What Is a Facade In Architecture?

When we look at different kinds of buildings, we may have very different reactions to them. Some are tall and imposing, with massive arched doorways and towering spires. Others are welcoming, perhaps with a large porch or wide windows. How these building entrances look is no accident. Someone designed them with a lot of attention to their front facade.

A facade is the exterior wall or face of a building, and it usually involves design elements like deliberate placement of windows or doors. Depending on architectural style, these elements have a certain order to them. While the word ”facade” can signify any external wall of a building with a design element, it often refers to the front wall with an entrance. Often, the front facade has more elaborate or special architectural treatment than the rest of the structure. A facade can be imposing, decorative, or rather simple.

Facade Designs

When an architect designs a facade, they consider many elements. What will the entrance look like? What type of building material, like stone, wood frame, or brick, will be used? They must also consider fenestration, or the placement and proportions of windows.

Throughout history, architectural styles have changed, and they continue to change today. Architects from different periods have preferred very different styles of facades. Let’s look at three examples.

Gothic Facade
Beginning in the twelfth century, when Gothic architecture was prominent, facades of buildings were massive and imposing. The western facade of the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris features multiple levels of windows and two tall towers. People enter the church through three massive arched entrance doors. As they look up, they see a large rose window, a circular form of a stained glass window. Every element of Notre Dame’s facade was purposefully placed, and as a whole it conveys a powerful statement about the role of the Church in society during that time.

Greek Revival Facade
Our next example is a facade from residential architecture built in the Greek Revival style and popular in the United States during the nineteenth century. Greek Revival recalled ancient Greek architecture and stressed order, proportion, and symmetry, which is where two sides of something are balanced and equal.

facade of Greek Revival house
In the example of this house built in upstate New York in 1847, we can see a central columned porch, each side supported by two columns of equal size and decoration. The porch leads you to the entrance door. Flanking the porch are windows with rectangular shutters, and the window placement on the first and second floor balances with the whole. It gives the building a stately appearance while maintaining simplicity.

Modern Building Facades
Today, architects have many options. They may build something that reflects past styles or create something bold and new. All over the world, contemporary architects have designed striking facades with wild textures, bold color, and extreme asymmetry. Some large modern buildings have facade systems, constructed pieces that provide decoration and environmental advantages (like better energy conservation). They have metal or glass suspended or attached to a building’s face like a skin.

The front facade of HARPA, a large concert hall and cultural center in Reykjavik, Iceland, is a good example of contemporary architecture. It’s asymmetrical with long perpendicular forms and a glass-faceted skin that changes in appearance as the sun shifts during the day. It’s a dynamic facade for a dynamic building.

These are just three examples of facades. The next time you’re traveling, look at the building facades around you. How are they organized and what message do they send about the building on which they’re located?

Lesson Summary
A facade in architecture is an exterior wall of a building, usually one with doors or windows. Often the word refers to a structure’s front wall with an entrance. The front facade tends to be more imposing or decorative. Elements to consider when looking at facades include fenestration, or the placement and proportion of windows.

Facades have changed through time. In Gothic architecture, they featured elements meant to be imposing, like massive arched doorways and rose windows, which are a circular form of a stained glass window. In later Greek Revival architecture, facades recalled ancient Greek architecture and stressed order, proportion, as well as being influenced by symmetry, the idea that all design elements were balanced and equal. Contemporary architecture features some wild and bold facades. Some use facade systems, or constructed segments that attach to a building’s external face like a skin.

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