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The curious history of striped architecture

A red-and-white-striped townhouse has ruffled feathers in London’s Kensington, but this garish decorative style has a noble, if checkered, history

Last week, a previously unassuming three-storey townhouse in the exclusive London area of Kensington appeared in news feeds around the world after its owner painted it in bold red and white stripes. Redecorated under the cover of night, furious neighbours see the candy-coloured paint job as an act of retaliation: it follows legal challenges by locals wanting to stop the owner’s planning application for a new, so-called ‘iceberg home’ extending two storeys underground with a private cinema, pool and gym.

Although this tale has been circulated for its winning combination of warring neighbours, high-end real estate, and colourful revenge, the newly striped house also has a place within a longer history of striped architecture. Usually reserved for important civic and sacred buildings, stripes were employed in Roman times, and have appeared throughout Western architecture ever since. They are most commonly associated with the medieval churches of northern and central Italy, including the spectacular cathedrals of Siena and Orvieto. It was this Italian tradition that inspired the polychrome banded masonry of Victorian architecture – celebrated by John Ruskin and so loved by William Butterfield and his contemporaries – as well as its frequent use in much Postmodern architecture, most notably that of James Stirling and Mario Botta.

Mario Botta, San Giovanni Battista, Mogno, Switzerland, 1992-98

Mario Botta, San Giovanni Battista, Mogno, Switzerland, 1992-98

The use of stripes in a domestic context forms a distinct narrative within the broader architectural tradition. Recent striped houses have been variously motivated but, like the Kensington townhouse, often end up attracting public attention while irritating the people next door.1 Madonna, for example, made headlines and provoked hostile neighbourly relations when, in 1993, she painted her newly purchased Mulholland Drive home in red and cream stripes. Sited below the Hollywood sign, the 1920s Spanish Colonial Revival-style Castillo Del Lago, by architect John DeLario, is famous as the former home of gangster Benjamin ‘Bugsy’ Siegel and his clandestine casino. The renovation was undertaken by Madonna’s self-taught designer brother, Christopher Ciccone, with the intention of recreating the stripes of a Portofino church he had visited with his sister some years earlier. He effectively turned the Spanish-styled home Italianate. But here, removed from their ecclesiastical origins, the stripes take on a different function: asserting Madonna’s public identity as a provocative celebrity, while simultaneously adorning a privacy-protecting wall.

John DeLario, Castillo Del Lago, Hollywood, 1926

John DeLario, Castillo Del Lago, Hollywood, 1926. Madonna bought the house in 1993 and employed her brother to paint the perimeter wall with stripes

This was not the first time stripes had been used on the private home of a celebrity. Adolf Loos famously proposed a black-and-white-striped design on his unbuilt house for Josephine Baker. Academics have debated the meaning of those 30-centimetre-high bands of alternating black and white marble ever since, but Loos’s design continues to evade explanation. This semantic uncertainty is characteristic of many architectural stripes, but what is interesting about their use on this house is that much of the speculation ties them to the race and celebrity of Josephine Baker. More precisely, the stripes have been portrayed as a kind of exoticising decorative slip-up by one of Modernism’s most ardent opponents of ornament, presumably distracted by a lustful fascination with his beautiful and famous client. But as in the case of Madonna’s house, the exterior – striped like the camouflage of a zebra – functions both to reveal and conceal the identity of the inhabitant, and so the facade takes its place among Loos’s œuvre of secretive, mask-like designs.

Adolf Loos, model of an unbuilt house for Josephine Baker, 1928

Adolf Loos, model of an unbuilt house for Josephine Baker, 1928

The attention the Kensington striped house has received reinforces this curious strand in the history of stripes, combining domestic construction, celebrity culture and visual conspicuousness. What is surprising, however, in the historical context of striped architecture, is the intensity of offence and outrage that these stripes have caused in an otherwise quiet London street.2 Of course, stripes have never been universally liked. Concerning the Italian practice of often high contrasting zebra stripes, Robert Willis observed in 1835 that, ‘A practice more destructive of architectural grandeur can hardly be conceived; yet the Italians are even now so enamoured of it, that in parts of the buildings where it has been omitted, the black stripes have actually been supplied with paint upon whitewash.’3 Likewise, John Summerson has forever cemented a view of Butterfield’s banded design for All Saints Margaret Street, London as being at once brilliant, jarringly discordant and aggressively ugly.4

William Butterfield, All Saints, Margaret Street, London, 1850-59

William Butterfield, All Saints, Margaret Street, London, 1850-59

But these are selective and relatively recent views that ignore the visual pleasure and gratification provided by stripes. John Ruskin wrote at length about his attraction to horizontal lines, their ‘nobleness’, ‘ocular charm’ and ‘enduring delight’.5 By contrast, GE Street sought the richness and warmth of colour that stripes gave his architecture, highlighting the sensual pleasure of polychromatic banded materials. This pleasure of stripes is also a factor in their spectacle: they draw attention through their prominence in our visual field, and entertain the eye with their shifting patterns, combinations of colour and ocular effects.

John Ruskin, The Baptistery, Florence, 1872

John Ruskin, ‘The Baptistery, Florence’, watercolour, 1872

So while some find them offensive, for others stripes are not only attractive – they are even highly desirable. In the southern Swiss canton of Ticino, a region that shares much of its border and culture with northern Italy, there is a strong peasant tradition of striped houses. Painted in bold bands of colour, these houses are decorated not out of spite, but to put on a public display of care and richness on otherwise simple domestic structures – a poor kind of rustication. By contrast, in Genoa, where stripes cover many of the city’s medieval churches, including the cathedral of San Lorenzo, stripes can also be found on the private homes of the city’s most preeminent families, the Doria being foremost among them.6 Here, the use of stripes as early as the 13th century for domestic purposes was sanctioned by the city, and it is sometimes said to have marked out these families for their honourable civic deeds.

If anything can be said collectively of this eclectic array of decorated houses, it might be the simple observation of a pattern of stripes used for the public promotion of private agendas: for status, recognition and celebrity, and occasionally for revenge. It is in this broader history that the Kensington stripes must surely be seen, whether we like them or not.

1. This is what Aaron Jackson was hoping for in 2013 when he bought a house opposite the controversial Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas, and painted it in rainbow stripes to protest the organisation’s anti-gay views.

2. A more complete history of the cultural reception of stripes can be found in Michel Pastoureau’s book on textile stripes: The Devil’s Cloth: A History of Stripes and Striped Fabric, New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.

3. Robert Willis, Remarks on Architecture of the Middle Ages, Especially of Italy, London: J & JJ Deighton, 1835, 12 n.*.

4. John Summerson, ‘William Butterfield, or the Glory of Ugliness’, in Heavenly Mansions: and Other Essays on Architecture, 159-76. New York; London: WW Norton, 1963.

5. John Ruskin, The Stones of Venice. Volume the First. The Foundations, new ed,  London: Smith, Elder and Co, 1873, 286-87.

6. MS Briggs, ‘The Architecture of Genoa – II’, The Builder 107, July 31 (1914): 131-35.

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