The Russian desecration of London

Britain’s great contribution to domestic architecture is being sacrificed to make white boxes for Russian oligarchs

30 March 2013

Now that his old arch-enemy, Boris Berezovsky, has bitten the dust, Roman Abramovich can devote his full attention to another bête noire — London’s terraced houses.

In his £10 million plan to knock together three houses, worth £100 million, in Chelsea’s Cheyne Walk, the oligarch is raising the roof, ripping out internal floors and walls, and burrowing two floors down into the courtyard. He is also ripping out two staircases. Russian expats may hanker after the steppes but they don’t like British stairs.

The cement mixers will whirr for three years in one of London’s loveliest streets. That won’t bother Abramovich and his girlfriend Dasha Zhukova; with his generous property portfolio and £10 billion fortune, I’m sure they’ll find somewhere warm to camp during the renovation. But his neighbours don’t have that option — and they’re up in arms, full of talk about what they call Abramovich’s hideous ‘fortress’ and the endless traffic problems the work will cause.

And they’ve been watching the news of Cyprus’s downfall with mixed feelings: perhaps there’s an upside to a raid on oligarchs’ savings. A downturn in Russian fortunes might be the only way to save our architectural heritage — you can be sure the grander London boroughs aren’t lifting a finger.

Last month, the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea meekly granted planning permission to Abramovich. Yet again, London has bent over backwards in its slavish mission to become butler to the world’s rich. Across the city, in its gilt-edged patches — Kensington, Chelsea, Belgravia, Westminster and Notting Hill — London’s terraced houses are being heightened, deepened, lengthened and widened to accommodate the yawning pockets of the international billionaire.

London has been a magnet for the international rich for more than 500 years. The Medicis were sending bankers to London in the early 15th century. Nothing wrong in that. But it’s only in recent decades that expat millionaires — along with a fair few domestic ones, like Richard Rogers, the starchitect who turned two neighbouring Chelsea houses into one echoing white void — have started tearing up the city’s old -fabric.


The trouble is, the new rich really want the huge, swanky flats you get in Manhattan or Paris. The ideal is a high, wide, empty shelf, painted white — an aircraft hangar behind a period façade, all the better to display wall-sized slabs of modern art; Dasha Zhukova has become one of the world’s most powerful modern art collectors. And those pesky Victorian walls and lung-busting staircases are the enemies of big, lateral space.

These overblown expansions go right against a 400-year tradition of the London rich living happily in terraced houses. It always used to be a rather good, strangely British thing that toffs lived in terraced houses like everyone else — albeit bigger terraced houses in smarter areas. Palaces weren’t feasible for anyone except the really grand, who occupied a handful of urban stately homes, such as Spencer House and Devonshire House.

British developers liked erecting as many buildings as possible — and one-off palaces weren’t as remunerative as miles of terraces. Britain’s land-owning structure, in which large areas of cities were owned by individuals, also allowed for the organised building of long strings of terraces.

On the Continent, fragmented land ownership prevented these ambitious projects. The Parisian rich lived in enormous, detached hôtels, with a high wall and courtyard separating them from the street. Meanwhile, the British rich lived cheek by jowl in Mayfair terraces.

Terraced houses made for pretty, flexible housing that slotted easily into any town, for any resident; a triumph of domestic architecture that could be connected in long, snaking lines, or moulded into crescents, squares and circuses. In 18th-century Bath, father-and-son architects — both called John Wood — created Europe’s greatest streetscape with an inspired combination of all these -elements.

Inside, the terraced house produced a peculiarly British configuration of rooms,  now also being torn apart by the billionaire space addicts. It’s bye-bye to that once-loved British institution, the corridor. The corridor’s popularity in Britain contrasted with the continental habit of running rooms enfilade, or in a row (from the French fil, ‘thread’), so that each room was also a passage. Where continental rooms had communicating doors between rooms, British rooms in terraced houses led off the corridor.

‘The English room is a sort of cage,’ Hermann Muthesius (1861-1927), cultural attaché to the German embassy in London and author of The English House (1904), wrote admiringly, ‘in which the inmate is entirely cut off from the next room… [This comes from] one of their most conspicuous needs, their desire for privacy, for seclusion.’

Muthesius was so impressed by our jigsaw of rooms, each with as few doors as possible, each with a fireplace, that he successfully imported das Englische Haus into the fashionable suburbs of Berlin.

He noticed another odd thing about British doors. Where continental doors open in pairs into the middle of the wall, the shy British put single doors to one side of the room in their terraced houses. The Englishman ‘insists on having as few openings in his wall as possible’, he wrote.

What’s more, the Englishman hung his doors so that they hid the newcomer as he entered the room. This gave the shy Englishman a chance to slip into the room relatively unnoticed — not something most oligarchs consider particularly desirable.

