Every building has a forecasted lifespan, and inscribed in its very construction is the slow process of failure and eventual collapse. The scaffolding thus appears before the irretrievable ruin and catches this moment, stretches it in time, holds it in a state of least resistance.[1]

Softwood planks, positioned perpendicularly against the massive steel framework, press firmly against the masonry. Alongside them, threaded rods, passing through now empty window reveals, pull a third plank back against the inside surface of the now free-standing façade, resisting the impulse to collapse. The inside, now outside, face of the façade is lined with delicately applied felt and batten, as if dressings applied to a wound. What was there before, now manifestly absent, the old building’s frame and infill, its contents and histories, has been eviscerated.

The steel frame itself, a kind of catafalque, is weighted down by massive, plinth-shaped concrete ballasts, which belie the apparently inert state of suspension in which the façade finds itself. Dumb, impenetrable counterweights set in opposition to the now fragile construction. The frame is smaller, no doubt, than its opposite, the internal concrete or steel frame that used to support this façade – which it now ghosts. It is a remainder, a reduced, distilled version of its forebear, and an antecedent of the frame that will, in time, come to support this façade again. It has an in built obsolescence, its demise a scheduled date in the construction programme, a fate which the masonry, plaster and stonework that it now holds up seem to have escaped.

Retained 3 small

The entire precarious assembly is a diagram of forces: the obvious physical forces which are required to keep this spectacle standing, but also the economic, political and social forces that desire that this should be so. Rem Koolhaas, in his typically polemical fashion, destabilises the apparently oppositional relationship between the forces of preservation and modernity:

… preservation is not the enemy of modernity but actually one of its inventions.[2]

The retained façade does not function as a nostalgic totem. We can only be nostalgic for something that no longer exists – this does, even if in a changed form. And yet, why is it there, why is it kept? Seen in the context of a rapidly transforming London, large parts of which have changed beyond recognition in the last ten years, this approach has come to act as a kind of environmental drag, a balm that slows the perception of change if not the change itself. It is an aggregation, an accumulation of loosely fitting masks. The approach to the retained fragment speaks more to the contemporary condition than it does to the historic ones under which it was produced. As Linda Nochlin notes, the ways in which fragments of buildings and statuary destroyed during the French Revolution were imagined was fundamentally about reconstituting the present:

The fragment, for the Revolution and its artists, rather than symbolising nostalgia for the past, enacts the deliberate destruction of that past, or, at least, a pulverisation of what were perceived to be its repressive traditions.[3]

The incorporation of existing fragments of buildings into new hybrid constructions is hardly a novel idea, and a number of seminal projects continue to shape the way in which we might think about the proposition. Gottfried Böhm at Bensberg, Peter Zumthor at Kolumba and more recently, Witherford Watson Mann with the Stirling Prize winning Astley Castle demonstrate that the fragment need not be dealt with reverentially, nor even gently – and that existing and new elements can and indeed should be drawn into formal, aesthetic and historical dialogues. These are, however, largely projects in which the fragments are inherited, rather than created in the process of redeveloping the site. In projects where this is the case, the dialogue is, more often than not, forced, stilted and in some cases entirely non-existent.

A well-known and perhaps even notorious example of the type is the student housing at 465 Caledonian Road in London, where the retention appears to be a riposte, a deeply cynical overture to planning and heritage legislation. Here, the retained façade stands entirely free, only one meter proud of the new building that it fronts, held in place by nothing more than gravity and a series of metal struts. The floor levels and windows of the new building are out of alignment with the existing window reveals, such that the outlook of many of the new spaces is onto a blank wall. Examples such as this have led preservation and heritage campaigners to be increasingly suspicious of the motivations and intentions of developers and their architects, and ever more vocal and organised in their resistance to developments such as Norton Folgate in Spitalfields, which appear to be using retention strategies. This is in spite of the fact that a number of highly regarded architects are attached to the scheme.

This is not so much a new kind of building as one conceived within a new space in which the value of the historical fragment is determined in terms of its amenity. This seems both a profoundly narrow and somehow utterly contemporary conception – this is a fragment of a very modern kind. It is the collateral damage of a flattening of discourse which considers the city and its components primarily in terms of their market value. Under these conditions, history has no value for its own sake and there is no sense of continuity with it despite the attempt to forge pieces of buildings from very different time periods together. One is left merely with extreme adjacency. An almost existential failure of the imagination, cases such as 465 Caledonian Road beg the question of what has been lost; not just materially, but also in terms of the way in which our hollowed out discourse has drastically constrained the buildings, public spaces and cities that otherwise might have been.

Thinking through the idea of a building composed of fragments which not only enter into dialogue with each other but also the wider civic space into which they are inserted might begin to offer us ways out of this cultural and intellectual impasse. Pier Vittorio Aureli, considering Andrea Palladio’s reimagining of the Palazzo della Ragione as Vicenza’s Basilica, writes:

The irregular structure of the existing building was absorbed by varying the length of the lintel without altering the arches. The building was thus conceived as a didactic display of the orders and their ability to support, correct, and mask the existing irregular gothic structure.[4]

In this case, Palladio constructed a new classically ordered façade around an irregular gothic hall in which the new skin establishes a dialogue with the existing structure. At first glance the classical order dominates the façade, in which the regular, repetitive rhythm of arches, lintels and columns is foregrounded, but on closer inspection it becomes apparent that the spacing of the arches is attenuated to align with the existing structure behind. This strikes a balance between the desire for a clear demonstration of the classical orders and integration with the irregular structure behind, but also renegotiates the buildings’ civic presence, reinventing it as a classical building type worthy of the designation.

The approach taken at Astley Castle is not dissimilar. Here, new insertions not only redeem and stabilise the ruin, redrawing relationships between fragments and authoring a new dialogic narrative between them, but also create an entirely contemporary reimagining of the site in the guise of an ‘unusually light castle’[5]. In seeing retained buildings, fragments and indeed spaces as materials in their own right – as opposed to simply tokens of amenity value – it becomes possible for them to be actively, rather than passively engaged in the creation of new buildings in and around them. Under the extreme and contradictory pressures of preservation and development in cities such as London, this engagement has never been more urgent.


[1] Condorelli, Céline, p43, Support Structures, Sternberg Press, 2009

[2] Koolhaas, Rem, ‘Preservation is Overtaking Us’, in Future Anterior, Volume 1, Number 2, Fall 2004

[3] Nochlin, Linda, The Body in Pieces: The Fragment as a Metaphor of Modernity, p8, Thames and Hudson, United Kingdom, 1994

[4] Pier Vittorio Aureli, Andrea Palladio and the Project of an Anti-Ideal City, pp 53-54, in The Possibility of an Absolute Architecture, MIT Press, Cambridge Massachusetts, 2011.

[5] http://www.wwmarchitects.co.uk/subpage/public_buildings/astley_castle.php?view=pb