Fallen out with the neighbours? Time to build a ‘spite house’

Eva Wiseman
Photograph: Carl Court/Getty Images

Until the age of 16 I went to school in a suburb of extreme good taste, where locals were required to maintain their properties according to an ancient and densely illustrated binder of rules about gate heights and hedges. Walking back to the bus stop, through a small stretch of woodland planted with the most polite of flashers, then along slim clean roads, my friends and I would often be moved to scream. Perhaps this experience, of moving in uniform among enforced lawns, contributes to my glee, my utter dripping glee, at the existence of “spite houses”.

The latest example is in a ritzy neighbourhood in Manhattan Beach, California, where a woman called Kathryn Kidd was reported to the city by neighbours for listing her home on Airbnb. Her response was to paint the house fuchsia and cover it with 3ft tall emojis, including one with its mouth zipped shut. Kidd insisted she’d chosen this design a) because she is an art collector, b) as a message to young women to cover up their bodies and c) because she loves emojis. Neighbours instead read them as a sign to “zip their lip”.

Part of my love of the spite house is the way it questions what a house is for

In the UK, the most recent spite house to make the papers was the Kensington home of Zipporah Lisle-Mainwaring, a property developer who painted candy stripes on the three-storey façade of her house in 2015. She denied that the stripes were to spite neighbours who objected to her plans to demolish the £4.75m property, which she used “for storage”. Still, they were quoted as being “horrendously unhappy”. In 2017, she won her battle to knock it down and build a new house, with gym, cinema room and art gallery, in its place. The neighbours remain gloriously displeased.

I dance through these stories as if in a meadow. There have been plenty throughout history, from the righteous (a rainbow-painted bungalow across the street from the comically homophobic Westboro Baptist Church) to the petty (built to obstruct a neighbour’s view), and each one stands proud in brick, its middle finger raised like a chimney. Part of my love of the spite house is the way it questions what a house is for. As has been proven elsewhere by the erection of glass and steel buildings intended to be used as oligarchs’ safety deposit boxes rather than homes, the myth that a house is built simply for people to sleep and eat and bathe in has long been debunked. Instead they are objects of war and anxiety, two-up, two-down, too much.

In Rachel Cusk’s new collection of essays, she writes about the effect it had on her to redecorate her house. Looking around her newly painted home, she felt a “certain sense of shame” at having caused walls to be knocked down and floors to be ripped up and rooms to be gutted, at causing the past to be obliterated. She saw a hidden part of herself exposed – the private decisions she’d made were exhibited for all to see. The domestic, she explains (and I imagine her writing this at a desk so exquisite it hovers half an inch above the ground) is more concerned with seeming than with being – personal ideas are externalised and failings made real.

A fan of Cusk’s bracing work, I spent a happy afternoon poring over pictures of her current home on an estate agent’s website that I frequent, being also a fan of existential pain. A divine and brutal mansion on the Norfolk coast where she lives with her third husband, it is elevated further by Cusk’s musings on property.

“People always buy the house,” she says in captions accompanying the photos, “for the stage of life they’ve just passed through. When something’s completed it’s often the moment that you suddenly understand what it is you’ve wanted and needed.”

In the New York Times that same day I was introduced to the 1990s architecture of Madeline Gins and Shusaku Arakawa, who designed homes to allow their inhabitants eternal life. Their method was this: make them deeply uncomfortable. A brightly painted bathroom has no door, but it does have two toilets, plumbed back to back.

Spite is a perfectly valid reason to build a house. Five years ago psychologists started studying spite and, using game theory, found that when it was used to punish other spiteful players (a person building the narrowest house in the country, perhaps, in the back-alley their neighbour coveted) the overall outcome was a decline in spiteful exchanges, leading to new stability. Plus, it feels good. In Romanian folklore a genie tells a peasant he can have anything he wants, but his neighbour will get twice as much. The peasant says, firmly: “Put out one of my eyes.” I picture the owner of the emoji house chuckling similarly over a pumpkin spice latte, calm in the knowledge that homes have become abstracted to the point of metaphor, that houses are machines for sulking in. And her rental glows pinkly in the corner of her sightline, providing constant reassurance that she is not the only person that suffers.

Email Eva at e.wiseman@observer.co.uk or follow her on Twitter@EvaWiseman