Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
How this brightly striped Kensington mews house became the talk of the fanciest part of town.
Can re-painting your house be deemed an act of aggression? A ruling by a London borough this week suggests that it actually can. In a fresh twist on the tradition of the Spite House, a house owner in London’s uber-rich Kensington area has been accused of repainting her house façade purely as a way of annoying her neighbors.
Owner Zipporah Lisle-Mainwaring (yes, this is a real person, not a character from a Downton Abbey parody) had her street frontage redecorated in fury after neighbors successfully fought her remodeling plans. The 71-year-old had intended to partly demolish her home and add a two-floor mega-basement beneath the street—creating what’s locally known as an “iceberg home”—but was shot down by local protest. Her scheme frustrated, she retaliated by covering her house with lurid red stripes, dazzling to the eye and offensive to received English ideas of understated good taste.
Locals have been complaining of the paint job’s iridescent, glow-in the-dark qualities. And in a tantalizing extra detail possibly designed to cause neat freaks sleepless nights, the painters have left one stripe unfinished, throwing off the house’s symmetry.
This may sound like a fight for people with too much time on their hands. I personally quite like the color scheme, which rather appropriately recalls some austere, tooth-breaking Victorian candy. But local residents in the area aren’t your average Londoners. This is Britain’s (and Europe’s, for that matter) richest district—the cheapest apartment nearby currently on the market costs over $3 million—and the redecoration has proved to be a red (and white) rag to an angry, extremely well-connected bull. It seems the council is on nearby residents’ side. Following this week’s ruling, the owner must now repaint by early July or face prosecution.
The Kensington Stripe House, for all its storm-in-a-teacup qualities, does reveal something a little bigger: the battle lines that skyrocketing prices have caused in London’s most expensive neighborhoods. So valuable is Kensington property that wealthy owners have long moved on from the most conventionally opulent homes to grab any spare scrap of floor space. This means that pretty ordinary real estate is being made over to meet the palatial demands of plutocrat owners.
The candy-striped home in question, for example, is actually a mews house, a kind of outbuilding running along an alley behind a great house, originally intended as a place to tidy horses, carriages and maids away from the main residence. So much excavation has gone on to add subterranean floors to houses like these recently that inner West London now resembles Swiss cheese, and an official clampdown has followed. Lisle-Mainwaring’s spiteful color scheme may be irking her neighbors, but if it’s a choice between that and months of diggers shaking their homes, they’ve probably got off lightly.