1967, the birth of BPN and the curtain wall is king. The building boom is well underway and the sky is the limit for imagination and technology. The State Office block is completed at a height of 600 ft (183m) following such wonderful buildings as the AMP Building and the IBM Centre.

Although multi-storeyed buildings had been built in both Sydney and Melbourne from about 1955, with the first freestanding building being the MLC building in North Sydney built in 1957, it was the AMP building in Sydney, built in 1962 and designed by Peddle Thorp and Walker which was the first to challenge the 150 ft (45m) height limit which had been in place since 1912. In 1964 the IBM Centre was completed to a height of 243 ft (74m) on a 26 ft (8m) podium. It was the second essentially freestanding skyscraper in the Sydney CBD, designed by Stephenson and Turner Architects.

By 1967 the face of Sydney and architecture was changed forever and we began thinking of buildings in terms of a façade being a separate entity from the building inside and Australia as a thriving international country. In 2007 advertisements for façade engineers make it quite clear that there is good business in the construction of façades that is a direct descendant of the innovations of curtain walling. Façade conservation has become a discipline in its own right with work on buildings such as Harry Seidler’s MLC Tower and the Australia Square Tower among many others around the world. The work to Alvar Aalto’s Finlandia Hall has caused a lot of debate and a rethink about how cladding panels behave and the longevity of fixing systems.

The façade as separate from the building was not a new concept, however, and historically there are many examples of buildings with a street frontage which bore only a passing similarity to the building behind, often referred to in the early part of the 20th century as the ‘Queen Anne front and the Mary Anne back’. It was quite common to have good quality face bricks and decoration to the front and common bricks unadorned to the sides and rear.

This desire to make a simple building look grander is a long tradition. Many 19th century Australian buildings were built in brick and rendered and ruled to make them look like ashlar cut stone blocks. Terraced houses throughout Sydney still display this. Using cast iron façades to simulate a grander material and construction dates back to the early 19th century and it wasn’t uncommon for the simulated stone blocks to be painted in light stone colours. Many country towns boasted elaborate frontages not only in simulated stone but sometimes in brick, stone and timber and often parapeted, displaying a much grander front than the building behind.

It perhaps was inevitable that as the post war period developed and pressure to develop and grow increased that developers and conservationists began to look at a possible compromise: keep the front and change the rest. This became known as façadism which is generally defined to be the practice of renovating, or adding to, an old building by leaving its front and demolishing the rest.

Façadism has a bad reputation in conservation circles after a spate of ‘additions’ to historic buildings across the world which only left the façade looking lost and out of place. One of Sydney’s ‘best’ examples of this is the former North British Hotel in Loftus Street which is now literally a front wall and a verandah looking like it has been pasted on the front of a concrete and glass tower which also accommodates the block next door. The North British Hotel had been built sometime between 1848 and 1851 and once had a curved corner bay addressing a lane. It had ‘restrained classical decorative mouldings including bracketed architraves’. Before this exercise in retention, the building had its original stone cellar with fireplace and the ground floor façade and interior had been altered.

As part of the new development the ground floor façade was reconstructed with considerable conjecture and the building behind removed. The verandah was constructed in cast aluminium to resemble an earlier version. It caused consternation when it happened in 1984 and prompted many a discussion about the appropriateness of just keeping the front. Perhaps the saddest part of this example is that the developer got bonus floor space in the new building for the retention and ‘restoration’ of the façade. Walking past today, one longs to put the former hotel out of its misery.

Older buildings can provide enormous opportunities to a creative architect and reuse and retention are fundamental aspects of sustainability. The difficulty comes when battles to save the buildings considered important leave the places marooned without context and overwhelmed by their additions and new context. The history of a façade being considered quite different from the back is long. The advent of modern thinking about buildings considering the frame and the façade as separate elements has taken firm root. The beauty and creativity of many older buildings and what they represent to us is hard to see diminished.

John Ruskin and William Morris urged us to let the old go rather than distort history. The real question is how much should be kept and how not to make a mockery of the past and while doing so making a mockery of the present.