Walking back downtown from the Bullitt Center in Seattle, I saw this building under construction and wondered, how did this totally ridiculous example of façadism happen, why anyone would even bother? I am fond of repeating the mantra “The greenest building is the one already standing” but this isn’t a building, it’s not even wallpaper, it’s exactly sixteen courses of brick sitting on posts. Having participated in many preservation battles in my Heritage is Green days I thought there must be a back story to this.
And indeed there is, as seen in an article by Knute Berger on Crosscut: Seattle’s facadism fetish makes fools of history & progress He wonders if Seattle’s history is becoming skin-deep. He quotes Virginia Woo of Historic Seattle:
Façadism is NOT preservation. It’s a design compromise between demolition and preservation that does not serve the original building or the new building behind the façade well. The result of façadism is often a strange hybrid building that does not meld the new and the old in a coherent manner.
Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0
There is a lot of demand for housing in Seattle, and one story high car dealerships are ripe for redevelopment. I get that. But one can do better than this. In the end, Berger isn’t so sure:
…façades are like ghosts, neither wholly of the old world or the new. True preservationists don’t like them, architects and developers often feel hampered by them, the public sometimes feels cheated by them, yet many would argue that façades are better than the total destruction alternatives, like a past that has been entirely erased.
Really? The cost of doing this ridiculous bit of so-called preservation, of underpinning and stabilizing and shoring and fixing and maintaining while excavation and construction is going on behind it is huge. The historic return on the investment is so small that you have to wonder why they bothered. That money could have been used to make a better, greener building instead of this charade of a façade.
Seattle is home to the Preservation Green Lab, which has actually quantified the environmental value of reusing buildings. They have demonstrated that building reuse almost always yields fewer environmental impacts than new construction when comparing buildings of similar size and functionality. Obviously a five story residential building is different than a one story car dealership and a lot more desirable, but surely Seattle deserves better than this.