Sunday, May 1, 2011

Monarchy and Architecture

Kate Middleton and Prince William at the altar in Westminster Abbey, April 29, 2011 (photo: PA)

Great Britain, that bastion of pomp, pageantry, and tradition, knows how to turn out in grand fashion when the occasion warrants. Such was the case with the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton this past Friday. Prince William will one day ascend to the throne of England and at the same time the monarchy of Canada, my home and native land. As a loyal subject of the Crown, I felt duty-bound to acknowledge the event.

HRH Charles, Prince of Wales

Specifically, the royal nuptials got me thinking about the father of the groom, HRH Prince Charles, and his notorious disdain for contemporary architecture. He delivered an infamous speech in 1984 to the Royal Institute of British Architects likening a modernist expansion for the National Gallery in London by architects Ahrends Burton and Koralek to “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend.”(1) Since then, the Prince of Wales has campaigned vigorously for architecture that harmonizes with its location, uses local materials, and is respectful of history. He favors architecture that serves the aesthetic and practical needs of the average citizen. He also has been highly critical of the fashionable designs produced by the self-appointed architectural intelligentsia, work he characterizes as often more about the architects themselves than the communities they serve.

The rejected “carbuncle” scheme for an addition to the National Gallery, by Ahrends Burton and Koralek (RIBA pix)

The prince wrote a book, A Vision of Britain: A Personal View of Architecture, in which he advocated preservation of the unique character and tradition of towns and cities. He also founded the now defunct Institute of Civil Architecture, the short-lived magazine Perspectives, and established The Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment. The central tenet of the Foundation is to heed the lessons of traditional place-making in new architecture and planning.

A prime example of this traditional place-making is Poundbury, a new-urbanist development on the edge of Dorchester, master-planned by Leon Krier and underwritten by the Duchy of Cornwall. As the Duke of Cornwall, Prince Charles is the developer, though he brings with him no state funding to pay for infrastructure. Poundbury evolved without a preconceived program of buildings and uses. Instead, the master plan consists of a set of development principles and is open to any market demand. The varied geometry of the public spaces is such that they are shaped by the buildings around them or focus upon the surrounding landscape. It allows each building its own response without detracting from the harmony of the whole. The vocabulary is neo-Georgian and vernacular, not surprising given Prince Charles’ preference for traditional architecture, but it is the product of many hands, among them architects Demetri Porphyrios, John Simpson, and Quinlan & Francis Terry.


To its detractors, Poundbury is a contrived exercise in nostalgia— “fake, heartless, authoritarian, and grimly cute” in the words of British design critic Stephen Bayley. However, place-making is more than simply a matter of style to Prince Charles. As Planetizen managing editor Tim Halbur observed, the debate is “less about two different approaches to architecture, and more about how buildings work on the ground and how they relate to the environment around them.” Sustainable development, quality, and thoughtfulness are his real concerns, not a debate pitting traditional versus modern. Style is a convenient straw man for his critics, but substance transcends style. It is the insensitivity of poorly planned developments and their related ills that are at the core of the prince’s misgivings about architecture today.

This has not stopped the prince’s critics from portraying him as "aesthetically timorous" and "culturally backward." They accuse him of being a “philistine,” someone disinclined to truly educating himself about architecture and urban design, possessed of a “mindless admiration for antiquity.” They suggest that he is out of touch and does not understand modern society. Disingenuously, Charles characterizes himself as being an “ignorant amateur.” This is hardly the case, as he has devoted much of his adult life to the study and promotion of what he regards to be timeless principles of traditional urban design.

What galls his opponents most is his use of his privileged position to intervene in, sway public opinion about, and ordain the shape of prominent projects. The National Gallery in London is a case in point. Another is Paternoster Square, for which the Prince of Wales roundly criticized a scheme by Richard Rogers.(2) In 2009 he targeted another design by Lord Rogers, this time for a massive development on the site of the former Chelsea Barracks. Rogers was commissioned by the developer, whose major shareholder is the Qatari royal family. Prince Charles wrote directly to the emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, advising him to can Rogers in favor of architects HRH believed to be more sympathetic to the historical context. Despite the fact Rogers’ design was well-advanced and had progressed through a gauntlet of planning commission reviews, the emir heeded the advice of the Prince of Wales. Rogers’ participation in the development ended abruptly.

