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Is the Best of Façadism its Worst?

Posted by Johnine Larsen on December 31, 2018
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Port Authority building in Antwerpen, Belgium

Façadism combines old and new. It’s an architectural practices that preserves part of a historic building and incorporates it into a new, larger structure. There’s no attempt to imitate the historic style in the new construction—the contrast between old and new is the point.

Sometimes architects and builders do this for safety reasons, other times for historic reasons, and still other times just for style. Let’s say a fire consumes most of old theater but spares the front and an exterior wall or two. Instead of leveling the whole thing and starting over, a builder keeps the undamaged parts and incorporates that into a new, contemporary building.

Apartment building in Tallinn, Estonia

Or, to comply with historic preservation laws, an architect might add a steel-and-glass building on top of an existing, early 20th-century brick building. This is exactly what happened here in Seattle with the Gridiron condos. The Gridiron consists of107 new condominiums in Pioneer Square, currently in development. It’s an eleven-story mass of concrete and steel, and beneath it, restored and preserved, sits the historic Seattle Plumbing Building.

Gridiron condos in Seattle, Washington

Other times, facadism happens for pure aesthetic reasons—an architect likes the contrast of old and new, and he picks a historic building and designs a new one on top of it. Depending on your taste, this can either be a magnificent or a horrible decision.

Controversy about facadism, in fact, might be its most defining feature. As to be expected, putting two very unlike things together tends to polarize people. Some call facadism ugly. Some say it vandalized historic structures. Some say it glorifies the past at the expense of a clean, new present.

CET building in Budapest, Hungary

On the other side, proponents of facadism argue that it looks beautiful, and the contrast between two styles lets architects design for both the past and their own time, instead of making an aesthetic compromise that doesn’t fit any era. Some people claim it preserves historic buildingsthat would otherwise be torn down completely. Andpeople say facadismrespects history while still allowing for growth, development, and affordable housing.

Certain city government encourage facadism, such as Toronto, Sydney and Brisbane, while others actively discourage it (including Paris and Melbourne). In Seattle, we’re still figuring what we want to do. Scroll down to see a few more examples of facadism in practice—and with that, you’ve learned a quick architectural lesson today!


Soldier Field in Chicago, Illinois


Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada


Carpenter’s Workshop in Tallinn, Estonia


Hearst Tower in New York City, New York


Bank of Canada in Ottawa, Canada


Glasshouse Hotel in Edinburgh, Scotland