As the property bubble — in London, anyway — expands, so does the oligarch’s hold over the city. Throughout the capital’s smartest streets, those handsome corridors, stairs, doors and walls are heading for the skip. And, with them, goes the odd, private, shy genius of the British terraced house: our greatest contribution to world architecture.

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  • Jeff

    What a load of old tosh! The British terraced house is an absolute nightmare and no one would live in one were there better houses on the market. They were designed to house poor people on scarce land because of the landlordism of British Lords and other landowners so when someone wants to improve the style suddenly these houses are wonderful. Rubbish! As are the houses.

    • http://twitter.com/Shinsei1967 Nick Reid

      Terrace housing looks lovely on the outside but is a pain to live in as anyone who has lived in lateral apartments in foreign countries would tell you.

      A typical Georgian or early Victorian terrace today would have the kitchen in the basement, the drawing room a floor or two up and the bedrooms higher still. It’s great as long as you don’t mind walking up and down stairs all day. Need to get your woolly hat for a walk outside, that’s 40 steps upstairs, and another 40 down. Ooops, forgotten your gloves, another hike up and down 80 steps.

      There was a reason why the sensible Edwardians built large lateral mansion flats as the ideal conception of urban domestic architecture.

      • Odile TALIANI

        Heavens, what about the myriad Fitness Clubs which charge thousands of pounds a year for the privilege of using machines which simulate stairs? .In a terrace house we have it all for free….or… you just leave your hat on the hook in the hall on the newal post downstairs . There´s a simple solution to everything

    • dalai guevara

      May I correct you: first examples of ‘terraced’ houses in the UK were speculatively built for the upper-middle and aristocratic classes in London, based on French precursors. Due to the nature of disconnect between land ownership and finance, the British development for the housing market was speculatively-driven, rather than the demand-driven scenarios of commissioning as evident in other European regions.

      This in effect very successful configuration found its way down through the social ranks – the lowest standard being the back-to-back two up two down dwelling, a development which was banned by the Housing, Town Planning &c Act in 1909.

  • Eddie

    Abramovich, like other overnight oligarchs, got his wealth via very dodgy means, often via organised crime, always via fleecing the Russian people, as Yeltsin sold that land’s assets for a fraction of their worth to get political support.
    They are bandits – and some may well have been involved in ‘hits’ – I would be very surprised if Ambramovich knew nothing of the murder by radiation of his enemy in London a few years ago (as ordered by Putin). These murderous thieves should all be arrested and investigated.
    Dittto for the gangster Arabs, Africans and Asian thieves and scoundrels polluting London.
    Or does money blind all law enforcement agencies to crime in the UK these days?

    • Simon Semere

      Don’t forget the white ones!

      • Eddie

        I mentioned the white ones – the Russians – before mentioning the Arabs, Africans and Asians. I agree – the (white) Albanians are notorious, as are Turks, and are Chinese people traffikers and Vietnamese dope-growers. There is, however, very substantial representation of the swarthy races of the world amongst the criminal community. That is a statement of fact, not opinion, so it cannot be racist. It is what it is.

        • Simon Semere

          I didn’t call you a racist, I was just reminding you not to forget white people when talking about crime in London

          • Stophy

            You’re an idiot.

    • Guest

      Traditionally the British were never murderous thieves … they never exploited other cultures… they were never dodgy. Of course its easy for them to take the high horse now that they’ve gone through that period of their history and the rest of the world is just barely trying to catch up, play the game they were handed and avoid being exploited further. I am looking forward to a day when British culture and land is totally transformed by the pressures of foreigners… then they’ll know how it feels!

      • francis

        We already have been transformed. It is going to take a long time to get our country back. Blame politicians and our leaders not the indigenous English people.

        Eastern europeans know how to play the race card probably better than Africans or Asians can.

        Once the UK defaults, Russian and Polish banks will just buy us out and that will happen soon.

      • Stophy

        You f***ing idiot! How are the descendents of people that did wrong in any way responsible for actions they didn’t commit? “They know how it feels”. What a glib, idiotic sentiment. I wish people like you (those with no IQ and an over-inflated idea of their own intellect) would stay the hell off the internet

  • Jimbob

    Agree entirely. The architecture today in London today really is appalling: time and time again I see “award-winning” glass and steel boxes replacing perfectly adequate older buildings, all for a quick buck for property developers and speculators.

    Half of the time no-one even lives in these “new-developments”; hardly surprising, though, given that most of them consist of shoebox sized apartments.

    The bad thing is that the more we knock down the older buildings, the more London loses its distinctiveness… plenty of tourists have mentioned this to me. Let’s face it, no-one comes to London for modern architecture – if you did, you’d just to one of the zillion new Asian cities, all of whom do it far better than us..

