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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

9:00 AM

30 March 2013

9:00 AM

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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