Crumbling Facades

A story made international headlines last week about the ‘Potemkin-style’ facelift currently underway in County Fermanagh, Northern Ireland, in anticipation of the G8 summit in June. Over 100 empty shop fronts in the area have been spruced up and given a special ‘window treatment’ that creates a photorealistic illusion of their being open for business. In one particularly striking example in the town of Belcoo, a 2-D tableau presents warm interiors full of stocked shelves and hanging produce, an idealised echo of the butcher shop that had once operated there. It’s even depicted with its door propped open, as if to invite customers inside. I imagined a government official attempting to enter a fake newsagents for a packet of crisps, and thought what a great photo it would make. Although the irony is surely lost on the planning team, this is a blatant if completely inadvertent mockery of policy (as fellow art historian Janet Tyson observed).

fake window display in former butcher shop, Belcoo (Northern Ireland)

fake window display in former butcher shop, Belcoo (Northern Ireland)

While the initiative has been singled out as a disingenuous gesture on the part of the coalition government (estimated at over £300,000 and initiated by the Foreign Office in London), it isn’t the first time British high streets have been made to appear bustling, whilst underneath many resemble gaping toothless grins. In 2010 a similar effort was made in Tyneside to encourage business, modelling imaginary shops to attract potential entrepreneurs (as if they couldn’t imagine it themselves). The patronising and desperate tone of these stickered store fronts beggars belief. By recreating an image of commerce in happier times (were they ever that happy?), they conversely draw attention their true function – that is, to plaster over embarrassing symptoms of economic decay. By adopting the glossy language of corporate signage they do little to reassure the passer-by. Their warmly lit interiors show us the goods but fail to deliver: the simulacrum is where the buck stops.

New 'deli' occupies empty storefront in Whitley Bay

New ‘deli’ occupies empty storefront in Whitley Bay

As I pondered over the sad predicament of British high streets (a perennial wound recently reopened with the failure of the Mary Portas scheme), my mind wandered to more interesting and convincing efforts to lift spirits in difficult times. Take, for example, the ‘frontier facades’ that came to characterise pioneer towns in America. The false fronts hinted at a grandness that was to arrive much later, temporarily masking the squat, barn-like structures that lined the main streets. This was an inheritance of the Victorian period, during which a range of architectural solutions were introduced to make the humble appear imposing. These took on took on a sculptural life of their own, and have proved a source of inspiration for artists such as Reece Terris, whose 2010 installation, ‘The Western Front: Another false front’, adopts and subverts the language of colonial architecture.

ffront2But while these earlier examples of ‘puffing up’ commerce in the face of austerity measures might appear to us charming, the case of Northern Ireland has evoked anger and shock at the government’s crass, ill conceived initiative. The bottled optimism of the flimsy window stickers falls flat, a cruel slap in the face for the failed business owners who formerly occupied these shops. As if it weren’t bad enough that the conservative government has slashed public spending to ribbons, it’s now using the cuttings to reassemble a myth of progress on the streets of its flagging cities. There is something cheap about the whole endeavour, not least of all because it lacks style. If Cameron wanted to make an impression on world leaders, he should have done it will a bit more flare – maybe even with an ironic nod to historical precedents.

Reece Terris, ‘The Western Front: Another false front’, 2010

What makes a facade clever, as opposed to just plain condescending? Perhaps it’s down to reflexivity: that it knows itself to be fake; that it can laugh at its own joke. The elegance and ingenuity of a design goes a long way toward its being effective. The last thing the British public needs is a pithy reminder that it was once a booming nation of shopkeepers (a phrase attributed to Adam Smith but famously used by Napoleon to describe Britain’s penchant for retail), rather, it could use a good old fashioned folly to lighten the mood. Instead of instilling a sense of loss for what once was, a successful facade should inspire possibilities. It should be boldly ambitious and wildly imaginative, even if it is propped up against tough odds and empty promises. Its delusions, at the very least, should be grand.

Stones for Rome

Hadrian’s Wall offers some of the best walks in Britain, as I recently discovered. Only a short bus journey from Carlisle or Newcastle and on a scale that only the Romans would aspire, it hugs the natural ridges and folds of the countryside for over 73 miles (116 km). In its antique glory the wall was as thick as 3 metres in places and from 5 to 6 metres high, and was probably intended as a colossal lookout post and monument to the power of the Empire, rather than a defensive wall against the ‘barbarians’ of the north (the Romans would ride out and put a swift end to attackers long before they reached the Wall). With its forts, milecastles and turrets built alongside or in short distance, the wall was also home to Roman soldiers and auxiliary troops who held the frontier in Great Britain from the second to the fifth century AD.

