Jay Merrick: The empty vision of Prince Charles

Once again he wants to accelerate backwards into a fantasy achitecture

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The Prince of Wales has apparently written a carbuncular begging letter to the Qatari royal family, requesting them to block Lord Richard Rogers's scheme for the redevelopment of the Chelsea Barracks site in London, and replace it with one designed by a Neoclassical Duchy Originalist, Quinlan Terry. Qatari Diar and the developer Candy & Candy bought the site for nearly £1bn from the Ministry of Defence in 2006.

Terry, a skilled architectural pasticheur, says that his royal supporter is unhappy with the Rogers scheme, and had a "fervent desire" that the Chelsea Barracks site should contain new buildings that resembled the Wren-designed Royal Hospital opposite the barracks. Wren! No, no, not to worry. A piece of cake for someone of Terry's accommodating qualities.

Yet again, Prince Charles not only wants time to stop in cities but, ideally, accelerate backwards into a realm of fantasy architecture, a classical-cum-vernacular cityscape that is a fusion of The Truman Show and Groundhog Day.

We've been here before, many times, and most famously in Prince Charles's first annus tectoris horribilis when he successfully torpedoed Rogers's design for the extension of the National Gallery in the 1980s. The scheme that replaced it, by the American architect Robert Venturi, is brilliant. Unfortunately, our royal architectural magus failed to realise that the virtuosity of Venturi's design lay, quite obviously, in its extreme postmodern irony. Result? Cecil B DeMille's set designers took over a corner of Trafalgar Square.

The Chelsea Barracks site is no place for architectural set-designers equipped with pattern books from the baroque and classical eras. Lewis Carroll's epic verse, The Hunting of the Snark, was subtitled, An Agony in Seven Fits. These lines in the second Fit seem apposite:

But we've got our brave Captain to thank:

(So the crew would protest) "that he's bought us the best –

A perfect and absolute blank!"

This was charming, no doubt; but they shortly found out

That the Captain they trusted so well

Had only one notion for crossing the ocean,

And that was to tingle his bell.

He was thoughtful and grave –

but the orders he gave

Were enough to bewilder a crew.

Prince Charles, thoughtful and grave, has asked the Qatari royal family to tinkle his architectural bell. He's entirely missed the point, which is the billion pounds at stake in the 12.8-acre development. Lord Rogers's original scheme, which caused Westminster Council to kneel to Outraged of Chelsea, was certainly modernist, but distinctly mannerly in scale and detail. It would have created 350 apartments.

The new scheme, driven by the developer's need to surpass its massive spend, has nearly double the amount of living units, a boutique hotel, sports centre and other "features". Compared with his first scheme, Rogers's new version has necessarily been compressed into briquettes by the profit factor.

But it is vacuous to imagine that Quinlan Terry could solve this financially feral need for high-density urban bling in the heart of Chelsea. That the Prince of Wales should think that a Brut-splashing of Wren might deodorise this unseemly mess is a Snarkishly tragicomic Eighth Fit.


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