Facades: A Fine Line Between Pleasure and Pain

Is the tide of facadism on the rise again across Australia’s development landscape?

Well, it is definitely lapping higher ground on the shores of the once sleepy Redcliffe peninsula north of Brisbane.

Amended plans have been filed for a mixed-use project to incorporate the facade of a century-old theatre that was initially slated for complete demolition to make way for the development.

The proposed redevelopment of the landmark Pier Theatre site spanning 2500sq m at 115-131 Redcliffe Parade comprises a 12-storey tower with 82 apartments above retail space and a food and beverage outlet.

Given the green light more than a decade ago, its approval subsequently has been extended twice with a council decision on a freshly submitted application for a third extension pending.

The inclusion of the existing theatre facade into the design as part of a “minor” change application was a condition of any further request for an extension of the approval currency period beyond March 18 this year.

Moreton Bay Regional Council advised the developer Peninsula Theatres its existing design approach was “not sufficient to comply with the expectations” of the current planning scheme.

The revised plans also follow considerable community backlash against the proposed demolition of the historic theatre, including a plea from the Redcliffe Historical Society to save the facade as it “represents 93 years of film-going by the sea”.

The original Redcliffe Picture Palace opened on the site in 1917. After a fire in 1943, the theatre was rebuilt with a brick facade. It closed about 1970 and has since been partially demolished, leaving the portion of the building fronting Redcliffe Parade still standing.

‘Fake heritage’

Facadism, the contentious architectural practice of conserving a building’s facade while constructing a new structure behind it, became a popular trend in the 1980s.

Its critics describe it as “fake heritage” that, if done poorly, creates soulless “architectural Frankensteins”. But on the other hand it is argued that, if done correctly, it is “an effective bridge between the old and the new”.

In more recent times, it has re-emerged as an integral aspect of developments in major cities where the focus has shifted to adaptive re-use and infill densification.

Pier Theatre facade
The Pier Theatre facade as it is today, left, and two historical images of the theatre in its heyday.

Former Queensland government architect Phillip Follent says facadism has its place but it should be a last resort if a building cannot be saved and requires “a deft architectural hand”.

“There are a lot of examples where it’s been done so badly that it’s probably better that they didn’t try,” he says.

“In many cases, it is clearly almost a stage set prop rather than a genuine retention of the most important aspects of what might have been the fabric of the building or the architecture.

“But sometimes these places just can’t be saved and all you’re really looking for is something that retains a marker of a place where certain things happened, whether it was social or political or whatever.

“To that end, it can be important to use, if you like, aspects of the facade … it may be the only way in which the history of the site can be marked and, therefore, it has a place to play there.”

He cites Brisbane’s Myer Centre, where several heritage facades facing Queen Street were retained, and the Gold Coast’s famed Pink Poodle Motel, which was demolished but the facade reinstated as an architectural marker in the new high-rise development, as successful local examples.

“In those instances, the saving of the facades of those buildings was really valuable … but it does come back to very clever architectural resolution so that the scale of the new part doesn’t just overwhelm.”

Sections of the facade on the Myer Centre in the Queens Street Mall, Brisbane.
▲ Sections of the facade on the Myer Centre in the Queens Street Mall, Brisbane.

According to a planning report, the revised plans for the Redcliffe Pier Theatre site sought to comply with council’s expectations as well as “maintain reasonable overall expectations of the local residents and of visitors”.

It noted the public interest of its “endeavours taken in seeking to achieve facade retention (in the absence of any overt heritage designations or impositions) and the introduction of a publicly accessible cross-site link”.

A design statement from architect Dr Noel Robinson said the updated proposal featuring the historic facade was a modern contemporary design that would “become a landmark in its own right”.

Historial marker

“This icon will provide a historic marker and reference for the site’s identity as well as providing legibility in the townscape for the community and visitors well into the future,” he said.

“[The site at] 115 to 131 Redcliffe Parade presents a unique opportunity to develop an exemplary piece of architecture on a singularly large landholding on the Redcliffe peninsula overlooking the suburb’s amenity of Moreton Bay and Moreton Island.”

A report on the facade condition added: “Notwithstanding the signs of wear and tear, the wall is in reasonable condition for its age and with some attention to remediation could be considered as a serviceable building element within a conventional mixed use type facility”.

In a New York Times article published in the mid-1980s, facadism was described as “a frequent means of detente between preservationists and developers”.

“For facadism holds out a great temptation—it seems, on the surface, to give both sides what they want. The small, older buildings valued by preservationists appear to be saved, while the large new ones developers seek can still be built,” it said.

“But while facadism pretends to a certain earnestness, it is at bottom rather pernicious.

“For the compromise it represents is not really preservation at all.

“To save only the facade of a building is not to save its essence; it is to turn the building into a stage set, into a cute toy intended to make a skyscraper more palatable. And the street becomes a kind of Disneyland of false fronts.”

The comments are as relevant today as they were back then, says Follent, who has also held positions as the Gold Coast’s first City Architect and head of Bond University’s Abedian School of Architecture.

“It’s so true,” he says. “It can end up just being an opportunity to make these new projects more palatable … and therein lies the danger.”

Article source: www.theurbandeveloper.com