Photo by Taller, Better at Skyscraper City.
If you walk down the boutique-laden streets of Yorkville, you may notice a turn-of-the-century building in a Georgian revival style. The building at 100 Yorkville was the birthplace of the eminent Mount Sinai Hospital, built in the 1930s as a maternity and convalescence ward. Much homier than its current giant box on University Avenue, this yellow brick building has a symmetrical dignity rarely seen in contemporary architecture.
But when you look closer, you realize that the three-storey structure is only a metre thick. There is no building: it’s little more than a brick wall sticking out of the ground.
What remains of 100 Yorkville is an example of façadism: the architectural practice of demolishing everything but the front façade of an old building, to which a newer, usually larger building is attached. Like the false fronts used in old Hollywood Westerns, what’s left of the original structure is nothing more than a skin. In the case of 100 Yorkville, the building has been gutted to make way for (what else?) a condo. Behind its windows, still eerily furnished with drapes, lies a deep pit that will soon become underground parking. When construction is complete, the former Mount Sinai hospital will be the historical hood ornament for Bellair Condominiums.
Façadism tends to occur when a historically or culturally significant building is threatened with demolition. Often, façadism allows a compromise between developers and preservationists—it retains some aspect of the historical structure while still allowing the city to grow and evolve. But for many preservationists, façadism is at best a hollow gesture, a bone thrown to the city by developers to stave off criticism––or worse, construction delays.
Façadism is sometimes the only option to save a structure in a rapidly growing city, but too often the result is a mockery of preservation. The popularity of Doors Open, an annual event that allows Torontonians to explore the interiors of heritage buildings, suggests that people respect and wish to engage with their city’s past. Preservationists want historical buildings to endure beyond their makers’ lifetimes as testaments to their aspirations and aesthetics. In contrast, façadism tends to treat cultural treasures as sentimental wallpaper.
In Toronto, the practice of façadism may have arisen from the Ontario Heritage Act in 1975, which gave municipalities the power to designate sites as historically or culturally significant. If developers wanted to build on one of these sites, they had to obtain permits before they could continue. Until recently, however, the Heritage Act had been largely toothless; the city did not have the power to refuse to issue a permit, only to delay it for a 180-day period. In 2005, the Act was amended to allow municipalities to refuse permits to developers. Still, refusals can be appealed to the Ontario Municipal Board (OMB), which almost always sides with the developers.
So why do developers turn to façadism if heritage designations are little more than delay tactics? Because they are encouraged to do so by the city. Although international charters are very clear that façadism is in no way an act of preservation (which requires “the retention of the existing form, material, and integrity of [the] site”), very often the Toronto Preservation Board‘s heritage designations cover the façade and little else. Developers save what is covered in the listing report, fully adhering to the city’s definition of “heritage friendliness.”
Façadism cannot be treated simplistically in either positive or negative terms, and there has never been a clear heritage consensus on its practice. Some see developers as making clever and adaptive re-use of an otherwise doomed building through façadism, while to others, it is a crass marketing ploy to cash in on a historical building’s appeal while retaining only its most superficial details.
Stay tuned next week for examples of façadism throughout the downtown core.