- Words by Alan Powers
In June 1975, an angry letter from the architect and critic Diana Rowntree appeared in the RIBAJ Journal. The reason? The journal had promoted a new book, Designing Architectural Facades: an ideas file for architects. In fact, it was largely a technical guide to different curtain-wall systems and materials for finishes, but Rowntree’s outrage (‘If this is where the RIBA and its companies are going, they will have to do without my £27’ – actually the book only cost £8), suggests that the very word ‘façade’ was a red rag, and merely to mention it was grounds for firing off a letter without bothering to look at the book. In some ways, not much has changed. Like style, façade remains a word to be spoken with reservation if at all in architectural company – there is no index entry for it in the nearly 1500 pages of the new two-volume Banister Fletcher’s Global History of Architecture.
The old world of historical styles stretching back to the Renaissance that modernism was committed to unseating certainly dealt generously in facades. Even prior to that, the west fronts of cathedrals aimed to create the maximum impact of sculpture and ornament, colourfully painted, concealing rather than revealing the awkward shape of the basilica cross-section behind them. Deception has always been endemic to the activity of façade-making – sticking columns, pilasters and other ornaments on the building, mixing the functional and the purely representational. Historically, a façade can be not just a picture-book with sculpture, painting tiles or plaster but also a billboard for crypto-politics (as Christine Stevenson’s The City and the King explains in relation to Restoration London). The alternative model for façades is reticence and restraint, and the difference could be described as that between the Platonic (striving for an ever-purer image of truth without language) and the Aristotelian (inclusive, informative, symbolic). For a Platonist, façades merely dress up, tells lies and show off in the street.
Historically these modes interweave, but we tend to accord higher status to Platonic examples through time, hence the broad consensus that in façades, less is more, culminating in the tabula rasa of Modernism. Even when the tabula rasa approach was at its height, however, there were dissenters. In Norton Juster’s children’s fable, The Phantom Tolbooth, published in 1962 at the height of the glass curtain-wall fashion, his character Milo travels to a city in a parallel universe where the buildings are invisible. A resident explains that the citizens were so busy walking fast and looking down that ‘the buildings grew fainter and fainter, and the streets faded away, and at last a very strange thing began to happen. Because nobody cared, the city slowly began to disappear.’ Once the architects stop giving us a reason for looking, the buildings might as well not be there.
The so-called ‘New London Vernacular’ is our latest ‘subjunctive’ mode, characterised by grid patterns of windows in deep brick surrounds
Since the 1960s, things have changed and arguably for the better, but architects a still obsessed with eliminating any kind of projection at the wall head that might resemble a cornice left their clients with problems of rain streaking down, while absence of depth or projection leaves no opportunity for sun shading and the pleasure of seeing light and shade adding to the existing modulation of a façade is proscribed. Crushing boredom can, admittedly, come in many forms of dress, classical architecture not excepted, but there is a line of argument, promoted in research by three young German architects in 1973 that façades could best be understood in terms of the then-emerging field of information theory. One member of the team, Adrian von Buttlar, describes how ‘we felt that the old categories of preservation-arguments about artistic value etc. would not match the aggressive gentrification-processes [replacing older decorative façades with plainer ones] and thus we learned more about semiotics, information theory (Eco etc.) urban social psychology.’ In that science-minded age, such a semblance of objectivity could be a valuable way to reinforce a common shared perception (common, perhaps, among almost everyone except architects), that any form of interest on the face of a building is welcome. Von Buttlar and his colleagues even devised a mathematical formula for the ideal number of repeating elements and the frequency of their repetition, and their work was published in Germany and in the Architectural Review, where Charles Jencks commended ‘a renewed interest in buildings as something seen, as distinct from a mere envelope in which something is done.’
Lost in the argument between Plato and Aristotle is a middle position, in which the façade could be said to sing a wordless song, abstract in the sense of avoiding specific significance, yet still eloquent in manner. Sir William Chambers wrote in the 1790s about how the small variations in a design ‘may be compared, to those excited by the energy or graces of language in poetry; by the shakes, swells, inflections, and other artifices of the instrument, or voice in music; which give sentiment and expression to the performance.’ This was also the argument of the German-American architect and planner, Werner Hegemann who wrote in Facades of Buildings, 1929, that architects should ‘seriously to consider their design [of earlier buildings of all styles] and … train the eye to appreciate their qualities.’ Meaning, so avidly sought after in the present time, is less important than performance skill. Many of the most celebrated works of western architecture were created on this basis, but we have apparently forgotten not only how to make them but why they could hold such potential for expression, ‘capable to hold firm the flux of feelings’, as Adrian Stokes put it in the 1930s.
