anything else that went on behind those facades. At the time it was believed that the gravity of history could be conjured up simply by referring to it. This meant perception management was no longer hindered by the onerous requirement of physical age. For a while, this blend of internal development gain and external perception management seemed like the perfect architectural product. Not much of this new history as cladding has lasted but Michael Graves’ 1982 Portland Municipal Services Building is one of the better examples.

What lived on was the notion of history as an add-on, and that if it could be applied as a veneer then it could be retained as a veneer without any hand-wringing and without overly impacting development gain. Again in London, this time in Spitalfields where Gun Street meets Artillery Lane, is this next project that doesn’t even attempt to reconcile development gain and perception management. It’s from circa 2006 when London investors and developers were wild about the returns to be gained from foreign student housing. The London School of Economics’ Lillian Knowles House has 360 rooms and is part conversion part new build. Retaining the historic façade was clearly a planning concession and, as such, one of the purest forms of development gain vs. perception management. The gap between new building and historic façade isn’t used as balcony space since development gain precluded making the FF heights align let alone the windows. I used to walk by this on the way to work. I’ve always thought solving a problem in the simplest way possible was a good thing but the problem here is how simplistically the problem was framed before it was solved in the simplest way possible.

This project provokes complex thoughts, but of what? I think the main problem is that the worth of history is seen only in terms of retaining some circa 1700 brick and stonework. That this building fragment has no windows or window frames reminds me of buildings devastated by explosion or fire, with window openings people will never again look out of to survey the street and, for that matter, people on that street will never again look up at those windows and be curious about the lives lived and once lived behind them. The non-alignment between the new windows and the former windows reinforces this conclusion.

This gutting of history from history suggests our relationship with it is now full-on dysfunctional. A real piece of history has been changed into a shallow representation of it. This approved lack of concern for how people once lived in this building might be intended to stop us thinking the past was better. There’s also an element of “why’d they even bother preserving it if this is what they did?” and this too is a dangerous train of thought. This project is an important one if ever someone wanted to write the history of how we got to where we are. Much like the privatization of UK railways and its conceptual separation of (the operating of) trains and track, detaching a façade from its building was never going to be a healthy idea. In managing to both respect history and disrespect history at the same time, it’s proof postmodernism never went away but merely mutated into something worse.

Retaining history as development gain tradeoff is our new normal and brings us to the next shocker from the BIG stable, their King Street West development in Toronto.

Again, retaining only the elevations of existing historical structures while building above, through and around them, is being presented as a means of preserving those structures and respecting their history and, for the most part, it’s seen as that by the municipality. The new parts of a development keep a respectful distance (of exactly five meters) from the street elevations of the historic buildings but behind those facades and elevations are the usual foundations and columns supporting the significant mass of building above. In perfect illustration of the absurdity of the postmodern world, the muncipality has to debate and decide exactly how much of the historic structures can be destroyed, replaced and reconfigured in order to create the appearance of them being preserved. Both developer and municipality want as much development as possible, the developer in order to increase profits and the municipality to increase planning fee income. The only question is how much the public will buy.

You can find the full report on the state of play in July 2018, in this document Alterations to Heritage Properties, Intention to Designate under Part IV, Section 29 of the Ontario Heritage Act and Authority to Enter into Heritage Easement Agreements – 485, 489, 495, 511, 519, 521, 523, 527 and 529 King Street West, you can find here.

Here’s a list of various measures recommended:

  1. all building elevations to be retained
  2. majority of footprint of existing buildings to be kept outside excavation area
  3. limited temporary openings to facilitate construction
  4. replacement for existing floors and roof with new
  5. selective openings in floors and roof to allow for integration of new structure
  6. selective openings in basement slab to allow for pouring of new footings and elevator pit
  7. wall dismantled and rebuilt

All this is being done to preserve identified heritage attributes such as building setback, placement and orientation, scale, form and massing, brick walls (having either regularly spaced brick piers or stone impost blocks), paired windows between brick piers, stone window sills, and store fronts that have wood. Some historic brick side elevations will be rebuilt as new historic brick side elevations.

None of this sounds all that historic but the retention of these heritage attributes – whether in their original form and material or not – is intended to make people feel better about the very ahistorical beast of a building now hovering above in a very ahistorical manner. At least those retained street elevations won’t be dead ones. People on the street will see people coming and going, lights getting turned on and off, and various activities take place behind those facades. Those activities won’t be historic ones but the building will continue to host some form of life and activity. This type of historic continuity is more important and probably the best we can hope for. When my Chinese historian friend said “It’s not a problem – we just think of it as real.” I should’ve just replied “Yeah we do too.”

Much more can be said about BIG’s King Street West project but I wanted to introduce it and get this idea of the historic facade out of the way. In a future post most likely titled Moneymaking Machines #6: King Street West, I want to have a closer look at the internal organization of this building and try to understand why it is the way it is.


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