Viewpoint (August 01, 2009)

This year, the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) celebrates its 175th anniversary–a celebration that has inadvertently reignited debate relating to progress and tradition in contemporary architecture. Witness the guest speaker for its 2009 RIBA Trust Annual Lecture last May: the controversial “architecture critic” Prince Charles.

For over 25 years, the Prince has become famous for his undying support of traditional architecture. Most recently, he made an attempt to undermine a London redevelopment–the former site of the Chelsea Barracks located near Christopher Wren’s Royal Hospital. The proposal, designed by Richard Rogers, involves the construction of a series of nine- to 13-storey buildings that will provide a mix of housing and retail. The Chelsea Barracks Action Group that opposes the design reminds us that well over 50 percent of the residential units will be priced in excess of 1 million.

In a letter to the Emir of Qatar, the owner of the land and part-financier of the project (along with developer Candy & Candy), Prince Charles had asked the Emir to revisit the Rogers scheme and instead consider the work of architect Quinlan Terry, an unapologetic Classicist and favourite of the Prince. Instead of the glass-and-steel design by Rogers, Prince Charles proposed Terry’s more classical plan that mirrors the 17th-century Wren-designed Royal Hospital across the street. Because so many architects felt that the Prince had overstepped his role as a member of the Royal Family, there was a call by several leading architects to boycott the 2009 RIBA Trust Annual Lecture.

“The Prince’s latest move displays the destructive signs of his earlier interventions, when he set out to scupper modern architecture. This intervention must now be resisted by the profession; not because of the question of architectural style, but because his actions again threaten an important element of our democratic process,” stated a letter from a group of nine architects to The Guardian. This is not the first time that the Prince condemned the work of Lord Rogers. In his 1984 RIBA Trust Annual Lecture, he called Rogers’ proposed extension to London’s National Gallery a “monstrous carbuncle,” thereby unleashing a battle between Classicists and Modernists during the height of Postmodernism.

Despite the outrage, Prince Charles delivered his speech as scheduled. When RIBA President Sunand Prasad introduced the Prince, he noted diplomatically, “The first critiques of the bad effects of 20th-century planning orthodoxy were made by urbanists and architects like Jane Jacobs, Lewis Mumford and Team X, now almost half a century ago. The critiques of Modernism emerged from within Modernism and have become widely accepted, though practice on the ground has proved harder to change.” Careful to strike peace between Rogers and the Prince, Prasad further noted, “there are many examples of excellent planning and design of neighbourhoods that begin to match the ambitions of the pathfinding report by Lord Rogers of Riverside–Towards an Urban Renaissance–and the work of the Prince’s Foundation.”

In his RIBA speech, the Prince explained, “there still remains a gulf between those obsessed by forms and those who believe that communities have a role to play in design and planning.” These concerns are valid, yet merely express a general consensus amongst the profession today. Furthermore, his criticism of Modernism’s “side-effects caused by quite unnecessarily losing our balance and discarding and denigrating every other element apart from the technological,” doesn’t excuse him from derailing a legitimate architectural scheme for the sake of promoting his classical or traditionalist predilections. Most architects do not wish to reproduce the ill effects of Modernism and traditionalist-minded architects are just as likely as any other architect to produce poorly designed buildings. Prince Charles’ hatred of Modernism is based on its past mistakes, not on the environmental, social and urban innovations it has achieved. Surely, our profession has learned something over the past 175 years.

Ian Chodikoff