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Facades of facades: The story behind the trompe l’oeil construction tarps you see everywhere

In cities around the world, construction covers depicting the historic building underneath abound. And they’re a lot harder to make than you’d think.

Facades of facades: The story behind the trompe l’oeil construction tarps you see everywhere
[Photo: courtesy Project Print Management]

The main entrance to the British Museum in London is a grand display of Greek Revival architecture. Atop a row of 45-foot-tall columns, there’s a triangular pediment featuring a Portland stone sculpture that represents the progress of civilization. And if you look closely, you can see the sculpture rippling in the wind.

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Right now, the museum is under renovation, and its main entryway is a maze of construction scaffolding. But to the eyes of a visitor on the ground, the grandeur of the pediment atop the columns can still be seen. Or, at least a version of it. As part of the renovation and construction work, the main entry has been covered with plastic sheeting printed with a scale image of the pediment and its sculpture. Essentially a tool of dust mitigation, the building wrap becomes a stand-in for the facade it’s hiding.

[Photo: courtesy Project Print Management]
This isn’t the only building wrap of its kind. In cities around the world, construction covers depicting the very building underneath abound. They’re designed to preserve the look of the building, but they’re also an effort to reduce the burden of construction on the building’s neighbors. “Everyone hates restoration work or building work, especially if it’s right next to them,” says Justin Murray, owner of Project Print Management, which created the large image that wraps the British Museum. “By putting up one of these wraps, it goes a little way to appease the local community, that they’re doing everything they can to mitigate the disruptiveness of the development.”

[Photo: courtesy Project Print Management]
Murray’s business specializes in large-scale building wraps and trompe l’oeil—flat-printed recreations of the three-dimensional facades of buildings that try to trick the eye into seeing a perspective that isn’t actually there. He says interest in these trompe l’oeil wraps has gone up in recent years, and he has worked on projects across the United Kingdom and Europe, including Westminster Abbey and Somerset House, the large historic courtyard building in London. “The whole of London is an exhibition,” he says. “So keeping up appearances is really vital.”

Simple in concept, these building wraps are much more complicated than they may seem. “It’s not a question of taking a photograph and just whacking it up there,” he says. “There are so many elements you have to get right.”

He often works closely with the architect of the renovation to review plans and drawings. He also collaborates with scaffolders, who adjust their systems specifically to hold the wrap and account for the increased forces they’ll experience from the wind not being able to pass through the wrap’s PVC mesh.

The biggest challenge, though, is getting it to look right. “Basically I have to go and take a whole load of photographs and scale them accurately,” Murray says. Perspectives get skewed, depending on where the photos are taken from, and though he uses a big ladder and sometimes gets permission to take photos from inside neighboring buildings, he has to use a lot of Photoshop to tweak images to the correct proportions.

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[Photo: courtesy Project Print Management]
He also has to think about capturing the right color. “Which is really difficult, because you’ll have a wall which will look a different color when the sunlight hits it, or when it’s wet or at different times of the year,” Murray says.

Getting precise measurements is also important; otherwise, printed windows might wrap around corners and burst the illusion. But Murray says the process is more art than science, and 100% accuracy isn’t always the goal. “Sometimes you’ll get a section of building work or brickwork that’s not actually that interesting. So we’ll stick a window in there and make it a little bit more interesting. Because the busier the image, the more lifelike it becomes,” he says.

Putting up a fake version of a building’s facade isn’t cheap. Murray says projects routinely run into the tens of thousands of dollars, and those costs can skyrocket if the building wrap isn’t planned into the renovation from the beginning—particularly because of the cost of reconfiguring the scaffolding. But, when included in project budgets from the start, the costs can feel minimal. “When you’ve got a 3-million-pound project, suddenly 30,000 pounds is nothing,” he says. And even though the actual building may be hidden, a version of it will still be visible to the world.

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