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The Vacuum Issue 9 spacer Issue 9
Facade Retention
by Mark Hackett
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Façade Retention is the removal and renewal of a building's innards - its walls, columns, floors - whilst retaining its original front or outer walls. A sort of architectural taxidermy service for buildings you might say. We can retain a quaint (if rotten) Victorian building on the outside and stuff it full of anything desired, a 750 space multi-storey car park say. (currently proposed for the North Street Arcade and surrounds) Of course the original integrity of a building becomes unimportant in this activity and developers often see the opportunity for sneaking in an extra floor or two and filling all the holes. (wasteful holes here meaning healthy light and air giving courtyards) None of this activity need unduly worry anyone it seems. In this retentive world view the idea of a window, a wall and a floor lining up is not imperative. In fact the need for that quaint stone edged sashed window to open, to have real glass or to lend a view is irrelevant. A window that might have given good light to a traditional room for a 100 years might now give light to an office for 100 people, or a toilet, or to the back end of a staircase! To the casual passerby and the unthinking variety of postmodern Planner little has really changed in the retained facade. The building will look back at you with a black glassy eye that never brinks, never moves - because it's dead.
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Look at the neo classical church portico on Donegal Square East (pictured right), hardly an example of fine stonework or proportion, it was listed and retained by Planning Service to be surrounded by the office building that looms over it. The developer obviously asked the Planners for additional floors because they were going to the expense of retaining this fragment and using expensive stone and detail on their new building. The portico has become an object of visual ridicule, seemingly frozen in the act of being taken from behind, all in public view for coming generations to smirk at. When I'm as dead as this portico, please bury me.
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What's the problem? Sure, didn't most architects bottle out and produce a Disneysque (Dickensian!) world of badly proportioned neo Victorian buildings in the 1980's and 1990's, a city of 10 storey Bungalows. (what's the difference between rural Tyrone and Belfast ? - answer - eight and a half floors) In this world of roof dormers, glued on plastic pediments and fake arches wouldn't it be better to just keep the original frontages in the first place? Given much of the development in Belfast and Laganside over the last 20 years I might well agree. (in a moment of shame and embarrassment for our city).
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So are we to consign ourselves (and more importantly our children) to this fake world? Would we accept a world where all computer and car innovation was arbitrarily ceased? where all food production is given over to goo that looks like real food, where buildings become endless dark floors of office space and parking lots edged by façade retention, where you walk along a street and you're never sure which fake Victorian PVC window might actually have a real person behind it. Too much façade retention will definitely be a bad thing, a place where you'll never be sure what's real, a place where you'll never really know what era something is from - but it will all be vaguely 1890 because that's the current vogue for those in power who claim to know what they think we want. It will be a place ironically without history. It's a place I hope my children will knock down if I don't get around to it!
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Belfast still lacks the confidence and commitment to support real architecture, where buildings can be designed to be bright, naturally ventilated, healthy spaces that require little energy and that are built well enough to be loved and cherished by our great grandchildren. If a building is good enough, it will be good enough to be maintained and renewed throughout it's life, the odd new kidney or liver so to speak - not gutting and stuffing.
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If we truly cared about our beloved Victorian city we'd start maintaining it at all levels, we'd force and/or encourage building owners to take care of buildings of all eras. We'd stop allowing half of it (usually the better bits) to be knocked down to provide ever more car parks and ring roads because we're too sissy to walk, cycle or get on the bus. We'd stop knocking down terraced streets until we start coming up with some better solution than 2 storey suburban housing. We'd demand that all those who make decisions about our city must actually live and work in it. And we wouldn't be afraid to start again.
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Note: Mark Hackett is actually from rural Tyrone.
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www.hackett-hall.com
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