“The most beautiful makeup of a woman is passion. But cosmetics are easier to buy.”  Yves Saint Laurent

Heritage is this winter’s topic and there is nothing more chilling than facadism: that’s the requirement from heritage experts for an existing façade to be kept in the front of a new building. It kills both buildings. Let’s call it for what it is: putting on a grave face.

Architecture is space, not face; contained, not container. It is contrary to every tenet of good design to needlessly divorce the exterior and interior, and arbitrarily connect the carapace of one period to the content of another. Nevertheless, it is still being demanded.

This is an increasingly common site in contemporary architecture: the façade of an old, usually 19th century building being retained to ‘provide continuity’. It does nothing of the sort: it distorts the building behind terribly, squeezing it into an unconvincing form, popping out the sides and top like an overdone muffin.

Not only does it contort the plan and form, worse still, the structure required to hold up said ‘heritage façade’ whilst the rest is demolished increases the costs alarmingly. Heritage demands are forcing clients to spend good money on a bad idea, with a worse outcome, contrary to all the principles of the triple bottom line of sustainability.

Design is increasingly focusing on minimising demolition: the loss of space and the waste it creates. Far better outcomes would be derived if the first or second row of original spaces were required to be kept, and only then would the new work be added. But that would require better heritage records and listings, and more cogent arguments from heritage consultants.

That we continue to see facadism is a failure by heritage experts in two ways: not setting up a sensible register, and then not having the professional sophistication to enforce it. As this series has highlighted, far too much time is wasted in house-to-house combat, whilst major civic, public and commercial buildings are lost.

An extraordinary story. The new building is accommodation for University of Sydney students, on six-lane City Road in Darlington. It used to be St Michaels Chapel of the Resurrection, a delightful modernist Catholic chapel from the 1960s, with shared rooms for students attached. The new building was approved to demolish the worthy modernist building, and construction begins.

Which is where things go weird. It turns out that St Michaels was built around and over a large 19th C house That was still there, but nobody knew. As the builders uncovered the remains of the house a stop-work notice is issued and a modification to the consent is made to retain the facade of the house, reinstating the veranda and adding detailing from records and extant site archeology.

The farcical nature of this requirements is there for all to see. Rather than set the new building behind the old chapel, we now have a ‘Disneyfied’ trinket virtually swallowed by the building all around. It beggars belief that a Council that prides itself on ‘design excellence’ could require such a stupidity to proceed.

It’s almost as if the building itself knows it’s wrong: the old house, made from ‘traditional techniques and materials’, as is so often required, is weathering far worse than the more robust materials of the enclosing contemporary buildings.

Once upon a time there was a warehouse building, with Art Deco detailing, on this very busy corner. It’s now occupied by a ‘drive-thru Maccas’. The surrounding area has been gentrified into apartments on the brownfield sites, all required to build to a frontage as an urban wall (as required in designs by us to the north and south of this site).

But not a fast-food joint. Oh no. They’re only required to keep a small portion of the original, with no connection to the demolished building, and then they can build at the rear of the site, leaving a car-park as a disconnection in the streetscape.

Any decent urban designer and heritage architect would have got their heads together to figure out how to encourage, or pressure, the designers to reinforce the street wall, to redevelop the first part of the original and convert it into suitable spaces for the ‘restaurant’, and then push the carpark away from the streets, behind the building, rather than in front.

That would be a real heritage - use it as a guide to the continuity of urban form and context, and not leave some daggy steel frame to represent what was lost, surmounted by their goofy free-standing sign. Until heritage architects take their precious position sensibly, and forthrightly, we will be condemned to keeping phony facades as a pastiche of the past.

Tone Wheeler is an architect / the views expressed are his.

Heritage - putting on a grave face. Tone on Tuesday 174. 8 August 2023 (week 32).

Long columns are Tone on Tuesday. Short shots are in A&D Another Thing every Friday.

You can contact TW at [email protected]