Friday, March 31, 2017

Save Empress Place


On the evening of Wednesday, 30th May, 1984, I can remember what I was doing. Liverpool were playing Roma in the European Cup Final; and, being a football nut, I was parked in front of the television. At the same time, at Hampton Court Palace (12 miles west of London), HRH The Prince of Wales was giving a speech to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Royal Institute of British Architects.

It is typical of the British Royal Family to steer clear of voicing strident views on contentious issues, but, that evening, HRH decided to chuck traditions out through the palace windows. He let rip thus:

‘Instead of designing an extension to the elegant facade of the National Gallery which complements it and continues the concept of columns and domes, it looks as if we may be presented with a kind of municipal fire station, complete with the sort of tower that contains the siren. I would understand better this type of high-tech approach if you demolished the whole of Trafalgar Square and started again with a single architect responsible for the entire layout, but what is proposed is like a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend (my italics).’

The royal boot had landed – squarely up the rear end of an entire profession. Controversial was not the word, and much heated debate followed. Perhaps the most crucial consequence, however, was that HRH had, with just two brilliantly-chosen words, placed British architecture under the spotlight. Mention the phrase ‘monstrous carbuncle’ anywhere in the UK, and I think the vast majority of people my own age would be able to recall that event more than three decades ago.

I, personally, have never doubted that the Prince was wholly in the right. Some buildings in my native land are ugly beyond description. So much so, that there exists a ‘Carbuncle Cup’, which is awarded for the ugliest new building of the year. There is, justifiably, red-hot competition.

A disproportionate number of champion carbuncles adorn the capital. Many more are at the planning stages. If you take a trip along the London Underground’s District Line to West Brompton (Figure 104.1), alight at the station, climb the steps onto Lillie Road, turn left and walk for about a hundred yards, there is a grand old pub on the right, named, strangely enough, the Prince of Wales.

Figure 104.1: London SW6

Copyright © 2017 Google Maps

This pub is on the corner of an elegant Victorian terrace, aptly named Empress Place (Figure 104.2). These two rows of neat cottages (Figure 104.3), all with gardens, are highly coveted by London’s house-hunters. I have always believed that London’s characteristic architecture makes it the world’s most stunning capital city, and Empress Place makes a small contribution to its uniqueness and lasting splendour.

Figure 104.2: The Place, viewed from Lillie Road

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Figure 104.3: Empress Place’s stucco and polychromatic brickwork

Copyright © 2016 Po Kadzieli

You can probably guess where this is leading. Yes, Empress Place has been earmarked for imminent demolition. Property developers Capco have submitted grandiose plans to replace these attractive 19th-century cottages with a vast collection of what I can only term characterless monoliths which could be found anywhere in the world. There is nothing ‘London’ about what they are proposing.

At this point, I ought to declare that my objection to the plans is quite personal. The houses of Empress Place were designed by my great-great-great-grandfather, the esteemed London architect, John Young (1797-1877) (Figure 104.4). His influence on London’s architecture was substantial, having designed the Colosseum in Regent’s Park (1827), The Royal Marsden Hospital (1851) and numerous residential and commercial buildings.

Figure 104.4: An ancestral portrait

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He is especially renowned for his imaginative use of polychromatic brickwork. This is featured, not only throughout Empress Place, but also in many of his other creations. A striking example can be found at 23, Eastcheap (Figure 104.5), in the City of London, near to where generations of my ancestors were born and raised.

Figure 104.5: A London coffee shop. Note the intricate polychromatic brickwork of the upper floors, designed by John Young.

 Copyright © 2011 Stephen Richards

I am pleased to learn that there is a campaign to save not only Empress Place, but also the rest of (what now remains of) the Earl’s Court area. I support it wholeheartedly and would be greatly saddened if, in the near future, such an attractive old landmark were replaced by something that would ultimately subtract from London’s unsurpassed architectural heritage.

What else could I do? Perhaps I could write a letter to HRH. The Prince’s views would not be casually ignored.


Further information can be found at:

There is also a long-running campaign to save the home of John Young.

Further information can be found at:

Copyright © 2017 Paul Spradbery