Monday 28 June 2010
Bruce Anderson: Of course traditional architecture is better
Any fair-minded person should ask themselves why this creative, dedicated, and invaluable public servant is subjected to so much captious denigration
On Hyde Park Corner in London there stands Apsley House, the residence of the Dukes of Wellington, also known as No 1 London. Just down the road, on Knightsbridge, there is a new apartment block named One Hyde Park, a genuflection to its illustrious predecessor. The name is the only resemblance.
Apsley House's harmonious proportions have pleased the eye for more than two centuries. One Hyde Park proves that it is not necessary to use prominent concrete to create a brutalist building. With mere glass and steel, its architect, Richard Rogers, has achieved the triumph of ugliness. One Hyde Park deserves to be high on the shortlist for the most hideous building in cental London. It is owned by the Candy brothers, who also have an interest in the site of the former Chelsea Barracks. They commissioned Lord Rogers to design more flats.
Lord Rogers has form. He is famous for the Millennium Dome – the most absurd building in London: perhaps, indeed, of all time – and the Pompidou Centre in Paris. Cultured, clever, patriotic, Georges Pompidou was an outstanding figure and a worthy successor to De Gaulle. His early death was doubly regrettable: ridiculously premature, it created fresh ridicule by enabling that vain, posturing ninny Giscard d'Estaing to become President of France. That was bad enough. It is a further disgrace that Pompidou's memorial should be much the ugliest building in central Paris.
Prince Charles has now saved London from another instalment of ugliness. Objecting to Lord Rogers's brutalist designs, he persuaded the Qatari royal family to withdraw their support. Last week, a judge described the Prince of Wales's intervention as "unwelcome". Unwelcome to whom? Unwelcome, certainly, to those who wish to inflict renewed vandalism upon London's cityscape. But the judge's comments will seem incomprehensible to anyone who wishes to save London from even more aesthetic depredation. To those who love London, the Prince's intervention could not have been more welcome.
Prince Charles seems as drawn to controversy as Lord Rogers is to ugliness. The Prince is a one-man awkward squad. Temperamentally, he is at odds with the times he lives in. This is an age of shallowness, short attention-spans, and an excitable, dumbed-down popular culture: junk food and even junkier television. But the Prince is always thoughtful and often anxious. Without ever seeking originality for its own sake, he does not defer to the conventional wisdom. Because of this, he is never a straightforward intellectual ally. Very few – if any – will agree with him on everything.
Cultural conservatives will be delighted by his insistence on Shakespeare and proper history in schools, on the 1662 Prayer Book and the Authorised Version in churches, and on the need for young artists to learn to draw: young architects, to admire beauty. But some of his Conservative supporters would part company with him on climate change. At times, he can almost sound like a member of Greenpeace. Equally, it is not clear whether the world can feed itself without another advance in agricultural productivity, possibly including genetically modified (GM) crops. The starving millions cannot subsist on Duchy originals.
There is a more general source of disquiet. Although Prince Charles has a broad range of views, they have a common core. He has a religious sense of life and a belief that the human condition is unsustainable without a spiritual dimension. But contemporary England is largely a post-religious society. Most church leaders struggle to find conviction, let alone inspiration; most of their followers belong to the church reticent. Although there are the ultra-evangelicals, who claim to find God among their electric guitars, a God worth believing in would surely have better taste.
The Prince, not an electric-guitars man, is on a quest for faith and enlightenment. In a country which has almost always been ill at ease with religious enthusiasm – even in previous ages when religion was in better shape – this invites mockery. Here is a man who cannot help challenging people who feel uncomfortable when challenged.
That also applies to the countryside. Almost everyone in Britain claims to believe in the countryside. But far too many of them base their view of it on Beatrix Potter and sweet little furry animals taking tea with one another. They have little understanding of the country as a place where humans try desperately hard to make a living while wild animals kill to eat. The hunting ban, which outraged Prince Charles, demonstrated the extent to which town and country had diverged – and the extent to which ignorant urban sentimentality was poisoning relations. The Prince of Wales was determined to stand up for the countryside, its long-matured traditions, its ancient decencies, its back-breaking struggles to survive – and its good food. He is so right about mutton. Cold mutton is one of the finer delicacies that Britain can offer.
Prince Charles's constant willingness to arouse debates caused problems under the previous government. As it never believed in debate or complex argument, it did not enjoy replying to Prince Charles's letters. The epistle to the Qataris which was published last week is, one is told, a characteristic Highgrove original. Heartfelt, closely reasoned, full of meat, these missives – some ministers would have said missiles – demand an equally considered reply. But many of the last set of ministers would have been incapable of providing one. Used to working from "lines to take" and thinking in headlines, they could not cope with the Prince Charles curriculum. This may give him scope for another good cause. It is important that artists should be able to draw; it is also important that ministers should be able to think.
Prince Charles does not restrict his architectural endeavours to Britain. He is trying to save old Kabul from despoliation by the local equivalents of Lord Rogers. He is also involved in China, encouraging attempts to save the few ancient buildings which were not destroyed in the Cultural Revolution. It may well be that these small-scale endeavours will do more good than vast chunks of the foreign aid budget.
A similar case can be made for the Prince's Trust and for Business in the Community, two of his charities which have made an important contribution to social welfare. Many of us are good at pontificating about the need to find jobs for youngsters from poor backgrounds to give them an alternative to drugs, gangs and crime. Prince Charles has done it. Pound for pound, the Prince's Trust may be the most effective welfare organisation of all time. It is a model which ought to be copied, in the UK and abroad.
Any fair-minded person ought to ask himself the obvious question. Why is this hard-working, creative, dedicated, invaluable public servant subjected to so much captious denigration? Admittedly, much of it comes from peevish, chippy, cheapskate Lefties who hate the monarchy but know that it would be pointless to attack the Queen. So they think that they have identified an easy target. It is to be hoped that they are wrong.
All those who detest ugly buildings, who love the countryside as it really is, who want our children to learn about the past in order to prepare themselves for the future, who also want to give practical help to young people who need it: all of them should support the Prince. Unwelcome? Nothing should be more welcome to anyone who wishes to elevate the condition of Britain. God bless the Prince of Wales and send him victorious in many more battles.
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