There are plenty more factoids where these come from, readily available in the guidebooks and the two museums that commemorate the Wall and contain collections of artefacts from multiple excavation sites, some of which are still active today. One can only balk at the barefaced determination of the Romans, and marvel at their achievement (the entire length of the Wall is thought to have been built in only six years, rather unbelievably!). Alongside the volumes of scholarship dedicated to deepening our understanding its material and cultural history, the legacy of Hadrian’s Wall also lives on within literature, most recently as ‘The Wall’ in George R. R. Martin’s fantasy fiction series Game of Thrones.


Walking the Wall. photo: Stefan Skrimshire

When walking the Wall (we covered a stretch from Haltwhistle to Heydon Bridge over two days), it becomes clear that some sections are in much better condition than others. There are lengths of wall where the stones are mostly depleted or where it disappears altogether, replaced by modern dry stone fences as a sort of placeholder. During these stretches there is often a parallel track where the debris of the original wall has been overtaken by the earth, resulting in a slightly raised section. At some points it is possible to see intact but partial remains of the original Roman wall, with an outer casing of precisely cut and fitted stones and a filling of gravel. But the sections that are perhaps most interesting – at least for my purposes here – are those that were rebuilt during the nineteenth century.

Constructed to resemble the ancient wall in a less complete stage of deterioration, the Victorian wall is an integrated folly that grows almost seamlessly from the original ruin. In 1834, antiquarian and town clerk of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, John Clayton, began buying up areas of land where the Wall was built – by this time its stones were being quarried and pillaged for use in local buildings and roads – in order to preserve and restore what remained. As a result, several miles of the Wall were rebuilt using remaining or recovered materials, which are indistinguishable from the Roman Wall. Art Historian and Classicist Mary Beard has commented on how the ‘ancient’ Wall as we see it today was actually built by Victorians, a common practice that is often (falsely) linked with nineteenth-century imperialism. Whatever their reasons, in the attempt to recreate the past, restorers and antiquarians produced ‘fakes’ which were then reabsorbed into the fabric of Antiquity, and our understanding of it.


‘original’ Wall and dry stone fence

Taking in the landscape from a number of vantage points, it is easy to see the picturesque appeal behind the nineteenth-century restorations. The Wall follows the natural curvature of the earth, tracing the semi-mountainous hills and cliffs. From afar it appears as a delicate trim, while up close it is palpably robust, an achievement born of sweat and ingenuity. Clayton must have recognised an opportunity to restore this beautiful landscape feature while demonstrating the Victorian aptitude for building in brick. He employed workmen to rebuild sections of the wall up to ‘seven courses’ in height, a substantial increase to what was most likely a ribbon of ankle-deep piles of stones.

The section called the ‘Clayton Wall’ is a folly of a sort, built from Roman spolia to resemble the ruin at a less advanced stage of disintegration. The urgency with which he acquired sections of the wall reflects his preservationist agenda, but it also betrays his desire to ‘return’ the original Wall to a more desirable or aesthetically pleasing stage of its disintegration. In reversing the destructive effects of quarrying and the removal of stones for local building projects, he was not attempting to restore Antiquity, but rather to approximate the effects of natural erosion and exposure to the elements. His project was rooted in a Romantic nostalgia for the ruin, not in scientific conservation. Clayton’s folly is a subtle one; walkers are left guessing which sections of the Wall are original and which are modern additions (if they are aware of them at all). I found myself playing this guessing game as I continued along the well-trodden path. Ultimately, does it matter whether we can tell the original wall apart from the sections rebuilt from bits from the original wall? Where does the real wall end and its later stages begin? What is ‘real’ in this context, and what is folly?


‘Argonalis’ obelisk, Piazza Navona, Rome

Shortly after visiting Hadrian’s outpost I made a timely trip to Rome, and was surprised to learn that the Ancient Romans themselves had a penchant for follies. The Egyptian obelisk that currently sits in the Piazza Navona, with Bernini’s Fontana de Quattro Fuimi acting as its handsome base, is in fact a copy, commissioned by Emperor Domitan in the first century. Not satisfied with the existing spoils, it was apparently common practice for replicas of war trophies to be made and erected throughout the city as statements of power over conquered territories. A replica isn’t exactly a folly, granted, but the process of producing fake monuments to stand in for originals is not so different from creating ornamental buildings or ruins. I wonder if the Romans valued these copies as much as the originals, or if the average Roman citizen was even aware that they were fakes? The triumphalist symbolism of the obelisk (this one was originally erected at the Temple of Serapis), was presumably the same, and it would be interesting to know whether its reproduction through Roman commission detracted from its authenticity (aura) at the time.