At least Charles has a vision

Never mind his whingeing style; the Prince is right to criticise the Millennium Commission's plans
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The Independent Online
Prince Charles's views on architecture have always been uniformly silly, wrong-headed and damaging. In the contemporary world, honouring the past by recreating it should be left to Disney and McDonald's rather than demanded of Foster and Rogers. His views on other subjects, however, have often displayed encouraging signs of being almost right, if rather wetly expressed. And now, on the subject of the millennium, he has, unequivocally, got it all right.

His article in his magazine, Perspectives on Architecture, is clearly inspired by his perception - shared by anybody who thinks about the subject for more than five minutes - that the Millennium Commission with its grubby sacks of lottery cash is a miserable affair, hell-bent on the usual modern British project of aiming low and missing. He detects, correctly, that in the absence of any grand, imaginative sense of what the millennium should be about, we are allowing it to be about nothing at all - ie, fun fairs, theme parks and vaguely sensitive do-gooding.

"It is, to say the least, depressing," he writes with an unfortunate lapse into his wet, tentative, whingeing style, "that there is so little one could describe as transcending the merely material in the projects which have so far been submitted to the Millennium Commission."

Instead, he calls for a celebration of spiritual renewal, a rejection of the murderous nihilism of the 20th century and a statement of hope. He suggests a number of ways of doing this, but the most interesting - and controversial - is his idea that we should finance a range of new religious buildings.

Of course, churches are still built in this country, but there is little interest in them, aesthetic or spiritual. Nobody fights liturgical wars over Gothic versus classical as they did in the last century. And, since Guildford and Coventry, cathedral-building has been completely off the national agenda.

One obvious reason is that if anybody suggested a cathedral, somebody else would immediately say it should be a hospital/community centre/gym and nobody, not even the Church, would dare disagree. "How many divisions has the Pope?" asked Stalin. We ask the same question, softened for contemporary ears: "How many acute beds has St Paul's?"

Another reason is the alarming, levelling doctrine of multiculturalism. How could we build a cathedral rather than a mosque or temple? The Prince gets round this by embracing a constitutionally radical form of multiculturalism, redefining himself as the Defender of Faith rather than Defender of the Faith. Perhaps in a desperate attempt to express his own transcendent longings against the prevailing orthodoxy of materialism, he identifies a generalised human spirituality rather than any sectarian creed as the only possible solution to our woes.

This immediately lands him in trouble. The press, suffering from its usual cultural bipolar disorder, reports him as saying that money should go to mosques. The intention is, of course, to inflame anti-Islamic feeling, an enduring given in the newspaper imagination. The Prince has obligingly provided yet more ammunition, even to the extent of, at one point, quoting the Koran. This, clearly, is a man who has sold out to the chanting nutters.

But wait a minute. The stories quote Muslims as saying they could not accept lottery cash because of their own injunction against gambling. So, disgusted as the newspapers' highly moral readership may be at the idea of financing mosques, in reality it turns out the Muslims are more moral than we are. We wallow in tainted lottery cash, they won't touch it.

Unconsciously, in its zeal to inflame prejudice, this coverage dramatises precisely the right point. For British Muslims do build mosques - frequently big, cathedral-like ones - and the Hindus build temples. The Prince himself contrasts the vast new Hindu temple in Neasden with our own plans for "a giant, but essentially meaningless, party which will soon be no more than a passing memory". If we can't build cathedrals, he implies, then help them build theirs. Faith, hope, of one kind or another, will be served and who is to say that Neasden is not the Lincoln or Wells of the future? Not us, certainly, a people who cannot tell the difference between a spandrel and a Big Mac.

There is much that can be said against the reduction of faith to a bland, all-purpose spirituality. But Charles's point remains strong. The disconsolate, separated heir is clearly searching for significance, a coherent reason for celebration that is more than merely functional, sentimental or hedonistic. He thinks that, without such a reason, we will not only have a lousy millennium party, we shall have a lousy millennium, an era just as brutal, stupid and lost as the 20th century. But, equally, he believes this will not happen, that we are on the verge of a new spirituality, a reconnection to our transcendent roots. Perhaps now is precisely the time to start a few cathedrals.

This is, of course, unrealistic. If we are on the verge of a new age the Millennium Commission will certainly be at lunch when it happens. Neither cathedrals nor any other kind of materially functionless monuments can, these days, be talked through the committees, accountants, managers and single-issue freaks that dominate the decision-making process in Britain. Secular monuments get built - art galleries, theatres, concert halls - but these invariably have to be justified either by a liberal elitist ideology of art or by the promise of commercial gain. Art survives to make transcendent demands, but only, in the public realm, as a religious surrogate or as corporate advertising. One way or another, function has to prevail because the possibility of a shared non-functional reality simply does not exist.

When the Prince witters about architecture what he really wants is pretty villages dotted around Palladian mansions, all frozen at some point in the early 18th century. There are plenty of modern architects that can do better than that. On the subject of the millennium, however, he has rightly detected that there is no one. His reaction is bravely to demand the impossible - or, if not that, then at least support for other British cultures that have not yet succumbed to our nihilism.

It is sad that this well-meaning but usually appallingly ill-advised man can expect his idealism to be greeted with little more than mockery, or that his thoughts will be interpreted as one more shot in the feud with his estranged wife. Sad, but oddly appropriate. For there he is, talking about cathedrals and the ravages of materialism while, daily, Diana is photographed in Lycra turning up to worship at the pec decks and treadmills of her Chelsea gym. The separation has become a Cartesian war between the soul and the body.

Well, at least that makes one thing easy. I gather that in court circles these days you are expected to be either of the Charles or the Diana party. It is a relief to know at last which side I am on.