Architects angry at Prince's power grab
He has damned modern designs for London's National Gallery and Chelsea Barracks, trumpeted a traditionalist model town in Dorset and delivered verdicts on buildings to ministers and world leaders. Now Prince Charles's architectural influence could be felt across Britain.
In a move which has angered architects favouring contemporary design, the Prince's Foundation for the Built Environment has mooted plans to offer professional design advice on future developments nationwide.
The move comes after the Government indicated this month that it was cutting funding for its design watchdog, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (Cabe).
"The Government previously had a design quango to be the design arbiter in Britain but we perceive a route where local authorities could seek advice from a variety of sources in a marketplace of ideas," said the Foundation's chief executive Hank Dittmar. "We'd be entering into the notion of localism, offering a voluntary service using experts whom we fund."
Dittmar insists that the Foundation operates independently of the Prince and that any design review board would seek members known to advocate a range of architectural styles. However the Foundation's website says its mission is to "heed the lessons of traditional place-making in new architecture and planning".
The plans have been greeted with incredulity by some of the country's most prominent architects. "The Foundation is obviously concerned with the environment and we've seen it rear its head on prominent schemes at London's Paternoster Square, where plans to rebuild the London square were dropped after the Prince intervened in 1987, and elsewhere," said architect Will Alsop. "The organisation is partisan. On the other hand Cabe's advisers were not being paid, they were offering design services for free, out of a public duty."
The majority of Cabe's 125 staff have been served with redundancy notices ahead of the body's intended closure next March, although the Architecture minister, John Penrose, has said he is still in discussions with Cabe about its future.
Robert Adam, a former Cabe adviser and a favourite architect of the Prince, welcomed the Foundation's proposals. "I was on [Cabe] to provide balance but in the end it became a huge bureaucracy where the balance had been lost and ended up peddling the established architectural view," he said.
Will Hurst, news editor of the architecture trade newspaper Building Design, commented: "Architects' beleaguered profession has already been poleaxed by the recession and public-sector cuts. The idea that the Coalition's rolling back of the state will hand greater influence to their most famous and vocal critic will add insult to injury."
Construction began on traditional new town just outside Dorchester in 1993. Spread over 154-hectares, it reflects the Prince's architectural principles.
The Prince disliked the original design for the site by Richard Rogers and favoured the traditionalist Quinlan Terry – so wrote to the site's owner, the Qatiri royal family, to complain. The costly battle eventually led to the High Court.
The first homes in this new Welsh village, being co-developed by the Prince's Foundation, were designed by one of Charles's architectural heroes, Robert Adam. The £1.2bn project will contain 4,000 homes.
National Gallery extension
While giving a high-profile speech at the Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba) in 1984, Charles famously lambasted a proposed extension to the gallery by Peter Ahrends as "a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend".
In 1987 Charles poured scorn on Richard Rogers' proposed redevelopment, next to St Paul's Cathedral in London. "You have to give this much to the Luftwaffe," he said. "When it knocked down our buildings, it didn't replace them with anything more offensive than rubble."
Ivor Crew lecture hall
While addressing an audience of soldiers at the venue in 2008, the Prince said that the hall "looked like a dustbin". It went on to win a prestigious Riba award later the same year.
By Jay Merrick
Having driven Britain’s architectural community apoplectic by blocking Richard Rogers’ modernist housing scheme for the Chelsea Barracks site in London, it seemed inconceivable that the Prince of Wales could devise any finer instrument of torture for architects. Yet he has done just that. Through his mouthpiece, Hank Dittmar, we learn that the Prince’s Foundation is interested in taking over from the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment as our watchdog for the architectural quality of important projects.
CABE is due to be axed next March, the government preferring to leave the new architecture of our towns and cities largely in the hands of uncultured developers – there are sterling exceptions, of course. This is a milieu populated by too many ill-informed town and city planners afraid to risk hundreds of thousands of pounds, or even millions, to fight dubious major developments at appeal hearings.
Could Prince Charles’ architectural charity do any better? Well, it certainly can in terms of satire. The Foundation’s director, Hank Dittmar, says that to be credible, “it would have to have democratic, independent judgement. We would have to have a panel that was balanced and not exclusively traditional architects.” A panel as democratic as, say, Prince Charles’s billet doux to the Qatari royal family which effectively destroyed the Rogers’ scheme? Or perhaps as democratic as the occult wheeling and dealing that architects and developers pursue to get planners on-side?
It is inconceivable that the Prince’s Foundation could be made responsible for assessing the potential goodness or badness of major British architectural projects; not because its officers are culturally one-eyed, which is a very harsh and unreasonable thing to suggest. The fundamentally damning point is much simpler: the Prince and his Foundation claim they are interested in modernist architecture, but they are not. They are interested in architecture ambered in the romantic soft-focuses of history and tradition. Just as there is good and bad neo-classical architecture, so there is good and bad modern architecture. In the latter case – the vast majority of new building proposals – would the Duchy Original cohort know the difference? Perhaps not.
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