The ancient Greeks seem to have understood how the human eye derives pleasure from the narrowest of shadow lines or projecting fillets in contrasting tones, which although apparently insignificant, somehow set the whole composition alight. It is not much recognized how this precision was revived by architects working in the 1950s and 60s who had been trained in traditional techniques of drawing and composition, including shading elevation drawings to reveal the low-relief of recesses and projections. Façades of this period are rapidly disappearing and although not all are of high quality, there is much to learn from their ability to provide an unobtrusive but visually satisfying background. Take as an example Nos.178-80 Piccadilly, on the corner of Duke Street by the little-known Shaw & Lloyd, 1960-2. ‘Plain, stone-faced’ says the Pevsner Buildings of England, but there is a careful quality in the repetitions and the patterning of glazing bars and spandrel panels within the window openings, the whole mass relieved and related to the neighbouring building heights by the dark ‘flash gap’ recess towards the top, with its original gold mosaic lettering.
Facades can be divided historically between those that reveal the loadbearing character of the front wall through the combination of materials and their structurally-determined shapes, and those that perform what John Summerson called ‘subjunctive architecture’, giving an ‘as if’ impression of structure. Modern architecture, while aspiring to the first, more often delivered the second. It is still possible at times to make the façade into a structural element, exposing different materials and showing how they carry the load, thus removing some of the apparent arbitrariness involved in other forms of decorative design. This tectonic treatment of the building envelope was a reaction against the blandness of curtain wall façades, a speciality of William Whitfield, as you see if you look upwards at his polygonal tower building above Pimlico tube station (1980-83), and Michael Hopkins whose intervention at Bracken House, Canon Street, 1992, used load-bearing cast iron to merge Victorian and High Tech.
The so-called ‘New London Vernacular’ is our latest ‘subjunctive’ mode, characterised by grid patterns of windows in deep brick surrounds, offers some attempts at more individual character. The brickwork may be made in panels offsite, although when carefully used it looks convincingly load-bearing. Fletcher Priest’s recent building, The Caxton, Buckingham Green, Westminster, 2019, goes a stage further, with precast 3D brick diaper patterning, as if cut from a sheet of paper or fabric without adjusting to the window openings. This is a currently fashionable mode in a variety of materials, but when repeat patterns are computer-cut in low relief, they seldom have much intrinsic interest and simply look irritating. For a master-class in projecting brick patterning, go a short distance to the corner of Vincent Square, at H. S. Goodhart-Rendel’s Westminster Kingsway College (1957).
Such is the fear of the façade inherited from Modernism that forms associated with classicism are avoided or caricatured, while the committed classicists seldom seem able to use them with the subtlety of even mid-range Georgian or Victorian designers, let alone the masters such as Robert Adam (the eighteenth century one) or Charles Robert Cockerell, who in 1849 noted that ‘the beauty of a fine stone requires little ornament if the stones are laid in fine proportion.’ Although on opposite sides of the ‘Battle of the Styles’, Cockerell had much in common in this respect with John Ruskin, who in The Stones of Venice coined the term ‘wall veil’ to describe the quality of rock strata mirrored metaphorically in the use of different coloured materials.
Ruskin’s spirit lived on in unexpected places. The former St Martin’s School of Art, now Foyles Bookshop (E. P. Wheeler of London County Council, 1939), was revealed when it was cleaned recently to be a subtle blend of materials textures and echoes of past styles combined with huge studio windows on top. It is a relevant model for today, but its new neighbour, Ilona House, on the site of the old Foyle’s, by MATT Architecture applies boringly repetitive computer-cut patterning to its pink façade panels, with similarly vacuous patterning on its black elements, all at an inflated scale. If this is the best we can do, give me back the glass curtain wall. The clients and the planners must have liked it, which somehow adds to the agony.
There are other more encouraging exemplars on offer, however. Coloured glazed faience, seen in Eric Parry’s 50 New Bond Street and 14 George Street, 2009, and DSDHA’s flatiron building in South Molton Street of 2012, reward rather than repelling further attention, having been carefully thought out by their architects without the easy option of computerised surface patterning.
On the other hand, it is possible to ignore the moralising entirely and simply let rip. John Outram was a pioneer in the uninhibited use of colour and decoration in the 1980s, although not often enough allowed out to play – look at his project for 200 Victoria Street on his website. Before such an example, I experience a mixture of hope that someone might get a chance to make our streets colourful and exciting, and fear at the consequences if it were attempted in the wrong hands. The best way of ensuring a brighter future in our streets is to study and criticise, and not be afraid to speak the forbidden word façade.