Spite architecture: spite is the viagra of creativity.

floor plan of Richardson's famous Spite house in NY

Spite architecture – a perverse practice with a long and colourful history – is the  practice of designing and constructing a building, wall or extension to spite another person(s).

Richardson's spite house- see extract at bottom of this post for details of this curious enactment of revenge.

Spite architecture manifests itself in many forms, as the sheer intensity of malice inspires extraordinary creativity.


The Alameda Spite House: the city of Alamedia took a large portion of Charles Froling's land to build a street. Froling had planned to build his dream house on the plot of land he received through inheritance. To spite the city and an unsympathetic neighbor, Froling built a house 10 feet (3.0 m) wide, 54 feet (16 m) long and 20 feet (6.1 m) high on the tiny strip of land left to him (from wikipedia)

Spite house circa 1830 - Alexandria, Virginia. In 1830, John Hollensbury, owner of one of the neighboring houses, wanted to stop horse-drawn wagons from coming into his alley. To block off the area he filled that space with another house—the Spite House: 7 feet wide and 25 feet long - just 325 square feet in two stories

Crocker’s spite fence,  known as ‘Crocker’s Crime’, which completely surrounded his neighbour’s house, became a tourist attraction in San Francisco and a symbol for the Labor movement in SF, as unions and workers protested the widespread use (by Crocker and others) of cheap imported Chinese (‘coolie’) labor in major infrastructure projects. Crocker’s  Fence was built to foil his neighbour Yung, whose house enjoyed outstanding elevation and views – Crocker sought proprietorial control of the entire hilltop for his building and extension plans. Yung paid a price for refusing to sell out to Crocker on Nobb Hill, losing all outlook, views and sunlight to the enveloping fence.

“With the mansion just about completed, Crocker made one final attempt to buy Yung’s property, doubling his original offer. Yung however, because of the beautiful view, the wishes of his family or his own sense of defiance and pride, refused Crocker yet again. This time the Railroad Baron had a plan: he ordered his workmen to construct a three-sided wood fence around Yung’s house. The fence rose forty feet into the sky and the view, the sunshine, and the fresh air that the Yung’s had enjoyed were all but completely taken away. With only northern exposure left to them, the Yungs felt as if they were living at the bottom of a well. The fence was in place and the battles over it and what it represented were just beginning.”  (From James Sederberg – see the blog entry at http://foundsf.org )

The story of railway magnate Crocker and his spiteful construction of this astounding fence is fascinating and tells us a great deal about the history of San Francisco, industrial and race relations, union politics and racism, protests against the importation of underpaid Chinese laborers (‘Co0lies’). More generally Croker’s ruthless business and  building practices speak volumes about the unequal foundations of American progress and capitalism.

Spite can be an intense force that drives people to extreme measures. Under the influence of spite, personalities fluoresce, people become caricatures of themselves. Artists may drive themselves to extremes of creativity. Or they may push themselves and others way too far whilst furthering their deranged cause: going ‘out on a limb’, or unsupported spite extension, losing sight of humanity and aesthetic sensibility. They may lose perspective, blinded by their own spite fence.

This, incidentally, is why the design competition has become a productive business model. Any architect participating in a design competition against a pretentious and overrated professional colleague, will understand that bitterness (and spite) is the viagra of creativity.

It can also provoke their most flawed work. Judges of design competitions may be familiar with examples of this from the mix of designs they have had to consider. Yet many inspired creations result from a spiteful, competitive spirit. If necessity is the mother of invention, then spite is the uber-mother.

The creative brilliance of evil vs the blandness of good is an age old dilemma for artists. John Milton struggled with this when writing Paradise Lost: God’s relatively few stilted lines seem dull in contrast to Satan’s inspired diatribes, and many critics felt that the vivid lyricism of Satan’s language undermined Milton’s moral lesson. I think he did a great job of vindicating Eve – who can blame her for being seduced. Ferrier

Gustave Dore's illustration of Satan from Paradise Lost

Spite architecture’s most common articulation  is the (calculated) design and construction of an unnecessary but often elaborate extension, wall or extra structure for the primary purpose of getting back at someone else, blocking their view, outlook, sunlight or breeze, or simply foiling that person’s own lifestyle aspirations.

the original Waldorf-Astoria hotel, constructed on Fifth Ave. NY, by William Astor. He had it constructed on the site of his father's house, adjacent to his aunt's house, to spite her after a family dispute.

An architecturally literate friend told me that the Turks invented spite architecture, but I am not sure if his estimation can be relied on, as he was at the time researching his Greek heritage. Certainly I recall seeing examples of Turkish ‘spite’ architecture in books (was it The Prodigious Builders? or Architecture without Architects?), showing rows of adjacent buildings with astonishing extensions protruding from their balconies – tit for tat, so to speak. Some say vernacular Japanese housing exhibits similar convoluted shapes, additions and extensions, suggestive of emotive motives (perhaps innocent follies or the products of heated disputes between neighbours). I’d be interested to know more about spite building practices around the globe.

Northern Anatolia: Wooden binding, mudbrick infill, supports of projections horizontal.

Turkish walls, projections, extensions serve various functions

‘Spite’ constructions – buildings, extensions, fences, walls – stand as testimony to the enduring nature of negative emotions. Architects’ wives understand the power of grief, bitterness, anger, resentment, jealousy. Her own lingering bitterness when combined with the spleen of their architect spouse, creates a p0tent mix with the afterlife of yellow cake.  Children of architects often require years of therapy – while living in non-architect designed dwellings – to begin to recover.

