Is Buckingham Palace ugly?

Guards in front of Buckingham Palace

Buckingham Palace will be a focal point in the Queen's Jubilee celebrations, 250 years after work started to make it into a royal residence. But is this famous landmark an attractive building or a carbuncle, asks Sophie Robehmed.

Taj Mahal. Empire State Building. Sydney Opera House. Buckingham Palace feels at home in that list of the world's most recognisable buildings.

Every year countless tourists flock to have their picture taken in front of its cast-iron gates.

But how does the palace - originally named Buckingham House when built in 1705 as a residence for the Duke of Buckingham - stand up next to other classic British buildings like the Palace of Westminster and St Paul's Cathedral?

Buckingham House illustration Buckingham House, pictured in its days as a townhouse for a duke

"It is a mongrel of early 19th and early 20th Century elements around an early 18th Century core," says Elain Harwood, English Heritage's leading expert on 20th Century architecture. "But it doesn't matter as it occupies such a very important place in the public imagination. Indeed, nobody ever seems to notice. It works."

Stephen Bayley's view

It's impossible to separate the reputation of Buckingham Palace from its architectural reality - it's all as layered and muddled as the Windsor bloodlines.

But, thinking of its position in British life, it's surely significant that the building is, in effect, back-to-front. Its public face, the East Wing, is a device enclosing the old courtyard. The real face of the Palace, the part enjoyed by HM, is the invisible garden front.

It's significant surely too that the public face was designed by Sir Aston Webb, best known for The Victoria & Albert Museum - designing repositories of national memory were, clearly, this architect's vocation.

Like Britain itself, Buckingham Palace is a glorious fiction whose narrative goes backwards and forwards at the same time.

There's a curious sense that people do look differently at landmarks as opposed to more mundane buildings that they judge wholly on their architectural merits.

And it's often been remarked that many royals have not enjoyed living at the palace.

It was originally purchased by George III to serve as a comfortable family home near to St James's Palace, which hosted most of the ceremonial events.

In 1762, work began on transforming the house to the King's requirements, masterminded by Sir William Chambers, for the sum of £73,000. Thus started the first in a series of redesigns and additions that have left us with today's palace.

But even after George IV employed John Nash, the noted Regency architect, to transform Buckingham House into a palace during the 1820s, he still chose to spend most of his time at Windsor Castle. But that may have been because of the high cost of living in London and fear of the mobs causing havoc at the time.

Buckingham palace seen from its garden Nash's West Wing of golden Bath stone faces onto the garden

Following in his footsteps, Queen Victoria was hardly at Buckingham Palace and even less so after Prince Albert died in 1861. So rarely was she there that a passerby hung a notice saying "to let" on the gates.

Start Quote

It's a very big, formal, draughty place with a lot of mahogany wardrobes”

End Quote Ingrid Seward

Edward VII tried to transform Buckingham Palace into something that matched the palaces of his European rivals and relatives with the help of architect Sir Aston Webb, says architectural critic and writer Jonathan Glancey.

"Sir Aston Webb's monumental Neo-Classical facade, completed in 1913, was - and remains - very dull indeed, a kind of huge provincial Edwardian bank with the interior of a railway hotel blown out of proportion.

"Edward VII might have spent a lot of money on the palace, but he, too, was very rarely there, spending much of his year in Sandringham, Biarritz, Cowes, Balmoral and Marienbad. Meanwhile, I think it's fair to say that the Queen's real home today is Windsor Castle."

Edward Blore finished the East Wing in 1847, which enclosed a quadrangle, but it is Webb's facade that tourists the world over associate with the building.

Less home, more show home

Queen attends a garden party

Business is the priority with more than 50,000 people visiting every year to attend receptions, banquets, lunches, dinners and royal garden parties. It also boasts 775 rooms including:

  • 92 offices
  • 188 staff bedrooms
  • 78 bathrooms
  • 19 State rooms
  • and 52 royal and guest bedrooms

The Queen normally spends every weekend at Windsor Castle. In addition to hosting state visits for various presidents and monarchs throughout the year, she also takes up official residence at the castle for a month for Easter Court, and a week in June to attend the Royal Ascot race meeting and the service of the Order of the Garter.

