Down with Façadism: a provocation for Culture Hack North

I was honoured to be asked to do a short talk on the opening afternoon of the brilliant Culture Hack North event in Leeds this weekend.

For one thing, it was a chance to appear alongside Rachel Coldicutt‘s dream team of Rohan Gunatillake, Natasha Carolan, Lucy Bannister, Helen Harrop, Frankie Roberto and Greg Povey.

Also, I got to try out a half-baked thought about an unexpected way in which situated stories could lead to long-term, physical changes in our cities, even better, to do so with some people whose Culture Hack projects could be pivotal to bringing that change about.

I made a Prezi to go with the talk, but for those who can’t abide all the whizzing and swooping here it is in static words and pictures. I’d love to know what you think.

What if the interior lives of buildings were as exposed as their exteriors?

I ask because I think we’re heading for a profound change in the way we experience our built heritage.

We’ll start by considering a heritage concept that got a bad name in the latter part of the last century. There was a trend for ripping out the hearts of old buildings but leaving the shells intact. Critics called this trend “façadism” – the privileging of the exterior or front to the detriment of the building’s deeper character.

“Façadism (or Façadomy) is the practice of demolishing a building but leaving its facade intact for the purposes of building new structures in it or around it.” – Wikipedia

Here’s a particularly egregious example from Estonia:

Victorian architects and builders sowed the seeds of this practice themselves in the way they put their emphasis on the public face of a structure, while skimping on the unseen parts. Here’s Temple Works in Holbeck, Leeds. In front, it’s a grand millstone grit temple; round the back, nicely detailed but workaday redbrick…

  

That tension remains today. The building’s blue plaque focuses on the spectacular facade, the industrialist and architect who erected it…

But if you listen to local people, the complex is important to them as something else, the unglamorous Northern Distribution Depot of Kay’s Catalogues, the Amazon.com of its day. This sign is from Slung Low’s Original Bearings project which sought to capture some of those real Holbeck stories and expose them on the street…

This is the inside of Kay’s as we found it a couple of years ago, a pre-digital data centre abandoned by its previous occupants…

And still the same site: fittingly, Reality was the name of the last company to occupy the complex…

But now it’s possible to see inside buildings through time and space. The pun is too good to miss…

All this would be academic if it wasn’t for the fact that planning law is shifting, away from purely national, architectural significance, towards a system that gives weight to local people’s views of what’s important in their environment.

The Draft National Planning Policy Framework talks (page 55) about “heritage assets” which should be…

“identified by the local planning authority during the process of decision-making or through the plan-making process (including local listing).”

According to English Heritage, local listing is …

“… a means for a local community and a local authority to jointly decide what it is in their area that they would like recognised as a ‘local heritage asset’ and therefore worthy of some degree of protection in the planning system.” – Good Practice Guide for Local Listing

And while the Tory-led government seems to use localism as cover for an attack on communities’ rights to resist inappropriate developments, the National Trust is leading the fightback by positioning heritage in terms of dialogue between people and places:

“I believe that the planning system should balance future prosperity with the needs of people and places – therefore I support the National Trust’s calls on the Government to stop and rethink its planning reforms.” – National Trust Planning for People petition

The upshot of this focus on local significance is that the images and stories of use that we expose through geo-location and augmented reality could influence which buildings are preserved and reused and which are demolished. Historic buildings won’t just stand or fall on architectural merit, but also on local residents’ attachments to them.

Those attachments tend to arise from the activities carried on inside buildings as much as what they look like on the exterior. I visited the old Majestyk nightclub on City Square a year ago because it was on Leeds Civic Trust’s Heritage at Risk list…

And I found this – a spontaneous display of affection for a derelict building…

And while it’s a striking building in a prominent location, I don’t think whoever wrote that loved it for its architectural merit. They were remembering the good times they had at Majestyk’s – the laughs, the drinks, the music, the snogs.

And then there’s this unassuming late 90s box, called the White House, on Melbourne Street…

It has its own Facebook page! Or rather the people who worked here do…

In this building they launched Freeserve, the UK’s first free ISP which got millions of Britons on the net for the first time. If anywhere deserves local listing for its historic significance surely this does.

But I think the real potential is for places like the Leeds district of Chapeltown. (I owe a debt for many of the ideas in this post to my wife Caroline Newton who has just completed her MSc in Historic Building Conservation, studying the development of the Chapeltown Conservation Area. Ask her about it if you get the chance.)

Currently buildings get protection for their contribution to the Edwardian streetscape. But the really interesting stories are ones like this launderette, which was started as a cooperative in response to the needs of the immigrant community in an area that many had written off as a slum…

Such narrative capital is fragile and often completely disregarded in the name of regeneration. If stories like the laundry coop’s were better known, they might count for something in decision-making about the district.

Finally, this is the Mandela Centre, also on Chapeltown Road…

I stopped to take this picture because I loved the big sign commemorating Nelson Mandela’s visit to Leeds in which his drove through this area. But then I noticed the cups in the window. I have no idea what they’re for, but they speak volumes about the activities that go on in a community centre and the pride of the groups that meet there.

What if those stories were as obvious as the sign on the wall? The great thing is that, for the first time, they could be.

Maybe in the future buildings will no longer need to shout for attention with elaborate archiecture. In fact, to do so will be useless as nobody will see their peacock finery through the data smog. Instead, places will be recognised for the richness of their inner lives, meaning we preserve a fuller, messier cross-section of structures for their historic significance.

Just as in quantum theory, the act of observing changes the outcome. Facadism is dead; the future is all about interiors.

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3 thoughts on “Down with Façadism: a provocation for Culture Hack North

  1. Pingback: Things that I said to people at Culture Hack North. « Mount Analogue

  2. “They were remembering the good times they had at Majestyk’s – the laughs, the drinks, the music, the snogs.” And good for them.
    Whereas I remember a bad experience seeing a film in the Majestic cinema in1962, although that’s eased by a slight memory of the art deco features I didn’t then appreciate. And celebrate a schoolfriend’s mother who in 1964 went to see The Sound of Music there every Tuesday night before it became a bingo hall – and that bingo hall will be the main memory for people I don’t know.
    Interiors can’t be preserved in aspic, though I like to see them recorded. Every “user” (horrible word) of an interior will have different memories of it. But how are those memories to be recorded? Are they all equally valid (do those records become data smog themselves) or must they be selected and prioritised by curators (I have experiences, you have memories, others deface the icon)?
    I dunno, perhaps we agree, but I don’t get the practicalities.

  3. Hi Henry,

    You are so right about the layers of history that accumulate in a building. There’s a (now derelict) building on Chapeltown Road that has been a Baptist and Congregationalist church, a meeting hall, a synagogue, a Hindu temple and a Sikh temple – thousands of people who’ve passed through the area in the last 140 years must have some claim on it.

    Of course we can’t preserve one layer in aspic, but neither should layers be completely erased – that would be like scouring the patina off an antique bronze.

    My point is that facadism privileges a building’s first and current occupants at the expense of everyone else in between. But just by writing your comment you’ve helped to ensure the remembering of some of the Majestyk’s “in between”. There must be a way for the current regeneration of the building to honour all those layers.

    Regards,
    Matt

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