    • http://twitter.com/Shinsei1967 Nick Reid

      Where are all these old buildings being knocked down ? All over London there are semi-derelict old buildings being renovated and turned into new housing or offices/shops. It’s almost impossible to knock anything down in London these days. Is Battersea Power Station being knocked down ?

    • http://twitter.com/ReprievedSoul David John Scott

      so no Gherkin? World symbol of new-age London (where bankrupt state-owned banks pay 100s of clerks >£m pa salaries to impoverish the manufacturers who add value?

  • http://twitter.com/rayveysey Ray Veysey

    Why worry? it’s not as if London is still part of the UK is it?

  • walstir

    “Palaces weren’t feasible for anyone except the really grand, who occupied a handful of urban stately homes”

    A £10 billion fortune and still not grand enough for a stately urban home?

  • Trofim

    Living in a terraced house doesn’t half save on heating bills, I can tell you. My neighbours warm my house and vice versa.

  • chris_xxxx

    The answer is simple: refuse planning permission. If they want huge houses, buy a mansion in the country or bugger off somewhere else.

  • Louis Crosier

    Power is money, everyone! Democracy can only conserve that which the elites in their selflessness, prioritise.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Simon-Fay/1127268875 Simon Fay

    Ah, the London Spectator, one of the longest-running London-centric journals operating in London with a remarkably clear & uninterrupted view right over everything between London and Edinburgh.

  • Hellen

    Don’t be so dramatic, there are plenty of properties which are inhabited by the wrong sorts, it was Thatcher that did that. This is just the evolution of London, which is what London is. Besides, there aren’t that many Russian billionaires in London and it’s had to get three in-a-row, it took Abramovich long enough.

    Let’s focus on ripping down the council houses in the UK and building terraced mansions in the their place.

  • Daniel Maris

    People might want to ask: (a) do most of these Russians feature as immigrants in our figures (I suspect not – they are probably down as business travellers) and (b) why on earth are they allowed in in the first place. Russians have no historical right to stay here. All they do is push up house prices for everyone else.

    • matea marsic

      Historically, the British have only lived in places they have had a “historical right” to stay in. What a load of rubbish.

  • Disgruntled white worker

    They’re not Russians: They’re Jews.

  • A. F. Brooke

    Now it may be the tearing down of bricks and glasses, when time comes for the social fabric of this country I wonder what boxy ambitions these oligarchs nurture.

  • 1965doc

    Who let them into Britain and why? They’re not British citizens, so have no ‘right’ to be here. Throw them out, or are our politicos imagining some of the money might rub off on them?

  • Odile TALIANI

    I read Harry Mount´s article (The Home Wreckers, March 30th) with sympathy, but am surprised he places the onus of blame on Russian
    oligarchs et al.
    Surely the planning departments of the Borough Councils , in this case RBKC, are the main culprits? The likes of Messrs Abramoviç and Zhukova, not to speak of Richard Rogers would be unable to cause such damage if they had not had someone´ s permission
    so to do.
    Cheyne Walk is far from being the only case in point . We have been amazed
    by the alacrity with which RBKC has thought fit , mainly for budgetary
    reasons I am told, to sacrifice the one remaining, original entrance to the Hillgate Village – approving plans for construction which will largely obliterate the view of , and from, the old stationmaster´s house on its threshold which heralds the whole atmosphere of this charming hidden corner of London

    Forgetabout knocking three terrace houses into one: here, two streets (Edge Street
    and Kensington Place ) are to be tethered together by a vile Juggernaut
    of a building which more than anything will look like a container .

    Construction time: estimated
    two years
    Traffic block- constant, both those access roads are
    extremely narrow- as befit a village
    Residents objections – ignored completely . In the first
    place, formal notification of the plan was distributed late, just before
    everyone went on holiday for the summer, making it impossible to prepare any
    viable , substantiated professional
    reply before the meeting . One resident said that she had only learned of the
    Council´s intentions having , entirely fortuitously, caught a glimpse of the announcement nailed to a tree in the rain
    a week before it was due to be discussed . Another resident, who complained about the delay in sending round the information ,was told that it had been an “unfortunate clerical error”

    At theCouncil meeting itself perhaps one or
    two , but no more, members of the planning committee had any academic
    background in art history or equivalent. All were dismissive of the residents –
    one of whom was …an art historian. At no point was there a shadow of an effort
    to reach a compromise . The resulting Council approval –granted after a five
    minute hearing of the project , and released to the Polish firm of architects
    who were presenting it, was nothing more or less than the supporting text of
    the drawings and brief submitted

    I see that Councils need money . But as Harry Mount writes, this myopic approach cannot but, (if it has not already) end by ruining the texture
    of all London ´s most picturesque districts , not to speak, in the long term of
    diminishing tourist income .Who was it who said, that planners have destroyed
    more of London than the Luftwaffe ?

  • uche emenike

    these Brits are still living in 1554, no wonder they complain about their thatched huts.

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