Architects’ wives will be affirmed when considering the phenomenon of spite architecture. It validates their knowledge of the truth about architects  (and their own love/hate relationship with them) through its articulation of ‘darkness visible‘, its manifest proof of the imbrication of creativity and bitterness in creative people’s lives.

Examples of spite architecture –  like other forms of architecture – are material manifestations (literally – materialised in wood, concrete, stone, glass, steel)  or ‘statements’  in an ongoing conversation. In the case of spite architecture, the conversation is an argument or dispute: e.g. bitter statement, nasty reply, renewed assault, vicious retort, and so on. It is not surprising that the legal profession has special terms for various spite actions, including spite construction.

The example that spite architecture provides us with, demonstrating architecture as conversation, debate, argument, also reinforces Foucault’s spatial analysis of power relations and his understanding of the discursive nature of architecture and town planning. See Paul Hirst Foucault and Architecture, Local Consumption Press.  or this link to extracts from Hirst.

Richardson’s spite house: extract from  A.G. Van der Weyde’s “The Queerest House in this Country”, Valentine’s Manual of Old New York (1929): 

Sarner ascertained that one Joseph Richardson was the owner of the narrow strip along the Avenue. He offered Richardson $1,000 for the land, but Richardson demurred, saying he considered the property worth very much more. He wanted $5,000. Sarner refused to pay this price and Richardson called his visitor a “tight-wad” and slammed the door on him. Sarner then proceeded with the construction of his apartment house and arranged with the architect who drew the plans that there should be windows overlooking Lexington Avenue. When the houses were finished Richardson noted the windows and then and there determined upon his curious revenge.
“I shall build me,” he said to his daughter, “a couple of tall houses on the little strip which will bar the light from Sarner’s windows overlooking my land, and he’ll find he would have profited had he paid me the $5,000.”
The daughter, Della by name, unavailingly protested, as did also Richardson’s wife, that a house only five feet wide would he uninhabitable.The old man, who had acquired a reputation as a miser, was obdurate. “Not only will I build the houses,” he insisted, “but I will live in one of them and I shall rent to other tenants as well. Everybody is not fat and there will be room enough for people who are not circus or museum folk.” So, within a year, the house was built. It effectively blocked out the light from all the side windows on Sarner’s property, and old Richardson was happy. Cited by A.Alpern and S. Durst,  New York’s Architectural Holdouts (1984), republished 1996, Dover Publications.  See http://www.nyc-architecture.com and http://blog.plover.com/tech/spite-house.html

Spite House - Seattle

Seattle Spite House. ” In the 1920s there was a *nasty divorce*. The judge awarded the husband the house and the wife the front yard. Perhaps he thought a sale would bring the two back together? Alas, twas not to be. The wife took her property and built a house on it.   From the front the Spite House looks perfectly ordinary, if a little old- fashioned (pink stucco, spanish-tiled roof). It’s the side dimensions that make it unique. The north end is only ten feet wide, the south, only five“. [Mark Lockwood, 09/07/2000]

There are many fascinating accounts of Spite architecture and vernacular architecture – some can be found at the following.

Spite House info

Turkish vernacular buildings

Bay ridge spite house

Interesting Blog

Narrowest home in the world.

Great blog on style and architecture


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5 responses to “Spite architecture: spite is the viagra of creativity.

  1. A coworker recommmended your blog. I “covered” it at churchthatmoves.com . For what it’s worth, I really like the commentary with a touch of happy bitterness.

    • hey thanks! Glad you get the happy bit.
      Do like to sound icky bitter like espresso, but am in reality more like corn syrup of the Pollyanna variety – full of admiration for architects (and their longsuffering families).

  2. This is so interesting. Finally got a chance today to have a reasonably detailed look. It’s fascinating how spite is so powerful and successful a motivation, if only for the spiteful. Such as old Richardson, having built the small and narrow house to block out his neighbour’s light, being cheerfully prepared to live in that inadequate structure, just to continue the spitefulness, and be happy at that.

    So if the sleighted neighbour succumbs and moves out, all the better, really: the spiter has succeeded, and at worst is left with a folly, which is better than nothing at all. Somehow the cards are all stacked in his (it invariably is) favour.

    But have there been any instances of a successful retaliation by one of the shleighted? And could the sleighted ever really succeed, bearing in mind the lengths that would have to be gone to, in denying the spiter the misery that has been intended? I suppose that would have to involve being seen to be enjoying the situation created out of and despite spite, and maybe creating some sort of discomfort for the spiter. Very challenging.

    Thanks for bringing this topic to the fore!

    JB.

    • Hi John, You’ve thought about it a lot more than I have I think and have some great observations there. Yes it does tend to work in his favor -sometimes the bastards get ahead don’t they. It’s a strange phenomenon isn’t it. I remember being fascinated with Revenger tragedies when studying English Lit at uni. Might revisit them one day to find out whether that genre throws light on the subject.

      As for doing something creative back…that’d be the sanguine way to deal with it – to rise to the challenge and play (or pay) back. But then to retaliate would be to give it more power, coerced into action. Maybe ‘we’ do act out of spite a lot more than we realise, and most often it wouldn’t be as conscious or widely known as in these examples where building is involved. I think spite is more common in language and conversation -when someone is actually hurt by a comment or action of someone else (maybe misguided – due to a misunderstanding) and says something that appears to be an answer or joke but may have a barb to it – or subtle put down. I think it gets called wit though.
      Hope all is well for you guys. Have a great Xmas. cheers Liz

  3. Pingback: Angry Building « cgdPOV

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