Learning to love carbuncles

After denouncing contemporary architecture, Prince Charles's own institute is taking a new direction - Classicism is giving way to Modernism. Peter Popham talks to its director
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The Independent Online
The Prince of Wales's Institute of Architecture occupies an exquisite Nash villa on the edge of Regent's Park, the sublime neo-classical urban development promoted by the eponymous Prince Regent, later George IV, who was deeply unpopular in his lifetime and notorious for his love affairs, but remembered by posterity for the Park and the Street.

Once upon a time - any time, in fact, in the past four years - the villa and its location by the park would have served as useful shorthand for the perceived nature and limitations of Prince Charles's architectural aspirations: nostalgic, refined, turning a haughty back equally on the grungy mayhem of Camden High Street, 200 yards down the hill, and on the works and philosophy of Modernism.

But after the most dramatic changes yet in the Institute's short but turbulent history, this convenient symbolism will no longer serve. In October the Director of Studies, Dr Richard John, was replaced after only nine months in the job by Richard Hodges, a professor of archeology. Two months later, at the Prince's request, all 15 members of the Institute's governing council stood down, and have yet to be replaced.

Now Richard Hodges plans to move the Institute from its beautiful but impractical headquarters to a new location, as yet undecided but which, following the lead of the Prince's Phoenix Trust, may well be a listed but abandoned building such as a redundant school or hospital in an urban regeneration site.

And as the symbols change, so will the matter symbolised. Dr John, Professor Hodges's predecessor, was an ardent enthusiast for Classicism, an acolyte of David Watkin, the don of Peterhouse College, Cambridge. Under John's direction the Institute was clearly identified as the avowed enemy of the Modernist philosophy that has dominated British architecture since the war. It was the friend of reactionary neo-classical architects such as Quinlan Terry and John Simpson, the academic arm of the tendency which produced the (yet unbuilt) neo-classical plans for the redevelopment of Paternoster Square, abutting St Paul's Cathedral.

Now, under Professor Hodges and indirectly but unmistakably following the wish of the Prince himself, all that is to change. "I don't doubt that there is a place for classicism," Professor Hodges told me, "but that kind of stylistic issue is not our interest."

Prince Charles's involvement in architecture, the longest-running and most controversial of his efforts to change the country he will one day reign over, is thus at a watershed. His initiative began, as Britain's architects will never forget or forgive, with his "monstrous carbuncle" speech of 1984. Negativity and reaction: these were the crimes Charles's furious critics accused him of in the wake of the speech. Every initiative since has been a further effort to repudiate them. In 1987 he was shown the plans for Paternoster Square and was appalled by them. Four months later, in a speech at Mansion House, he returned to his attack on Modernism and its effect on the City, but now his thoughts were guided and given focus by a group of anti-Modernist academics, journalists and others, including Brian Hanson and Jules Lubbock (who were later to be intimately involved in the Prince's Institute).

The result, two years later, were radically reactionary alternative proposals for the redevelopment of Paternoster Square, featuring bulky modern office buildings covered in neo-classical detailing.

The Prince was learning that he could not only stop things, he could also get things done. Other initiatives followed, such as the housing estate, Poundbury, on Duchy of Cornwall land near Dorchester. But the creation of the Institute of Architecture in 1992 was the big one. Through the Institute the Prince would escape the trap of being limited to commenting or taking action on individual projects one at a time. Instead, a permanent organisation would be put in place, dedicated to the Prince's vision.

Two years later he oversaw the launch of Perspectives, a magazine of architecture, nominally independent both of the Institute and its governing council, but in fact closely monitored by both, and just as dedicated to furthering the Caroline vision.

In the years since they were set up , however, both the Institute and the magazine have had an extremely bumpy ride. In its first four years, the Institute has had four directors; Perspectives' first editor, One Foot in the Past presenter Dan Cruikshank, was sacked soon after the launch. Both magazine and institute have appeared to be desperately attempting to tread water.

The Institute, heavily underwritten by the Saudi royal family and other wealthy benefactors, offers foundation and graduate courses in its cute but cramped premises, but has failed to have its courses validated by the Royal Institute of British Architects. Perspectives, which sold 35,000 copies of its launch issue, has gone bi-monthly; Giles Worsley, Cruikshank's successor as editor, claims sales of 10,000 per issue now, but he has been dogged by rumours of imminent closure, and dogged also by the opinions and attempts at intervention by the Prince's advisers, all bent on guarding the sacred flame.

