False Frontin’: Our Favorite Dishonest Facades

Matt Shaw Matt Shaw

False fronts gained popularity during the expansion of the American West, when quickly built wooden buildings were adorned with larger facades in order to make them look more grandiose. They also became a convenient place for advertisements and commercial signage. This untruthful phenomenon was picked up by architects in the second half of the 20th century, as an antidote to the Modernist orthodoxy of truth to materials and structure.

Today, better reinforced concrete and increasingly strong interior steel beams have almost made buildings’ exterior envelopes a relic of the past. This makes these flat, billboard like facades even more unusual. While a building covering still provides crucial protection from the elements, and of course privacy, Western fronts allow architects to give them even more pizazz.

Such film set aesthetics not only add visual interest to otherwise ordinary buildings, but their tendency to confuse viewers holds an uncanny appeal that riffs of the entire system of symbolic architecture. With an open mindset, this facade masquerade can provide endless entertainment (and make Robert Venturi proud).

Here are some of our favorite false fronts. See if you feel lied to.

Images courtesy of the AOC.

Spa School by the AOC, London

The brick wrap is designed to relate the building to its context, purposely taking on the function of communication as a flat skin, leaving the building itself to perform as a place for learning.

Image via wikimedia.org

Fire Station Number 4 by Venturi and Rauch, Columbus, Indiana

The classic appropriation of the Western false front as high architecture, Robert Venturi’s famous fire station helped introduce the world to his ideas about irony and simplicity, all from the comfort of the small Indiana town.

Image via www.bustler.net

BEST Department Stores by James Wines

James Wines created a series of facades for the big box department store BEST in the 1970s and early ’80s. They are self-critical, as the blatantly separate false front falls off of, leans awkwardly onto, and peels away from the main body of the building.

Image via cfileonline.org

Islington Square Housing by Fashion Architecture Taste, Manchester, UK

On the inside, these units are relatively typical, livable Modernist spaces. On the outside, the argyle brick pattern creates a playful facade, and customized decorative elements give each unit a personal touch.

Image via Flickr user Bart Van Damme

Pioneer House by John Kormeling, Rotterdam, NL

Set above the Customs Headquarters, this small residential house has a false front, but no street to contextualize it. The house becomes very honest in its falseness, creating a comical situation on top of another building.

Image courtesy Reece Terris

Western Front Front: Another False Front by Reece Terris

This intervention draws on the history of the false front as a symbol of the boomtown. by placing an exaggerated parapet and cornice, Terris is drawing comparisons between the speculative nature of Vancouver’s economy and the original mining towns that were hasitly built.

From the Knees of my Nose to the Belly of my Toes by Alex Chinneck, London, UK

Another self-critical facade-based artwork, the artist has carefully installed a brick facade to appear as though it is sliding down the building, doorway and all.