You have to give this much to the Luftwaffe: when it knocked down our buildings, it didn't replace them with anything more offensive than rubble.
-Prince Charles in 1987 criticizing architect Richard Rogers's proposed scheme for Paternoster Square, next to St Paul's Cathedral
On the evening of May 29, 1984, Prince Charles did something spectacular: he stepped up to the podium and faced Britain's most elite and celebrated architects, but instead of lavishing them with the praise they'd come to receive as they ushered in 150 years of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), he clobbered them all over the head with the metaphorical equivalent of a steel I-beam. Men fumbled uncomfortably with their bow ties, forks clattered on china plates, husbands jabbed their wives awake from post-dessert snoozes; did the Royal Gala's venerable speaker, our milquetoast prince, just compare the National Gallery's proposed facade expansion to a municipal fire station?
And just like that, Prince Charles became the modern design world's number one enemy.
In his 1,923-word speech that escaped the vetting of aides, Prince Charles tepidly praised India's modernist architect Charles Correa, overshared his hypochondriac tendencies, mourned the demolition of historic buildings, and chided pompous architects. But before dropping his mic and running to the nearest Bentley, he made sure to throw in a biting Goethe quote ("there is nothing more dreadful than imagination without taste") and address the tension in the room ("you are probably regretting having asked me to take part"). Wow, I don't care what People magazine says, the man has balls.
After picking their jaws up from the floor, architects and designers did their best to fight back and say the prince was merely trying to divert attention from his strained marriage with Princess Diana. It was no use, though, and Prince Charles' RIBA speech was the fired starter pistol to his sprint to reform design aesthetics. The Prince of Wales tasted victory when the National Gallery proposal was scrapped following his speech, a triumph that emboldened him to criticize modern architecture at every turn. Over the decades, his fiery rhetoric did not go unnoticed and many high-profile modernist projects fell out of favor for less severe and more people-friendly designs. Since kicking off the UK's design war in 1984, Prince Charles has faced his own vehement critics and adversaries; poor fellow, no love from the architectural world or Team Diana.
Other memorable passages from Prince Charles' 1984 RIBA speech include:
-For far too long, it seems to me, some planners and architects have consistently ignored the feelings and wishes of the mass of ordinary people in this country. Perhaps, when you think about it, it is hardly surprising as architects tend to have been trained to design buildings from scratch - to tear down and rebuild.
-To be concerned about the way people live; about the environment they inhabit and the kind of community that is created by that environment should surely be one of the prime requirements of a really good architect.
-Ted Cullinan - a man after my own heart, as he believes strongly that the architect must produce something that is visually beautiful as well as socially useful.
-What I believe is important about community architecture is that it has shown 'ordinary' people that their views are worth having; that architects and planners do not necessarily have the monopoly of knowing best about taste, style and planning; that they need not be made to feel guilty or ignorant if their natural preference is for the more 'traditional' designs - for a small garden, for courtyards, arches and porches.
-Why can't we have those curves and arches that express feeling in design? What is wrong with them? Why has everything got to be vertical, straight, unbending, only at right angles - and functional?
The full speech is here.
Recently, I read that Prince Charles made an impassioned plea for Britain's streets to be reclaimed from the car and went so far to develop a 10-point "master plan" for revitalizing cities. Well, that got my full attention and I can't imagine how I missed this news in 2014 (probably something to do with the Kardashians clogging up U.S. media outlets). I dove into the matter a bit more and was delighted to discover this modern-day urban planning hero, someone who's not afraid to point out the truth. It's not every day that a person with an audience feels so passionate about saving our cities from ill-conceived architecture and cars that they so readily embrace controversy.
Prince Charles has always fought to break the mold that royal protocol forced upon him. Instead of sitting on his well-manicured hands and whittling away his time with photo-opportunity fluff projects until his mother, Queen Elizabeth, passed, he devoted his energy to a topic that he was always interested in: architecture. And after anointing himself as Britain's fiercest critic of modernism, news headlines described Prince Charles as a 25-year old royal pain and clients as far away as Qatar were quick to drop modernist projects. I applaud Prince Charles for the reasonable, clear and undeniably true arguments he's espoused since he first tried to even the architect/citizen playing field in 1984. How anyone could get bitterly offended at inanely true comments like "architects tend to design houses for the approval of fellow architects and critics, not for the tenants" (just one $55 million case in point) is beyond me, but then again, most architects and designers have egos more delicate than Royal Doulton porcelain figurines.
In the age of automobiles and concrete, it's not easy to have one's voice heard above the dull roar of monotonous planning. I appreciate Prince Charles' audacity to stand apart from the planning herd and fight for cities and people, even if he has very little to lose but Her Majesty's loving approval. Cities need impassioned and vocal advocates today more than ever, and if anything, this unlikely champion opened a conversation on the reality of our public spaces. He believes urban design and architecture should serve people, not cars and egos, and barring his kitschy ye-olde-days aesthetic, I couldn't agree more. Sadly, the modernist architects who Prince Charles knocked from a spandrel glass pedestal would disagree when I say that Prince Charles' criticisms are well-meaning attempts to draw attention to real urban problems and solutions.
But before we elevate Prince Charles to Jesus-like proportions, let's look more closely at this intriguing figure. Let's start with Poundbury, an urban extension of rural Dorchester, conceived in 1987 and a manifestation of the prince's architectural principles. While Prince Charles should be applauded for designing a modern community "favouring the pedestrian over the car", applause should be withheld for the fact that his development shows greater car use than in the surrounding rural district, not to mention the train station is a 25-minutes' walk away and an abundance of free parking has turned public squares into parking lots. Ouch.
Now, let's move on to his argument that people should reclaim city streets from cars. That's music to my ears but a hard pill for planners to swallow, coming from a man with not only a fleet of luxury cars but a vintage Aston Martin that runs on wine and cheese. (The car's license plate probably reads "LTEC #1" in deference to Marie Antoinette.)
Finally, there's Prince Charles' newest pet project, the "eco-friendly" garden town of Sherford in south Devon. It's unclear what makes this town greenwashable or respectful of history, as the location is a rural greenfield and site excavations revealed remnants of an ancient settlement over 3,000 years old.
To affect true change and relieve our vibrant urban spaces from the clutches of cars and dreary design, we need visionary urban planning heroes like Prince Charles who are willing to listen to the people and fight the status quo. Overall, Prince Charles' simple, straightforward, and sage principles make him a role model for planning and design theory, and like any good architect, he should be willing to return to the drawing board -- and practice what he preaches -- to ensure the finished project truly benefits society. Mixing the “the best of the old” with “the best of the new"? Count this urban planner in.
Header photo: Prince Charles visiting Poundbury in 2014 (photo credit: Paul Grover, theguardian.com)