But the tendency of monarchs not to live exclusively at Buckingham Palace may not be down to its aesthetic appeal or functionality.

Ingrid Seward, editor of Majesty Magazine, believes it's because the Queen sees Buckingham Palace as an office.

"It's a workplace. Being the official head of state's residence, it's a very big, formal, draughty place with a lot of mahogany wardrobes. It's like a huge hotel. Not remotely cosy or a home by any means."

For many years, the palace has been the focal point for celebrations and commiserations. "Buckingham Palace is a symbol of the monarchy, the capital and Great Britain," says Seward.

Perhaps that's why it doesn't matter that the palace is not regarded as an architectural masterpiece. Glancey argues the palace has played - and continues to play - an important role in the UK's national consciousness.

"It was from the balcony of Sir Aston Webb's facade that Winston Churchill waved to the crowds at the end of World War II. It was where Charles and Diana and William and Catherine kissed for the crowds at the time of their marriages.

Peter York on the interior

I've been to Buckingham Palace a few times. I recently got taken on a big tour of the major places within it.

From the inside, it's very Victorian. Structurally and historically, it's an 18th Century nobleman's house but it possesses high Victorian grandeur, is fantastical and very bling since there is gilding everywhere.

It's like being in a very grand Victorian hotel. It feels more mid-19th Century than 18th Century.

The main staircase from the ground floor to the first floor is all white and gold with red carpet. There are silk damask walls and when you come into the palace, the hall is painted in a mushroom tone.

The room where investitures are held is very big with lots of chairs and guilding, sort of like Victoria station. Another room had an extraordinary piece of furniture - its design featured 3D fruit made of different types of marble. If new, it would be hideous but it is an amazing piece of craftsmanship considering it was made some 200 years ago.

Some people imagine the style of the British royal family to be more laidback and understated but it's not at all. It's exactly what you would expect from a fairytale palace.

"Of course, the Mall and Buckingham Palace - first opened to the public in 1993 - are great tourist attractions, but they are also somewhere at the heart of a sense of what it means to be British, a sense played out to Elgar and with the roar of Merlin engines - the Lancaster, the Spitfires and Hurricanes that fly overhead on special occasions."

There are, of course, plenty of people who like the effect of the palace. Among them is architect Maxwell Hutchinson.

"Buckingham Palace plays an important part in an exquisite composition of urban stagecraft.

"With the grandness of the Mall, Duke of York column and steps, the austere Carlton House Terrace, St James's Palace, Marlborough House - built by Christopher Wren - and Victoria memorial, it's a really good bit of urban theatre."

As with any building, perhaps the final word should be left to the neighbours.

"Buckingham Palace is peculiarly British in that it's a bit of a letdown. It is dutifully ducal rather than impressive and imperial like the Louvre, Madrid's Palacio Real or Vienna's Schonbrunn," says Pol Fergus-Thompson, membership secretary for the Residents' Society of Mayfair and St James's and a local for 12 years.

"Although we get frustrated when the traffic slows for the changing of the guard, most of the people who live nearby appreciate the daily morning pomp and diminishing ceremony. What the palace represents means more than what it is."

Windsor Castle The Queen tends to spend her weekends at Windsor Castle

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  • rate this

    Comment number 447.

    It doesn't really matter whether Buckingham Palace is "ugly" or not. All it has to do is fit in with its surroundings, which it does. However, the only thing that saves The Mall area being labelled grandiose dross such as one sees in contemporary developments in Paris and Berlin, for example, is St James' Park. This is what gives the area its undoubted civic elegance and amenity.

  • rate this

    Comment number 446.

    A bland and boring building. The type of bland, boring building that Prince Charles likes. As someone has rightly pointed out, Buckingham Palace looks like a middle-European Civil service building. Probably London's most disappointing landmark."
    I think it's lovely.But I'm an American.What would I know...?

  • rate this

    Comment number 445.

    A bland and boring building. The type of bland, boring building that Prince Charles likes. As someone has rightly pointed out, Buckingham Palace looks like a middle-European Civil service building. Probably London's most disappointing landmark.

