Right. Count to 10 and let's try and keep our temper. Prince Charles has been talking about architecture again – and I think it would be unseemly to splutter, however strong the temptation is. There are two reasons for restraint. One is simple politeness. The Prince's convictions on architecture and the self-image he has as a lonely speaker of truth to power are inextricably interwoven with his sense of his own constitutional impotence, a position which is, I think, deserving of a certain amount of sympathy.
The other reason is that spluttering only encourages him, confirming his sense that he has gone to the quick of a modern malaise. Very few people dare call into question modern orthodoxy, he said in his speech to the Royal Institute of British Architects the other night, because if they do they find themselves "abused and insulted, accused of being 'old-fashioned', out of touch, reactionary". By unspoken logic, I take it, anyone so accused therefore has to be accounted as "daring" – no matter how ill-informed their criticisms.
There must have been moments, though, when the audience the other night was sorely tested by the Prince's speech. There is, for example, the substantial irritation of being told, some 30 years too late, what you've already known for years. Because, whatever he believes, the Prince's remarks about "soulless housing estates" and the errors of Corbusian zoning don't actually assault current architectural orthodoxy. They simply restate it with a patrician gloss. This is called an egg, he announces (organic, free-range, naturally). And the best way to suck it is like this. And then – far more aggravating and difficult to sit through in silence – there are the ways in which he proposes to reintroduce "soul" to modern urban living, a rhetoric of "organic, Nature-like order" that sounds, at times, like the kind of prose you find on the packets of the daffier brands of herbal tea. But, no – that is a splutter.
Let's be more specific then, and point out that the Prince's injunctions about the importance of "natural order" and "deep structures" are a guarantee of absolutely nothing at all. Leaving aside the fact that a man who has benefited from the "natural order" of British history might have a vested interest in inherited tradition, there's also the awkward problem that Modernism itself paid lip-service to precisely such principles. Has nobody told the Prince about Corbusier's Modulor system, which derives all of its proportions from the human frame?
More to the point, has no one coughed discreetly and pointed out that his longing for an architecture bound to "a place not a time" has a fairly precise counterpart in the völkisch romanticism about the vernacular that was a feature of some Third Reich architecture? Poundsbury, the Prince's Disneyfied version of an English village, is no more organic or "local" than Park Hall Estate in Sheffield. Both are political opinions made concrete.
What perhaps is most aggravating is the Prince's insistence that he had no wish to kick-start some kind of style war between Classicists and Modernists, when virtually everything he says perpetuates the hostilities. To talk of "the genetically modified architecture of the Modernist experiment" doesn't sound to me like a peace overture.
As if to forestall accusations of an unreflective loathing of the modern, the Prince does give a cursory nod to David Chipperfield and I M Pei for having produced "interesting and worthy buildings" – but it's hard to feel his heart is really in it and he doesn't bother to explain what either architect has done to deserve this dubious honour.
He can't restrain himself either from an unworthy jibe at Richard Rogers, quoting a friend who had asked, "How many Pritzker Prizewinners are not living in beautiful classical homes?" Does the Prince know, or care, that while the façade of Rogers' London townhouse might be classical in appearance, the interior has been completely re-imagined, entirely in keeping with Rogers' architectural principles? Like all of us, the Prince is entitled to his prejudices, but why the RIBA chose to test its members' patience by amplifying them I can't imagine.
Stranger than fiction
I read Kazuo Ishiguro's Nocturnes recently – five linked stories on themes of squandered opportunity and regret – and found myself pestered with uncertainties about their plausibility. In one story, the central pathos derives from the parting of an aging crooner and his younger wife, not because they don't love each other but because the crooner has decided he needs an even younger wife to relaunch his career. In what universe would that gamble make sense, I found myself wondering. And I couldn't even begin to wrap my head round the saxophonist who is convinced that all that stands between him and success is a marginally less ugly face, and ends up having plastic surgery (paid for, in an extra affront to likelihood, by his ex-wife's new partner). Ishiguro's take on modern life struck me as slightly off-note, like an ill-tuned piano. Then this week brought the news that Peter and Jordan were to divorce – and that both parties had "requested that the media respect their families' privacy at this difficult time", a quite brilliant satire on the fact that they've sold every scrap of their privacy over the last four years and haven't retained a gram to be respected. Seeing that remark, apparently made in earnest, it struck me that real life isn't always plausible. I'm going to have to take another look at the book.
Sometimes you come across a directorial conceit so wayward and ill-conceived that it still has you puzzling days later. I found myself feeling this way about Sean Matthias's decision to decorate his production of Waiting for Godot with Goon Show-like sound effects. When Pozzo painstakingly sits down, for instance, you get one of those sproingy cartoon-creaking noises, which you might expect to accompany a pantomime dame having problems with her arthritis. It's hard to imagine a device less appropriate to the bleak, bone-dry wit in Beckett's play – apart, perhaps, from a custard-pie fight between Estragon and Lucky. Though the odd critic mentioned the sound effects in passing, I don't think anyone took exception to them in print. Either they were so stunned by the coarseness of the detail – like putting falsies on a Giacometti sculpture – that they erased it from their minds, or they didn't really think it was vandalism at all. I'd still be interested to hear the rationale for this decision, though.Reuse content