Do you ever walk past a building and wonder if it’s really as it looks? Probably not, but that’s because we’ve all got too much on our minds. We take our surroundings for granted and we don’t question them. So how do we know that we’re not being deceived left, right and centre? Newsflash—we are.
There are buildings that aren’t what they seem all over the place. Last year I took a jaunt to Budapest with my girlfriend and we visited the grand and ornate Vajdahunyad Castle. Though it looks like it has been the home of kings and queens for centuries, it hasn’t. In fact, it’s only been standing since 1896 and nobody’s ever lived there. It’s a fake, a folly, a fantasy pastiche showcasing Hungary’s architectural evolution.
Vajdahunyad Castle amalgamates copies of parts of major landmark buildings from different time periods across different parts of Hungary. As a result, it’s a mishmash of Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque architectural styles, and even more telling is that it was originally made from wood and cardboard! It was rebuilt using stone and brick between 1904 and 1908 because it got so popular.
But Vajdahunyad Castle is not alone. There are tons of folly castles all over the world, and dozens in the UK alone. Take this castle, for example, which overlooks the city of Bath, Somerset.
From a distance, this looks like a typical medieval castle—but it’s nothing of the sort. Literally known as Sham Castle, it was built in the 18th century to ‘enhance the view’ from philanthropist Ralph Allen’s town house in the city. The blocked-up windows are a hint, but when you walk through its main entrance, that’s when you realise. There’s no more castle! You can see from the picture below that it’s only supposed to be viewed from the front.
This is the sort of thing you expect from movies. The infamous clock tower in Back to the Future, for instance, is nothing more than a facade—as you can see from the picture below. Same thing can be said be of countless buildings that appear on screen. It’s all part of the fiction.
But if we’re driving through the countryside and see a castle in the distance, we expect it to be real. Well, folks… don’t always trust your eyes.
It isn’t just castles. Go and knock at the front door of 23 or 24 Leinster Gardens in London and you’ll be knocking for a while. Nobody’s home. Nobody’s ever home.
Take a look at the photo below of 22 and 23 Leinster Gardens. Notice anything odd?
Number 22 on the left is inhabited. Number 23, along with its neighbour Number 24, are fakes. Behind the windows and front doors of 23 and 24 is nothing but thin air. That’s why the windows have been painted grey and the front doors have no handles or letterboxes.
Basically, the construction of the London Underground in the 19th century necessitated the demolition of the two houses that originally stood here, so that the steam-powered locomotives of the time had a place to ‘vent off’ in a section of open air. This prevented the tunnels from filling up with smoke.
Authorities decided that it didn’t want to spoil the look of this upmarket Victorian terrace by having a weird and unsightly gap in the buildings. So it erected a large facade matching the neighbouring houses to fill the gap and hide the railway. All is revealed when you whiz round to the back of the terrace…
A similar deception can be found in Brooklyn, New York City. 58 Joralemon Street—with its suspiciously dark windows—is a facade serving as a vent for the New York City Subway, as well as an emergency exit.
But architectural deception goes way beyond pretend houses and castles. There’s careful maths involved in some of the fast ones these architects pull.
Take a look at this gallery in the Palazzo Spada, a palace in the historic centre of Rome. It looks like the corridor is about 40 metres long, with a lifesize sculpture at the end, right?
Think again. The corridor is actually only 8 metres long, and the sculpture a mere 60 cm tall. Baroque architect Francesco Borromini designed the gallery in the 17th century with the aid of a mathematician. The floor rises and the columns and arches get smaller as you get nearer to the sculpture. The ceiling at the end is so low that only a child would be able to stand in it.
This clever trick is known as forced perspective, an optical illusion that can be found in architecture all over the world. Take the Potemkin Stairs in Odessa, Ukraine, for instance. This giant staircase is not as giant as it appears. The steps get narrower the further up they go—the top step is 12.5 metres while the bottom step is 21.7 metres—giving the illusion of greater length.
Forced perspective is often used in theme parks. Don’t be fooled by all those enormous Disney castles. They’re not as big as you think. The turrets and windows diminish in size the higher up you go, making the castles appear significantly taller than they actually are.
Next time you’re out and about, walking down the street or driving through the countryside, pay attention to your surroundings. Look closely and you might just catch out a big, building-shaped cheat.
Next week: did drivers see a ghostly ‘replay’ of a deadly car crash?