The architectural glitterati came to Rogers’ defense. David Adjaye, Norman Foster, Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Renzo Piano, Jacques Herzog and Pierre de Meuron, and Jean Nouvel, among others, together penned a letter denouncing Prince Charles’ actions as an affront to the established planning process and a failure to engage in open and transparent debate. The inference to be drawn from the letter is that a member of the royal family should not be allowed to act so publicly on matters of politics or business. Why not? The prince has the right to express his opinions and lobby on behalf of his beliefs. He did not circumvent the process anymore than any other citizen who opposed the proposed design. The emir did not have to agree to remove Lord Rogers from the Chelsea Barracks project. Prince Charles may only be guilty of breaching royal decorum and restraint by so openly expressing his viewpoints on architecture. Should he be muzzled for holding opinions?

 Chelsea Barracks scheme by Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners

The problem for the decorated defenders of Rogers’s Chelsea Barracks design is that collectively they have largely failed to offer an alternative model for development at this scale. A key point in the Chelsea Barracks case is that validation of contemporary architecture styles will not be found through “density” and “newness” alone. I personally am averse to the reactionary application of historic pastiche but am equally disinclined toward willfully eccentric displays of architectural bravado that fail to elevate the context of which they must be a part. Like the prince, I believe the challenges are more than skin-deep.

Current scheme for Chelsea Barracks by Dixon Jones Architects, Squire and Partners, and Kim Wilkie Associates

Some paint a picture of the Prince of Wales as a dilettante, one alternately dabbling in architecture, organic farming, homeopathy, education—whatever topic he currently fancies—and engaging these interests at the shallowest of levels. In fact, he has learned that all of these subjects are completely interrelated and that we must look at the whole picture to understand the vast scope of the problems we face. He recognizes the complexities of our existence and the role architecture plays in the full breadth of that context. If anything, it may be that the narrow focus of too many of today’s architects precludes them from fully grasping the challenges that confront not only our profession but civilization as well.

The latest book by the Prince of Wales is entitled Harmony: A New Way of Looking at the World. It may prove to be his magnum opus, a clarion call for a global sustainability revolution. He opens the book by describing principles of harmony as found in the natural world and how these principles were embedded in the outlook, arts, and architecture of traditional and classical civilizations. The book further traces how these principles were abandoned as a result of a shift to reductionist and mechanistic ways of perceiving the world during the Age of Enlightenment. Ultimately, the book provides examples of how the principles of harmony may be reintroduced into modern life, from agriculture to town planning, education to health care. Harmony is a blueprint for a more balanced, sustainable world that the human race must create to survive.

Prince Charles is not an architect, which is reason enough for his views to be rejected out of hand by many in our profession. By being pointedly sarcastic in expressing his opinions about architecture, he certainly has not endeared himself to those whose work he has skewered. Nevertheless, by virtue of his position he has the power to influence the production of architecture around the world. As he proclaimed in a 1999 speech, “we should build legacies, not blots, on our landscape.” Architects would be well-served to listen to what he has to say.

(1) Ultimately, the National Gallery executed a post-modern design by American architects Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown and favored by the prince for its new addition. Some regard the Sainsbury Wing as a tongue-in-cheek exercise in camp.

(2) Rogers’ firm was dismissed from the Paternoster Square project in 1987 as a reaction to Prince Charles’ public comments. The project was handed to John Simpson, a classicist endorsed by HRH, but it was shelved as the economy fell into recession. Years later, the Paternoster Square development was finally realized by an assortment of architects (including John Simpson) in accordance with a master plan authored by William Whitfield.


Darling said...

Interesting post.

As an UP student, I'm not opposed to modern architecture, there are definately ways to build that don't make the new buildings look alien next to the old. Also the contemporary designs seem to accomodate more people which he (the prince) needs to take into account.

Randy Nishimura, AIA said...

I certainly am not opposed to modern architecture either. However, contemporary designs do not necessarily accommodate more people/area/volume than historicizing ones. In the instance of the Chelsea Barracks project, I don't think it mattered who designed it to meet the initial program brief. To turn a profit, it needed to be big, so much so that it would be out-of-scale regardless if it was high-tech or neo-Georgian. I'm curious to see the final outcome.