Façadism: Not the Only Controversy in Architecture

In the simplest terms, façadism – also known as facadism – refers to when the front-facing exterior (façade) of a building is preserved, regardless of what happens to the remaining part of the structure.  For an example, let’s take this façade, located relatively near the sweets market in La Merced, Mexico City:

Mexico City might be a more nuanced place for facadism, if only because it is very prone to earthquakes.  Indeed, there could be any number of occurrences as to why a façade would be salvaged; among those, historical preservation, unique beauty, and and a state beyond repair for the rest of the building are some of the more common reasons.

The concept of facadism has been controversial for years, though has become much more so due to the skyrocketing real estate prices in such cities as New York, London, and Sydney.  Often availing of historic facades as a scapegoat for skyscraper projects that completely ignore the original building’s raison d’être, property developers are generally the last ones standing in a court battle with city officials and/or defiant communities.  To clarify, some of those facades might be on national lists of historic preservation, therefore cannot be bulldozed save for being in dangerous condition; that developers can do what they wish behind-the-scenes, so to speak, is just a facet of capitalism.

Egyptian Revival Façade of the former Pennsylvania Fire Insurance Company, now part of Penn Mutual Tower, Philadelphia, USA

Façadism isn’t always done distastefully; though highly subjective, I tend to think the Greek Revival example serving as the entrance to the American wing in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art is a standout.  But, if you tend to think it’s all an eyesore, you might be interested to know that there used to be a tongue-in-cheek award – the Carbuncle Cup -given out annually to the worst offender in the United Kingdom.

Now that we’ve learned a bit about facadism, I hypothesize that there are other aspects of architectural grievances that are overlooked, particularly in the face of tourism.  Namely, I am referring to Shiro Syndrome, a phrase that I originally concocted while traveling to Osaka, Japan in 2005.

Shiro Syndrome – in Japanese, shiro 城 means “castle” – refers to the reconstruction of castles (and temples, shrines, historic sites, etc.), frequently with contemporary materials.  This is not specific to Japan, but being that it’s one of my most-visited countries, I can’t help but think about it, and that one moment in Osaka that started it all:

Although construction started on the castle in 1583, due to a combination of domestic strife and lightning, the current ferro-concrete structure was finished in 1931.  Further repairs were completed in 1997, and an elevator was added soon after.

Which brings me to the question…do you think the present-day Osaka Castle should still be considered historic?

The same could be asked of many of the pagodas in Bagan, Myanmar:

Bagan, which was the seat of an eponymous kingdom between the 9th and 13th centuries, saw the construction of hundreds of pagodas during that time.  However, subsequent to a catastrophic earthquake in 1975, many pagodas were hastily renovated with modern technology; another earthquake in 2016 damaged many more extant pagodas, worrying historians and archeologists alike about how the repairs would be carried out.

Then, we have the truly unusual Kawasaki Warehouse, in Kawasaki, Japan, which closed late last year.

Directly inspired by long-destroyed Kowloon Walled City in Hong Kong
A feeble attempt at recreating Hong Kong’s Kowloon Walled City

The entire concept of the building was to capture the essence of Hong Kong’s infamous Kowloon Walled City, a massive ghetto which was finally razed in 1994.  If you’re curious about how it looked, the movie Bloodsport was allowed to film inside the labyrinthine Kowloon Walled City.


What is your opinion of façadism?  How would you compare it to the other two architectural topics mentioned above?

Kuwait Towers (أبراج الكويت)

Subsequent to the first export of Kuwaiti oil in 1946, Kuwait immediately began to modernize its infrastructure.  At the time, water was supplied to residents by tank trucks, which rapidly became ineffective due to the fast-growing population and development.

In order to tackle the issue of water distribution and storage, in 1965 the Ministry of Electricity and Water tasked Swedish architect Sune Lindström and his engineering firm VBB to design and construct a series of 31 water towers through Kuwait, centering on Kuwait City.

A controversial name, particularly if you’re from Iran (where it’s called the Persian Gulf)

However, in order to celebrate Kuwait’s burgeoning economic clout thanks to its petroleum industry and thus, rising prominence in region, the contract for the last water towers – to be built overlooking the Arabian Gulf, as the pièces de résistance of the Kuwaiti capital – was offered to Danish architect Malene Bjørn, wife of Sune Lindström.

Kuwait Towers, Kuwait City

Inaugurated on February 26th, 1977 and consisting mainly of reinforced concrete, the most prominent features of the pair of water towers are the three spheres, evoking historical Islamic aesthetics in their blue, green, and grey mosaics.

