Web Exclusive: Architectural Façadism and Urban Intensification

Brad Done, Facade
Brad Done

Cities are growing at a rapid pace, and especially those cities that have a rich cultural heritage, economic stability and boast an attractive environment and lifestyle for families and young professionals. Toronto is one such example, where the population has been expanding by over 100,000 people almost each year since the 1990s. City forecasts expect the growth to continue with the total city population expected to reach 13.5 million by 2041 and the number of jobs to increase from 4.5 million to 6.3 million.

City planners use the term intensification to describe the strategy of increasing the population density of cities, which is what needs to happen to accommodate the growth. Locating people outside of the city places additional burdens on transport systems. Infrastructure would also need to be built and expanded at great cost. The ideal solution from a city planning perspective is to increase the density of people living in the city itself – intensification.

What is architectural façadism?

Architectural façadism is one approach of taking over old buildings for new uses in cities. Essentially, the front facade of the building is restored to its original look, but the building behind is completely rebuilt to fit a modern purpose. Other techniques of using old buildings include urban taxidermy, where the front 30 feet of the building are kept in the new building, as an attempt to preserve more of the original heart and soul of the city. Adaptive reuse seeks to retain the features of the old building while repurposing the facility.

Chris Borgal, a leading architect in the restoration of heritage buildings, argues that façadism and other techniques of restoration have been part of the human tradition for centuries. After World War II, for example, many buildings had been bombed out, but an attempt was made to preserve what could be saved as part of the new developments and infrastructure. In addition, the building codes in cities change and improve over time and it is costly to maintain and upgrade the internals of a heritage building. This leaves developers in the awkward position of choosing between demolition and rebuilding or finding a compromise with preserving some parts of the building. Because of the way development was done in the past, the facade is often the stand out feature that defines an older building, while the internal are more or less the same as any other building. Chris makes the statement, “In some case, the most important piece of a building may well be the front, the piece that is part of the public realm.”

Opponents of architectural façadism argue that when one only preserves the facade of a building, one loses the vitality and culture that was so much part of city life. Even though city streets look compelling with their restored outer appearances, the number of people on the street is lower, the interaction between people is less and the way that people interact with the architecture is diminished. Catherine Nasmith describes the cumulative effect of architectural façadism as being harmful to the life of the city.Facade, Facadism

When architectural façadism goes wrong, it leaves a person disoriented as they pass through the preserved facade to find themselves in a different world with no connection to the exterior. The facade of some buildings leads to an expected flow in terms of entrance and yet the modern building behind follows a completely different layout. Condominiums and hotels are sometimes built behind a facade but extend above it and around it. The visible contrast appeals to some, but to others it seems overbearing.

A notable example of the redevelopment of an iconic building is the repurposing of the main hall of the former Royal Bank Headquarters in Montreal. The large imposing hall with its individual teller stands that represented a hive of economic activity as a bank, has been repurposed into a co-working environment for freelancers and small companies. Using the layout of the existing tellers, architects and developers have created small meeting spaces and individual work spaces around a cafe. It is an interesting combination of preserving much of the original building, while creating a space that is well-suited to millennials and a modern way of working. The Royal Bank remains a hive of economic activity as a blend of the old and the new.

A tension to live with

The reality of growing cities and the needs of urban planning guarantees that the tension between preserving the old and developing the new is with us to stay. The combined skills and artistic talents of professionals on both side of the debate are needed to preserve as much as we can while developing cities for the needs of the future. A balanced approach that may vary from specific application to another can help cities to retain their rich heritage while remaining a competitive environment in the international marketplace.

It is important to note the importance that environmental and sustainability should play in decisions to demolish buildings or parts of buildings. The energy cost that has already been spent to establish that building in the first place, the cost of removal and disposal and the cost of erecting a new building are high from an energy perspective. Adequate weighting should be given to this cost in the decision making process, although this has largely been ignored up until now.

Architecture, living spaces, restaurants, shops etc., all combine to give a city its feel. It would be a pity to maintain a facade but lose the life of the street in the city, but also a pity to grow a city full of people disconnected from the cultural heritage of the past. Committed professionals and city planners holding the tension of both sides simultaneously have a tough task ahead of them, but the life of our cities is in their hands.


*Brad Done is the vice president at Reliance Foundry Co Ltd. He leads product development, sales, and marketing, and has over 30 years of experience in manufacturing bollards, commercial bike racks, and other outdoor metal products. He can be contacted at [email protected]