Jay Merrick: Even a prince's views should be heard

The real issue is the imposition on planners of abject architecture

Related Topics

Unless he loses his nerve, the Prince of Wales will tonight deliver a speech on architecture at the Royal Institute of British Architects in London, despite an attempt to have it boycotted.

Nine high-profile figures in the architectural profession, including Will Alsop, Piers Gough and Paul Finch, are outraged by his apparent attempt to de-rail a redevelopment scheme for London's Chelsea Barracks site, designed by Rogers Stirk Harbour. The site belongs to a property company controlled by the ruling family of Qatar, and it seems that the prince asked them, privately, to drop the scheme because he doesn't like the modernist look of it.

It is impossible to support the prince's action, but the call for a boycott, though well meant, is specious. The RIBA Trust invited Prince Charles to speak, and they can hardly uninvite him, regardless of how many architects are furious about his let-them-eat-cake-in-Poundbury meddling.

Who, in the democratic circumstances, would not want to hear what he had to say, even if they were ready to loathe him for saying it? Furthermore, the Chelsea Barracks site developers, PBGL, stated on 1 May that they had written to Westminster City Council confirming "wholehearted commitment" to the Rogers scheme. So it's safe to presume that Prince Charles's begging-letter has been ignored by the Qataris.

Is there another reason to avoid the lecture? The boycotters' argument turns on two ideas. First, that "the prince's latest move displays the destructive signs of his earlier interventions, when he set out to scupper modern architecture". Yes, he has blocked modernist schemes such as those for the National Gallery extension, and Paternoster Square. But, no, he has never stood the faintest chance of stopping the pre-eminence of modernist design – some of it marvellous, most of it average – in virtually all sectors of urban development.

The boycotters also say that his actions threaten the "democratic procedures" of the planning system. Those procedures might once have been at risk, but the long-gone age of quizzical deference to royal utterances has been overwhelmed by the violent surf of routinely leaked information and ephemeral entertainment. It is in this cultural plasma that Prince Charles's architectural opinions have made him just another what's-he-gone-and-said-now figure, a pixelated consumable.

The boycotters have buried themselves in the surface of a more important debate about planning authorities whose "democratic procedures" struggle to prevent the imposition of abject architecture by developers. A mile east of Chelsea Barracks, for example, the design of the redevelopment scheme opposite Victoria station has dragged on interminably, not least because of the developer's initial attempt to argue the case for a bold building cluster. But the story is the same everywhere.

In Scotland, as the architect John McAslan has argued, key waterside developments have not been supported by enough new infrastructure. Architecturally dreadful things happen even in uncontroversial places. Take Ips-wich, whose urban fabric has been traduced by some architecturally appalling new developments that the local authority seem either unwilling, or unable, to prevent.

The debate about architectural design democracy shouldn't obsess about what Prince Charles wants, or doesn't want. It should concentrate on illuminating and balancing, humanely, the fraught relationship between architectural and place-making quality, and the need for reasonable profit. On this great stage, dominated not by princes but by commoners, Punch and Judy are an irrelevance.


React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Pensions Administrator

£23000 - £26000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery NurseI am currently...

KS2 Teacher

£21000 - £34000 per annum + Excellent rates of pay, CPD, Support : Randstad Ed...

Nursery Nurse

Negotiable: Randstad Education Manchester: Level 3 Nursery nurse required for ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Photo issued by Flinders University of an artist's impression of a Microbrachius dicki mating scene  

One look at us Scots is enough to show how it was our fishy ancestors who invented sex

Donald MacInnes
Oscar Pistorius is led out of court in Pretoria. Pistorius received a five-year prison sentence for culpable homicide by judge Thokozile Masipais for the killing of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp  

Oscar Pistorius sentence: Judge Masipa might have shown mercy, but she has delivered perfect justice

Chris Maume
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Let's talk about loss

We need to talk about loss

Secrecy and silence surround stillbirth
Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Will there be an all-female mission to Mars?

Women may be better suited to space travel than men are
Oscar Pistorius sentencing: The athlete's wealth and notoriety have provoked a long overdue debate on South African prisons

'They poured water on, then electrified me...'

If Oscar Pistorius is sent to jail, his experience will not be that of other inmates
James Wharton: The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

The former Guard now fighting discrimination against gay soldiers

Life after the Army has brought new battles for the LGBT activist James Wharton
Ebola in the US: Panic over the virus threatens to infect President Obama's midterms

Panic over Ebola threatens to infect the midterms

Just one person has died, yet November's elections may be affected by what Republicans call 'Obama's Katrina', says Rupert Cornwell
Premier League coaches join the RSC to swap the tricks of their trades

Darling, you were fabulous! But offside...

Premier League coaches are joining the RSC to learn acting skills, and in turn they will teach its actors to play football. Nick Clark finds out why
How to dress with authority: Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear

How to dress with authority

Kirsty Wark and Camila Batmanghelidjh discuss the changing role of fashion in women's workwear
New book on Joy Division's Ian Curtis sheds new light on the life of the late singer

New book on Ian Curtis sheds fresh light on the life of the late singer

'Joy Division were making art... Ian was for real' says author Jon Savage
Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

Sean Harris: A rare interview with British acting's secret weapon

The Bafta-winner talks Hollywood, being branded a psycho, and how Barbra Streisand is his true inspiration
Tim Minchin, interview: The musician, comedian and world's favourite ginger is on scorching form

Tim Minchin interview

For a no-holds-barred comedian who is scathing about woolly thinking and oppressive religiosity, he is surprisingly gentle in person
Boris Johnson's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Boris's boozing won't win the puritan vote

Many of us Brits still disapprove of conspicuous consumption – it's the way we were raised, says DJ Taylor
Ash frontman Tim Wheeler reveals how he came to terms with his father's dementia

Tim Wheeler: Alzheimer's, memories and my dad

Wheeler's dad suffered from Alzheimer's for three years. When he died, there was only one way the Ash frontman knew how to respond: with a heartfelt solo album