The Hidden Architecture Behind 7 Deceiving Façades

Discover façades that provide false (and sometimes intentionally misleading) expectations for the architecture behind it.

Kaelan Burkett Kaelan Burkett

A building’s façade is often its greatest indicator of style, program and design. Many architects approach the façade as the thing that announces and summarizes their vision for a project. Yet some of today’s designers, in exploring the assumptions and conventions of our built environments, are reconsidering the purpose of a façade. The architects on this list take advantage of its symbolic and perceptual significance but treat it as an opportunity for theater and whimsy (and sometimes trickery).

These projects question whether or not a façade actually needs to have anything to do with what lies behind it. The motivations for this approach vary, but many are concerned with the relationship between a building and its surroundings, demonstrating attempts to preserve architectural coherence and uniformity of a community, as viewed from the street level. Many are older buildings, with extensively renovated interiors, whose façades are protected to maintain the structure’s historic character.

As a result, these projects are overwhelmingly found in established urban settings with well-defined and consistent aesthetics. The projects not only introduce many questions of our expectations of architecture, but also suggest opportunities for innovation and experimentation within these developed landscapes.

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The Ancient Church of Vilanova de la Barca, AleaOlea architecture & landscape, Vilanova de la Barca, Spain

The dramatic combination of designs within the Ancient Church of Vilanova de la Barca is the result of a thorough architectural palimpsest. In its 800-year history, the building had already been crafted in multiple styles, and almost completely destroyed, before AleaOlea began its project. The architects left what was still intact, filling in the rest of the original structure with bricks that conformed to the form and proportions of the original building while receiving a starkly different surface treatment. The façade of the building was preserved, however, in order to maintain the historical character and identity of the building.

Prazeres House, José Adrião Arquitectos, Lisbon, Portugal

For Prazeres House, José Adrião Arquitectos also renovated an existing structure with a preserved façade but an interior in ruins. The project involved restoring the façade while completely overhauling the living spaces and extending the house upward and downward. The project takes on a very strict definition of “façade,” maintaining a traditional design only for the surface of the house facing the street; even exterior spaces like the roof terrace and rear patio are constructed in an austere modern style.

1930 City Lodge, Ren Ito Arquiteto, Porto, Portugal

The 1930 City Lodge, a hotel in Porto, Portugal, likewise preserves a traditional design on just the street-facing exterior, allowing it to blend in with the historic buildings surrounding it. Yet, removed from that context, this conformity becomes less essential, and the hotel’s interiors as well as its rear façade, hidden from public view, are completely remodeled with contemporary designs. Only a surviving stone wall, bounding the backyard, and thus mediating the hotel’s relationship with its neighbors, adds to this historical identity.

The Three Cusps Chalet, Tiago do Vale Arquitectos, Braga, Portugal

When renovating the Three Cusps Chalet, Tiago do Vale Arquitectos were very conscious of the building’s historical character, even adding elements to the façade meant to imitate the original style of the house and concealing their intervention. Yet the approach for the interiors was quite different, a distinction articulated through color. While the street-facing façade of the house stands out in particular for its combination of bright and vibrant paint, the house’s contemporary interiors are swathed in a stark and uniform white.

Fine Arts Museum of Asturias, Francisco Mangado, Braga, Portugal

The Fine Arts Museum of Asturias features two distinct façades: an existing structure that conforms to the historical architecture of the neighborhood and a new exterior of unornamented glass rising up behind the original. The design maintains the museum’s traditional character throughout at the street level despite its new interiors exhibiting modern and contemporary art. The presentation of each iteration of design is so contrasted that there is a physical separation between the two structures.

House in Rato, Construir Habitar Pensar, Lisbon, Portugal

The façade for House in Rato demonstrates two levels of deception. Not only does its historic design give little indication of the contemporary interiors behind it, but its simple and uniform geometry provides no information as to the design and layout of the spaces inside. Embedded in a dense urban context, the façade of the house is very much a face with the project’s body hidden behind its flat surface and the surrounding structures. This two-dimensionality combines with neatly arranged fenestration, creating a decorative screen concealing the bright and open spaces within.

Federal Criminal Court, Durisch + Nolli Architetti Sagl, Bellinzona, Switzerland

The deceiving façade of the Federal Criminal Court in Bellinzona, Switzerland, serves not only to camouflage a contemporary project within an established landscape, but to connect it with a specific typology and play on the cultural expectations surrounding architecture. The Court was installed in an existing structure with a distinguished neoclassical façade, a design type that has become almost synonymous with systems of law and justice within Western societies.

This façade serves almost as a legitimizing design while allowing architects to create more radical and innovative interiors. The courtrooms are linked to the façade in their symmetry, monumentality and use of restrained white surfaces. Yet their forms are unconventional and distinctly contemporary, filled with natural light and adorned with lush ornamental surfaces.

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