Above all, the Institute has found itself thrust into the front line of the war over style which preoccupies the narrow and introverted world of British architecture, with the Modernist establishment on one side and the maverick classicists on the other, sniping from the barricades.

But with the appointment of Richard Hodges as director, and the standing down of the governing council, Charles has signalled that this is not the war he wishes to fight.

But isn't it a bit rum, having an institute of architecture headed by an archeologist? "Couldn't find an architect willing to do it, I imagine," one famous Modernist suggested cynically. Richard Hodges is not just any archeologist, however, as he is quick to point out. Aged 44, and still talking with a hint of a Wiltshire accent despite years abroad, he was head of the British School in Rome between 1988 and 1995. This involved not only archeology but also running a multi-disciplinary institution as well. (The high Modernists Richard Rogers and David Chipperfield were among his guest lecturers there.) He is also (still) in charge of two important excavation sites, in the south-west of Albania and in Italy. Both these huge projects have involved challenges - building visitors' centres and so on - that are intrinsically architectural.

But perhaps Hodges's chief attraction to Charles is precisely that he is somewhat above the fray: removed from the feverish, feuding world of British architecture, and with a clear-eyed view of British strengths and limitations which comes from an extended stay abroad.

Speaking in his large, high and almost bare study, in which a bust of the Prince is practically the only item of decoration, he explained how under his direction the Institute was about to turn over a new leaf.

"I don't doubt that the architectural establishment has been deeply suspicious, with some reason, of some of the rhetoric that's come out of this place," he said. "But the Prince hasn't actually said `Think columns and capitals'... Fundamentally he's saying, `Think afresh, think anew.'

"What the Prince is mainly interested in is the role of community architecture, sustainability, how tradition can be used efficiently within contemporary architecture. He's not saying that the great contemporary designer-architects are rubbish. What he saying is that you have to recognise that there are other ways of doing things.

"Norman Foster and Richard Rogers are great design builders, but they're not what the majority of us have to deal with. What this institute should be concerned with is confronting the sort of popular housing, urban community development, and traffic policy that we need.

`I want to use this place as a catalyst for a debate: what the Prince is saying is a damn sight more radical than what the establishment is saying, We're actually trying to find ways of working through the public/private sectors to look at issues that confront us rather than those that are nice but not central.

"I don't doubt that there is a place for classicism but that isn't our primary goal; that kind of stylistic issue is not our interest. Sustainability is what we have to deal with, which will become such a critical issue in the years to come. How communities can work satisfactorily within their built environment: inhabit buildings that are run efficiently, agreeable to be in, and where both human and energy resources function satisfactorily. This means sustainability in its widest sense.

"An example is a debate we are holding in March asking what do communities want out of the Millennium Commission. We've got very senior people taking part in it, stretching from people involved in investment on the one hand to community policy on the other."

What sort of architecture does Hodges personally favour? "The building I most like - the most remarkable modern architecture I've seen - is the transformation of the National Museum in Copenhagen, done in steel and glass. The big courtyard is covered by an atrium, with a series of glass and steel corridors and with the wonderful light you get in Danish buildings, and with a strong sense of spirit, of place."

But Hodges also confesses to tastes that would have had little place in the Institute before his arrival. Foster's vast, hangar-like building at the University of East Anglia, for example. "It's highly questionable in the way it works, but it's wonderful to approach, and it gives students a boost the like of which no other building in contemporary universities does." Then there's Foster's newer building on the same campus. "I know it's heresy to say so, but it's a wonderful, beautiful building."

Britain's architectural culture is overdue for some outside stimulation. All the most authoritative commentators and critics have fled to the United States, and, as the paranoid reaction to Charles's carbuncle speech demonstrated, neurotic hypersensitivity is endemic in the profession, the inevitable result of widespread unpopularity.

This morbid condition needs to be confronted. So far the Prince has mostly succeeded only in aggravating it. But now he has detached himself from the classicist extremists and signalled that the barricades are to be dismantled, perhaps at last a true debate can begin.