Opinion – David R. Marshall

On Facadism

Lonsdale House in 2010 before demolition. Photo Katrina Grant.

The Myer’s Lonsdale Street Store is now a vast open building site, with the Lonsdale Street and Little Bourke Street facades propped up with a scaffolding of huge steel girders that occupy half of each street. Conspicuously absent is the façade of Lonsdale House, an Art Deco façade demolished in 2010, in spite of having a heritage overlay, in order to provide truck access to the site. According to a widely expressed view, facadism—the preserving of old facades while putting up a wholly new building behind them—is bad, because it is the integrity of the building as a whole that matters. This is nonsense, and the effect has been to strip away a key line of defence for buildings like Lonsdale House. This was an example of reverse facadism, when an Art Deco façade was attached to a nineteenth century building in the 1930s. Because the building therefore lacked the ‘integrity’ of having been built all at the same time, it could not be argued that to demolish the facade would damage the integrity of the building.

The facadism argument is misconceived. Façades are about streets, not buildings. The Lonsdale House façade made a positive contribution to the street, and was an interesting design, much more important than the routine building behind. Historically, many facades have been conceived independently of the buildings behind them. In the Baroque period in Rome it was widely recognised that the façade, while signalling the nature of the building behind, should above all form part of the streetscape. Sometimes this took the form of an impressive interruption to the streetscape, but as the seventeenth century rolled into the eighteenth the emphasis was increasingly on harmony and integration. For this reason many Barocchetto church façades step back a little at the edge of the church before coming forward with a stub wing then bond seamlessly with the buildings on either side. In some cases façade and church are built by the same architect at the same time, in others by different architects at different times. This concern with the streetscape peaked with later nineteenth-century urbanists like Camillo Sitte, and was strong in 1920s Britain, a period in which you find books with titles like ‘Good Manners in Architecture’ which argue for downplaying the ego of a building (and its architect) in favour of the streetscape (and the public). While these can seem wussy from today’s perspective, in which the architect’s ego is paramount, they remind us of a world where people—citizens—mattered.

In the end the facadism position is little more than the assertion of the architect’s ego, because it assumes the priority of a quasi-Aristotelian unity of the ‘building’ over everything else. But a building is not a play, and unity is nor necessarily essential to it. What really matters is how good are the parts, and it has to be said that the interiors of Myer’s Lonsdale Street store were undistinguished in the extreme, while the new interior of the Bourke Street store, although having a tackiness that is truly Myers (notably the stick-on-sub-Jewish-Museum mirror strips), is much better than the old. The fact is that they did facades much better back then, and contemporary architects simply cannot or won’t do good streetscapes. Proof is what happened when they have made the effort, as in a number of 1980s buildings like the Hyatt Hotel in Collins Street, where the architect had tried to match the streetscape formed by the former Alexandra Club on the corner of Russell and Collins, and the still largely Victorian streetscape along Collins Street. The fact that the result is banal, poorly scaled and poorly detailed has no doubt been taken by subsequent architects as a good reason for no longer making the effort, and creating overscaled, frankly terrifying spaces like those of the QV building. No doubt this building has stylistic integrity, but unlike the ‘Paris end’ of Collins Street (or the bits that survive) it gives no pleasure to the passer-by.

What we need is to re-invent the façade, and a good place to start would be the Hyatt. I can live with the gold tower, by why can’t someone come along and redo its façade with the scale, sensitivity, and mastery of detail that many of Melbourne’s buildings before 1939 display? The answer, of course, is that architects no longer know how. Which is as good an argument as I can think of for intensifying the separation of façade from building, and giving it to façade specialists who need not even be architects, and who are certainly not those whose forte is the vast towers behind, the designing of which clearly renders them incapable of the urbanity needed to design a liveable streetscape. Melbourne’s development is now so out of control, and so out of scale, that the city is rapidly becoming uninhabitable. A forty-four storey apartment tower will do up next door to a three-storey 1920s warehouse. Developers do what they like, actively supported by government or town hall. One way to save Melbourne might be to let the developers do what they like within the block (they do so anyway) but return the streetscape to the public domain, a site where developers and their acolyte architects are not permitted entry. Forget about laneways: give us back our streets.

© David R. Marshall 2011