The Prince improves in print: If his new architectural magazine is to succeed, Charles will have to engage with reality

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE PRINCE of Wales's architectural soul may be about to be saved. First, though, we should consider why it has, until now, been so thoroughly damned.

The Prince's impact on British architecture has been almost entirely negative. Ever since his 'monstrous carbuncle' speech in 1984 he has successfully perpetuated an attitude of mindless bigotry and ignorance. In doing so he has downgraded the standing of the art and the profession.

Most damaging of all, he has helped developers to erect some truly awful buildings by providing them with the cheap, stick-on gimmickry of belfries, pitched roofs and classical details which can be used to convince planning committees that this is just the sort of thing the Prince would like. As an indirect architectural patron he has presided over a style - which I have called Caroline Tescoism - that is a disgrace to our architectural heritage.

And finally, to get all the insults out of the way, he has frequently achieved this by questionable means.

Architects know about these methods but kept diplomatically quiet. In 1991, however, his tactics were made public by a leaked memo. This was sent to the Prince by Dr Brian Hanson, his then architectural adviser, and concerned his role in the redevelopment of the area around St Paul's.

Hanson wrote: 'The absolute minimum requirement of the meeting is to show them YRH (Your Royal Highness) is taking a very close interest in developments.' This suggested the Prince could use his position to exert behind-the-scenes pressure. Depressingly, it worked.

But, maybe, salvation is in sight. Next week his campaign enters a new phase with the launch of Perspectives on Architecture, a monthly magazine costing pounds 2.50 with an ambitious 70,000 print run. The sole investment in the magazine is a pounds 300,000 loan from the Institute of Architecture, a private school established by the Prince and of which he is President. The Prince is on the cover of the first issue and he has contributed a 2,000-word article recapitulating his familiar theme of public participation in the planning and building process. This is, inescapably, the Prince's magazine and it could not expect to sell anything like 70,000 without his patronage.

The first thing to say about this is that it is a very radical constitutional initiative. The Prince is, in effect, the proprietor of this magazine and his architectural position is its editorial guiding light. This means that anything appearing in the magazine will be assumed to carry his imprimatur. So, for example, the first issue contains an article critical of the Government's road-building programme. This may or may not reflect the Prince's views, but, given the financing of the magazine and the attendant hype, people might reasonably think it does.

So the Prince has created for himself a platform for, directly or indirectly, disseminating views about architecture, planning, the environment, local and national government and so on. His political and aesthetic attitudes need no longer be divined from occasional speeches, they can be studied monthly in a magazine available in W H Smith. For a contemporary royal this is a huge step, because it deliberately raises and formalises his political profile.

Some may see this as a sinister development, an attempt to buy back some of the influence the royals have lost. I do not think so. I think it is a move that could drag the Prince's entirely admirable concern to improve British architecture into the real world.

The primary failing of the Prince's architectural interventions has been the narrowness of their perspective. He began from the dim awareness that there were nice old buildings and nasty modern ones and why, oh why, couldn't we have nice modern ones instead? He wrongly believed that there was a unified, anti-historical style called modernism that aspired to trample arrogantly on the wishes of people and bury all our pretty villages and towns in concrete.

There is not space here to untangle all his misconceptions, but it should be said that, insofar as the towns were buried in concrete, the guilty men were not architects. They were politicians such as Edward Heath, who said in 1964: 'I want to see the guts torn out of our older industrial cities and new civic centres and shopping areas built there; the older houses torn down and new ones in their place.' I have never met any architect who ever said anything so crazy.

The problem with the glib facility of the Prince's architectural starting point was that it buried all the real issues. Most important, it simply whipped up the feeling that modern architecture was nasty without giving any clear indication of how it might be nice. This was what led to the Caroline Tescoism planning catastrophe in which 'nice' was assumed to be any old piece of cod-classical detailing glued on to any old tin shed or housing development.

Over the years the Prince has tried to eliminate this aesthetic vacuum by befriending and encouraging architects he admires and by struggling to build Poundbury, a suburban village outside Dorchester, as a real example of his ideals. He has backed this by explaining his own preferences in democratic terms - these, he suggests, are the kind of buildings that people really want.

But in the late Forties and early Fifties what people really wanted was to get out of their Victorian terraces and into the new council estates. Now the Prince thinks they want to get back. Maybe, but the point is that fashions and aspirations change and people can easily be persuaded to blame their problems on simple, distant targets. The Prince has come close to blaming architects for drugs, crime and all the other paraphernalia of inner- city decay. People agree and applaud without noticing that the argument cannot possibly be right.

The real architectural issues buried beneath all this are not crime or drugs - about which architecture can do very little, or nothing - but what modern buildings should be, and this, because of the complex and collaborative nature of architecture, arises directly from how they should be built. The Prince and his magazine are campaigning for democratic building. Perspectives will be full of reviews of buildings by users and passers-by and will actively demand public participation in the planning process.

This is fair enough. All it really means is that it would be good if people took more interest in architecture; even the hardest village-ripping modernist could scarcely disagree with that. But, I suspect, the Prince will discover it is not enough.

Committees alone cannot produce good buildings and no amount of well-meaning consultation is likely to stem the tide of ridiculous, thinly-decorated tat that is now littering the countryside. Tougher, deeper, aesthetic judgements need to be made. Talent and genius - with which this country has been and still is unusually well-endowed - needs to be encouraged, not subjected to the demands of inevitably unrepresentative consultation committees.

The real world, to which I hope the Prince will now be admitted, is the one in which these issues - aesthetic, financial and political - are confronted. Much of what he has said about architecture has indicated that he has been insulated from this reality.

His private, small-scale experiments at Highgrove and Poundbury, combined with some very poor tactics, have led him to adopt a pleading, gesture-making posture; he has been an architectural irritant rather than a positive force. He has always seemed to be saying it would be nice if everybody could live like him, rather than confronting the realities of a mass society. He has sounded, at times, more like Dorothea Casaubon than Prince Albert.

His magazine will stand or fall by the degree to which it seems to be addressing the whole of this reality. It cannot just whinge, it cannot live on pious hope and soft idealism. It will have to say many things about all kinds of architecture rather than just delivering odd jibes at this or that piece of modernism. Best of all, it will necessarily engage him in real debate instead of the backroom politics in which he became involved over Paternoster Square.

Prince Charles is, in many ways, a touching figure. His mistrust of progress, his suspicion of technology, even his belief in the importance of architecture are admirable, and there is a poignancy in the way he employs them to try to define himself. In architecture, however, his good intentions have so far paved the road to Hell. Maybe this magazine will oblige him to turn back.

Architecture, page 20

Comments