How 'contemptible and bland' Buckingham Palace was given the theme park treatment

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Buckingham Palace has been given a stunning Royals-R-Us fantasy makeover by one of Britain's best-known architects, Sir Terry Farrell, who hates the building because "it gives the wrong message about the monarchy and treats us with contempt". He wants to jackhammer and bulldoze "the White Cliffs of Windsor" into a kind of open house.

His hate for the "hostile" complex of buildings is lavish. He loathes the "bland" Edwardian frontage. Nor can he stand the way the palace is surrounded by high walls, protecting internal gardens which are technically ground belonging to the public. He wants a people's palace that treats visitors as citizens rather than subjects. And he admits that, when he was knighted in the summer by the Prince of Wales, he wondered if the Prince realised "just how much I disliked his mother's house. Is my next appointment being up for the chop?".

Buckingham House, as it was known, has been in the Royal Family since 1763 when George III bought it for his bride, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. But when Queen Victoria took up residence in 1837, the first sovereign to use it as full-time headquarters, she found it too cramped for her family, the plumbing being a particular gripe.

She wrote to Sir Robert Peel, the Prime Minister, in 1848, complaining of "the total want of accommodation for our little family, which is fast growing up". The land around the palace was not sacrosanct. Dr Johnson's libidinous familiar, James Boswell, favoured the adjoining Green Park for knee-trembling assignations.

Queen Elizabeth appears to as unenthused as Queen Victoria, perhaps not least because of the regular invasion of tourists since the palace was opened to the public in 1993. But the pressure for the royals to move out, for example from Mo Mowlam, has continued. The respected architectural historian Charles Jencks describes Buckingham Palace as "inferior architecture" and supports the Farrell plan for a horseshoe of 10 large glazed pavilions facing the palace front to allow crowds "to have a coffee and take possession for the people".

The Starbucks syndrome aside, Sir Terry says the new plaza could become a place to drink, watch, hold street parties and concerts in a "public front room for Britain" with unfettered access into the hallowed gardens through four three-storey arches.

Sir Terry's makeover to the buildings designed by architects including John Nash and Edward ("The Bore") Blore would, in effect, drive the Royal Family out of its state headquarters at the west end of The Mall and open the site to a tsunami of tourists. His plan is the subject of The Palace Redesigned, a Channel 4 programme on 2 January.

The shock value of the scheme, of which those in Buckingham Palace knew nothing yesterday, is not a surprise: Sir Terry, a charming and voluble man, is well-known for playful, striking architecture. His ziggurat-like office complex for MI6 at Vauxhall is a brilliantly peculiar chunk of green glass and masonry; the Charing Cross redevelopment is Flash Gordon in meltdown.

But has architecture's Ming the Merciless hit a significant nerve with his Buckingham Palace scheme? Rod Hackney, an ex-president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, and a big fan of Prince Charles's "breath of fresh air" views on architecture, backs any move to open the palace.

"It's wonderful, it's in a prime location, but it's a huge disappointment," he said. "A lot of my foreign friends go there and feel they're being ripped off. They think it's a bit dingy. If you go in as a family, you don't get much for your £30, do you? It's a British thing, isn't it, to put a cloak around these things. So anything Terry Farrell has put up would open it up. But I'm not sure the Brits are ready for it."

He said the programme might be a way to break the ice on a touchy subject, whether Buckingham Palace needs to be royally occupied at all. "If the programme seems to catch the public mood, the people who may be using Terry as a voice may say, this is something we should be looking at. This method hasn't changed since Henry VIII: test the idea first."

The pawn-in-royal-spin idea was given short shrift by Stuart Neil, a palace spokesman. "There's been no consultation with Buckingham Palace. Channel 4 asked to film in the back garden and we were unable to accommodate them."

The classicist Robert Adam warned that any radical attempt to open up Buckingham Palace was probably doomed. He described the Farrell modernist concoction as a purely political wheeze, "a pretty naïve form of being modernist. The glass is supposed to symbolise openness, which is rather silly. I'd be very, very cautious about making significant modifications to a national icon – no, an international icon. I don't think it's for architects to imply a whole new position for the monarchy".

Lord St John of Fawsley tells the programme that any further upheaval for Buckingham Palace would be an outrage. And public entry to the gardens was simply too appalling to consider, he said. "The space is marvellous. It's a relief to get into them."

But London's Mayor, Ken Livingstone, would welcome any long-term tourism booster.

Comments