Tuesday, 30 December 2014

Britain is still a country for an old Prince called Charles and one grateful for his watchful eye and timely interventions in matters architectural

Last week the 'Achitectural Review' published an article by the 66 year old Prince of Wales in which he outlined his stance on architecture. At first sight the Prince might not appear to be qualified to make pronouncements about modern British architecture, because at school, after studying 'A' Level History and being awarded a grade 'B' and gaining a 'C' in French, in 1967 he took his place at Trinity College at the University of Cambridge and in his first year studied archaeology and physical and social anthropology, followed by two years of history, culminating in a 2.2 degree in 1970.

Charles 'got' architecture somewhere between his graduation at the age of 22 and the after-dinner speech he gave at the Royal Institute for British Architects’ 150th Anniversary Dinner, when he was 36 in 1984. In what should have been an innocuous affair, instead of congratulating them all for doing such a jolly good job, he took the opportunity to excoriate the profession and their modern designs, with his immortal description of the proposed extension to the National Gallery in London as a "monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend".

As a result of ferocity of the his attack, the design for the extension was dumped, and the career of its architects, ABK, nosedived and proudly in its place, the fake-classical design by Venturi Scott-Brown stands today.

Thankfully, in the same speech, the Prince managed to kill off an office block by the legendary German architect, Mies van der Rohe, no doubt complete with Miesian signature corners, which was to be situated near the Bank of England and instead, we got, the postmodern 'No 1 Poultry Building' by Stirling/Wilford.

Later, in 1987, Charles criticised a scheme for Paternoster Square, next to St Paul’s Cathedral, by his bete noir Richard Rogers, saying "you have to give this to the Luftwaffe, when it knocked down our buildings, it didn’t replace them with anything more offensive than rubble” and mercifully it was quickly dropped.

Over subsequent years, in publications such as his 'Visions for Britain', Charles gave us his much appreciated opinion of John Madin's 1974 Birmingham Central Library as “a place where books are incinerated, not kept."  While the British Library (left), by Colin St.John Wilson, was “more like the assembly hall of an academy for secret police”.

The most recent use of the old Prince's use of Royal privilege was his getting directly in touch with the Qatari Royal Family to get Richard Rogers, who by this point had been made Baron Rogers of Riverside, thrown off the project to redevelop the Chelsea Barracks.

Charles has been guided in his pronouncement in the 'Architectural Review' by his ten simple, but timeless Principles :
Architecture is :

* a language.
* must also have scale as a key.
* should have limited signage.
* have built-in flexibility,

and is about :

* developments that must respect the land.
* creating harmony where neighbouring buildings must be ‘in tune’ but not uniform.
* the creation of well-designed enclosures.
* recognising materials also matters and the use of local wood beats that of imported aluminium.
* putting the pedestrian at the centre of the design process.
* recognising that space is at a premium, but not result in high-rise builds.

Britain has been lucky that it wasn't just his power as 'Prince' that made Charles’ polemics hit home: they coincided with Britain’s lurch to the right in Margaret Thathcher's 1980s Britain. By the time Charles was making his pleas for traditional design based upon “timeless” principles, the dismantling of the welfare consensus of the post Second World War world was in full swing and rejecting modern architecture went hand-in-hand with fighting the trades union, deregulating the planned economy, smashing industry and rejecting the spectre of socialism that had almost ruined Britain.

Charles has also been fortunate in surrounding himself with traditionalists like :

* Quinlan Terry (left) who believes classical architecture is an expression of “divine order”

* Leon Krier (right), much of whose career has been spent trying to redeem the neo-classical architecture of Albert Speer, Hitler's Nazi Minister for Armaments during the Second World War.

It would be wrong to think that Charles is a Prince interested only in “turning the clock back to some Golden Age”. His thoughts and ideas about architecture are :

* about the challenges of the future : of housing the 3 billion extra people projected to be on the planet by 2050 and housing them in a sustainable, resilient manner.

* rediscovering traditional approaches to architecture, which developed over millennia and were abandoned in a so-called 'progressive' modern age.

The old Prince is at his simplest and most profound when he argues that, and it is perhaps here that the old archaeology and history graduate comes out, that architecture should :

* return to the harmonic principles of the classical orders of ancient architecture, themselves inspired by the sacred geometry of  “nature” and an order which is “innately beautiful”.

* use the harmonic and geometrical division of circles which “displays the order which is sacred to all things.”

And Charles, who may not be a 'prince of the people' is certainly a 'prince for the people',  believes that architecture using this language, this geometric grammar, “communicates directly to people by resonating with their true being”.

In this scheme, the geometric rose windows of a medieval cathedral, like Durham, are seen as “physical manifestations of the Divine order of the universe” and are inherently beautiful. This could be a paean in praise for Monarchy itself.

Britain acknowledges the fact that for more than 30 years, the good Prince may have been the bane of the architectural profession, but he has wielded, the power bestowed upon him by an accident of birth, to influence the design not only of individual buildings and projects, but the entire debate about what architecture is, who it is for and what it should look like and for this, his subjects and the country is profoundly grateful. It will certainly have no truck with Alister Scott at Birmingham City University who said : "There is clear evidence of elitism and his lack of empathy with the problems facing his peasantry".

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