Classic Podium: The tragedy of modern architecture

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From a speech by the

Prince of Wales to mark

the 150th anniversary of

the Royal Institute of British Architects, given at

Hampton Court Palace

(30 May 1984)

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. Consequently, a large number of us have developed a feeling that architects tend to design houses for the approval of fellow architects and critics, not for the tenants.

It has been most encouraging to see the development of Community Architecture as a natural reaction to the policy of decamping people to new towns and overspill estates where the extended family patterns of support were destroyed, and the community life was lost. Now we are seeing the gradual expansion of housing co-operatives, particularly in the inner city areas of Liverpool, where the tenants are able to work with an architect of their own who listens to their comments and their ideas and tries to design the kind of environment they want.

This sort of development, spear-headed as it is by such individuals as Rod Hackney and 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 - offers something very promising in terms of inner-city renewal and urban housing, not to mention community garden design.

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. On that note, I can't help thinking how much more worthwhile it would be if a community approach could have been used in the Mansion House Square project.

It would be a tragedy if the character and skyline of our capital city were to be further ruined, and St Paul's dwarfed, by yet another giant glass stump, better suited to downtown Chicago than the City of London. It is hard to imagine that before the last war, London must have had one of the most beautiful skylines of any great city, if those who recall it are to be believed.

Those who do, say that the affinity between buildings and the earth, in spite of the City's immense size, was so close and organic that the houses looked almost as though they had grown out of the earth and had not been imposed upon it - grown moreover, in such a way that as few trees as possible were thrust out of the way.

Those who knew it then, and loved it, as so many British love Venice without concrete stumps and glass towers, and those who can imagine what it was like, must associate with the sentiments in one of Aldous Huxley's earliest novels, Antic Hay, where the main character, an unsuccessful architect, reveals a model of London as Christopher Wren wanted to rebuild it after the Great Fire, and describes how Wren was so obsessed with the opportunity the fire gave the city to rebuild itself into a more glorious vision.

What, then, are we doing to our capital city now? What have we done to it since the bombing during the Second World War? What are we shortly to do to one of its most famous areas - Trafalgar Square?

Instead of designing an extension to the elegant facade of the National Gallery, which complements it and continues the concept of columns and domes, it looks as if we may be presented with a kind of municipal fire station, complete with the sort of tower that contains the siren. I would understand better this type of high-tech approach if you demolished the whole of Trafalgar Square and started again with a single architect responsible for the entire layout, but what is proposed is like a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend.

Apart from anything else, it defeats me why anyone wishing to display the early Renaissance pictures belonging to the gallery should do so in a new gallery so manifestly at odds with the whole spirit of that age of astonishing proportion. 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? As Goethe once said, "there is nothing more dreadful than imagination without taste".