I lived in St. John’s, NL, early in the “development vs. heritage” debate that keeps so many cities up at night; but I recognized it as the beginning only after moving to Halifax, NS, a city in the thick of it.

Facadism is a popular buzzword in areas with identifiable heritage districts. Usually taken to mean the retention of a heritage building’s street-front but little else, the original facade is propped up while a new building is erected behind or inside it. The practice may preserve the streetscape in a literal sense, but it shows only skin-deep concern for conservation.

If the solution were easy there wouldn’t be a debate. The ideal resolution for many (and for myself, at the moment) would be to preserve and repurpose heritage buildings, making creative interventions and sensitive densifying additions where possible. Unfortunately, a city’s development is often dictated by those who see heritage in terms of bottom line and public image, and who view design as superfluous. A culture and construction industry which makes it much more expensive to use an existing structure than to build a new one doesn’t help.

I first encountered facadism in Halifax last year after reading an article in Spacing Atlantic. Two of the projects mentioned are photographed above, the Barrington Espace at the top right and the Waterside Centre at the bottom left. I agree with the author that the first makes a nice addition but  I believe more forcibly that the second is a failure, both of design and conservation. Not pictured are the faux-heritage infill additions that allow entrance to the parking garage. When heritage facades are used for literal window-dressing it looks less like respect and more like appeasement.

For Newfoundland and for St. John’s, where I hope to return to work one day, I would like to see citizens and the government tackle the issue head-on. A proactive plan that doesn’t see development as inherently destructive and heritage as an impediment would go a long way to ensuring healthy city development and good city design.


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