In total, there are three towers.  The smallest at 100 meters (~328 feet) stores a floodlight system for the complex.  The second, at 145. 8 meters (~478 feet), holds water inside its sole sphere.

Finally, the tallest tower, at 185 meters (~607 feet), comprises of a lower sphere that stores water, and a higher sphere which contains an observation deck and a restaurant.  I briefly visited Kuwait City in 2008, and owing to my enthusiasm for observation towers, took in a view of the sprawling desert capital:

Inside the observation deck at Kuwait Towers complex
View from the observation deck of the tallest of the Kuwait Towers complex
Staring down at the 2nd tower from the observation deck

A couple of interesting tidbits about the Kuwait Towers–

In 1980, at its inaugural ceremony, the Aga Khan Development Network bestowed upon Malene Bjørn one of its awards for architecture.  The awards – given triennially – are for architects and designers who have constructed meaningful and progressive structures in Muslim societies.

In 1990, when Iraq invaded Kuwait for its vast oil supply, even the observation deck wasn’t spared (there was a photo series covering the invasion at the deck):

A photo from when Iraq invaded Kuwait and launched artillery shells at the towers
Even the Air Conditioning Units weren’t spared

On a lighter note, between 2012 and 2016, the tallest tower, being the only one open to the public, underwent an extensive renovation.  It reopened in March 2016, and just three years later, hosted a Tedx event focusing on Kuwaiti technologists and young coders.

The Leaning Tower of Niles? (USA)

Did you know that the Leaning Tower was actually completed in 1934 as a way to conceal a water tank for swimming pools?

If you didn’t, then you’re not alone.  To be fair, I’m talking about the Leaning Tower of Niles, located in in the Illinois suburbs of Chicago.

In the 1920s, Robert Ilg, owner of the Ilg Hot Air Electric Ventilating Company of Chicago, opened a park – Ilgair Park – in Niles.  Soon after the park opened, he added two swimming pools for his employees; however, he didn’t want to completely ruin the area’s natural beauty.

So as to disguise the water towers, he decided to build a half-sized replica – in other words, 94 feet high, 28 feet in diameter, and leaning 7.4. feet – of the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy.  Bronze bells were even imported from 17th and 18th century churches in Italy. Construction began in 1931, and finished three years later.

Moon over the Leaning Tower of Niles

In 1960, part of Ilgair Park was donated for the construction of the Leaning Tower YMCA, with the understanding that the YMCA would pay a small amount annually for the upkeep of the tower.

In 1991, Niles formed a sister city relationship with Pisa, Italy, and in 1997, the Leaning Tower Plaza was dedicated in the park, replete with four fountains and a reflecting pool.  Notably, the Leaning Tower of Niles was designated a National Historic Landmark earlier this year, a first for Niles.

But, how does it compare with the Italian original, which was started in 1173 and completed in 1370?

Leaning Tower of Pisa, Italy (taken in 2007)

For starters, a lot less tourists.  But I’ve gotta give Italy the edge for pizza;)

The Neptunus Group Building, Shenzhen (China)

Recently, I came across an article from two months ago that mentioned how Chinese Leader Jinping Xi issued a decree limiting the construction of buildings >250 meters (~821 feet) tall, disallowing buildings > 500 meters (~1641 feet), and prohibiting copycat behavior – in architecture.

That article made me reflect on the architectural scene in China, and how I relish exploring its urban fabric in the hunt for the most bizarre structures exemplifying a combination of the modern vicissitudes of Chinese capitalism and tradition.  Whereas there are some real winners out in the mainland, I believe this one, located in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, also deserves a spot in the pantheon.

Neptunus Group Building (海王集团大厦, 中国深圳), Shenzhen, China, #1

Founded in Shenzhen in 1989, the Neptunus Group is a dominant player in the Chinese health and pharmaceutical industries; if you have visited China, you may have seen their Nepstar drugstore, the largest pharmacy chain in the country.  They have other skyscrapers throughout the city, but only this one merited a report.

You also might be wondering, what’s with the names?  The Chinese characters 海王 can be translated as Neptune, the Roman “god of fresh water,” and analogous to the Greek Poseidon.  Wouldn’t the name work better for a shipping company?  Also,  isn’t China officially atheist?  Hmmm.

Neptunus Group Building (海王集团大厦, 中国深圳), Shenzhen, China (2)
Neptunus Group Building (海王集团大厦, 中国深圳), Shenzhen, China (1)

If you, too would like to see Neptune riding through the façade of a Chinese skyscraper, it’s located in the Nanshan district of western Shenzhen.

Chinese Address: 深圳市南山区南海大道2225号海王大厦A座5层