  • rate this

    Comment number 444.

    It looks a bit austere, reserved, removed, drab, unhappy, like its occupants. Could use a bit of yellow I think.

  • rate this

    Comment number 443.

    except metaphorically, not much more ugly than most high schools in brooklyn, but with 78 bathrooms for 240 bedrooms, it does not seem particularly luxe or hygienic. or maybe that does not include 'ladies cloaks.'

  • rate this

    Comment number 442.

    Palace is old, definitely, but I wouldn't call it "ugly" because old sites show signs of wear and tear, but that don't make them ugly.

  • rate this

    Comment number 441.

    439. Spell-Hex says: ".... Americans generally have more pride in the trappings of royalty, than the average Brit."

    Maybe that's because "the average Brit" is not a "Brit" any more.
    Whose fault is that?

    and to say:
    "'s a poke in the eye for those struggling to pay a mortgage"
    that is pathetic - think about it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 440.

    Forget the republic/royalty arguement for a moment, but what would happen if Our Unwanted Regime pushed through it's plans to boot out tenants of houses too big for them and then someone pointed out this big place in London......

  • rate this

    Comment number 439.

    How about the building sums up all that's wrong with the whole monarchy thing. Ostentatious & over-rated.
    Last person I heard get excited about it was president Bush, because he was going to spend the night there!
    Americans generally have more pride in the trappings of royalty, than the average Brit.
    One big building for one couple, is a poke in the eye for anyone struggling to pay a mortgage.

  • rate this

    Comment number 438.

    437. fromtheedgeofthefen says: "... seriously and sadly, the nation itself: we pretend to be what we are not. The whole monarchy/empire/heritage malarkey has prevented this country fully engaging with the modern world"

    It would help your argument if you defined "modern world" and gave an example of your utopia.

  • rate this

    Comment number 437.

    The aspect we see is a 1913 sham, a Barrett house of palaces. Sums up the residents (not quite what they appear to be despite appearances) and,more seriously and sadly, the nation itself: we pretend to be what we are not. The whole monarchy/empire/heritage malarkey has prevented this country fully engaging with the modern world

  • rate this

    Comment number 436.

    Maybe it's time to reverse the diminishing pomp.

    We are a small island rapidly losing everything.

    Shout out loud that we are proud to be British and wish all others who don't want to be part - Bon Voyage.

  • Comment number 435.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 434.

    Is Buck House really 'British'? Define 'British'.

    Perhaps it would be more accurate to claim that Buckingham Palace, aloof, rigid and uncomfortable in its skin, is quintessentially English.

    The more I read about the history of my nation, the more I realise that of all our various constructed identities, including being English of course, our so-called British identity is the most artificial.

  • rate this

    Comment number 433.

    As all things 70's seem to be in fashion right now, how about some stone cladding?

  • rate this

    Comment number 432.

    Leave the Queen alone as she has lived there for half a century and she obviously likes it or she would have changed the facade.years ago.

  • rate this

    Comment number 431.

    430. Golgotha
    428.Name Number 6

    I'm totally going to prison, dude, do me a favour, can you report comment 419 for me?
    All Heroes of the revolution have to do some Poridge, Lenin, Trotsky, Collins, De Valera, Castro, Gueuara, Cash.

  • rate this

    Comment number 430.

    428.Name Number 6

    I'm totally going to prison, dude, do me a favour, can you report comment 419 for me?

  • rate this

    Comment number 429.

    Is it too much to ask to have a discussion about the architecture without the blow hards wading in at every opportunity?

    I'll admit that it's nowhere near as impressive and intricate as places like Castle Howard or even Blenheim, but it doesn't have to be all spires and domes. Buckingham Palace is just straight large, imposing and imperial. None of that airy fairy nonsense

  • rate this

    Comment number 428.

    419. Golgotha
    There is only room on the Workers Revolutionary Council for Bravehearts
    (Even revolutionary Scottish ones)

    I see prince William (is he the one with Royal blonde hair?) is about to inherit another £10m, perhaps he can treat his gran and give the place a lick of paint.


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