King Charles’s endless meddling in architectural politics has accomplished nothing | Phineas Harper

Of all the speeches Charles III will give as king, none will be as incendiary as one he gave as prince. Speaking at a 1984 gala dinner celebrating the Indian architect Charles Corea, the then Prince of Wales launched, to the horror of his hosts, into a devastating evisceration of contemporary architecture. He labeled a new tower, still on the drawing board, designed by the architect Mies van der Rohe as “yet another giant glass stump” and likened a proposed extension to the National Gallery by ABK Architects to “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend”. Both projects were aborted. ABK never fully recovered. British architecture changed for decades.

What can we learn about our new King from his meddling with architecture during his long stint as heir apparent? A decade after the carbuncle speech, Prince Charles launched his own architecture magazine titled Perspectives on Architecture. Surprisingly diverse, the journal included pieces on anarchist groups squatting development sites intermingled with odes to Islamic geometry.

“We had articles on deconstructivism and feminist Marxist architectural historians – all in a magazine run by the Prince of Wales,” recalls the broadcaster and former assistant editor of Perspectives, Tom Dyckhoff. “There was an air of it being a kind of court with courtiers. It ran according to regal logic, not commercial logic.”

Perspectives ultimately folded, but was not without compelling moments. It was an early publisher of George Monbiot, for example, and became, according to Dychoff, the kind of magazine that “people who liked brutalism would read in a brown paper bag”. As the staff were let go, the future King presented them with signed photos of himself in plastic frames. Redundancy papers followed, delivered to Dyckhoff’s rented Whitechapel flat by a royal footman.

It was in Perspectives that the prince unveiled his Phoenix Trust. Frustrated with the number of grand industrial and institutional facilities falling into ruin, he hoped to buy and repair historic buildings, then sell them to new owners like a flipper renovating doer-uppers on a giant scale. “I am not prepared to sit back and see this great legacy needlessly squandered,” the prince declared. “With a little imagination, many historic buildings can become real assets to their local communities.”

But imagination was not enough. An early project was Anchor Mill, a vast 1886 weaving factory in Paisley, Renfrewshire, that had another deteriorating for decades until the prince stepped in. A coalition of funders renovated the building, but it was then sold off as “luxury flats” by the property developer Persimmon. Though the structure was saved, the £11m pound restoration packed rooms into the deep floor plan. Many of the resulting flats are small and single aspect with the only bedroom windows facing into communal corridors, forcing residents to keep their blinds down permanently

Elsewhere though, the prince was creating architecture of his own. Poundbury in Dorset and later Nansledan in Cornwell were neighborhoods built on duchy land intended to mix walkable streets free from the dominance of motor vehicles, with characterful buildings made from local materials using traditional construction techniques. Instead both are now full of cars, built to far lower standards that the Prince had hoped for.

“The local materials’ were of no interest to the volume housebuilders who have constructed most of it” observes Owen Hatherley, who has been visiting Poundbury throughout its construction. “Finishes and build quality are poor because of the contracting systems, which remove power from the architect.” In setting out to realize an exemplar of how new development can be done well, the prince has instead shown that even the British monarchy is no match for the UK’s profit-driven procurement system.

Though not without merit, Poundbury, Paisley and Perspectives all ultimately failed to conquer the complex commercial and political challenges they faced. Their royal patron’s attempts to create human-centred townscapes have led to car-dominated suburbs. His efforts to uplift grand historic buildings have carved them into dreamy flats. Our King is someone who sees the right problems but, ensconced in the very establishment that prevents meaningful solutions, he can only meddle around the edges of effecting real change.

Before the carbuncle quip, the prince had spent much of that infamous architect-bashing 1984 speech calling for higher standards in wheelchair access and noting the potential of housing cooperatives to empower inner city residents. Yet it was never unwilling architects preventing British housing cooperatives from flourishing as they do in Europe, but rather the UK’s conservative banking sector and byzantine land ownership laws. Likewise, it is not a lack of “a little imagination” that allows Britain’s grand industrial buildings to fall apart but the total absence of political support for our manufacturing sector, which has been hollowed out for decades.

King Charles is someone who wants to improve a society that he is not part of and will never truly experience or understand. He sees snapshots in visits and ribbon-cuttings but can never know the complexities of existing within an ordinary community and relying on its infrastructure. He’ll never chat to a neighbor while hanging washing out to dry or sprint for the last night bus in the rain; he’ll never struggle to find an affordable nursery or worry about energy bills; he’ll never play, pray or party in the street. His view of society, as of architecture, is restricted to what can be seen from the tinted window of a chauffeured car.

“My concern is the future,” the prince Meng in the Architectural Review in 2014. “We have to work out now how we will create resilient, truly sustainable and human-scale urban environments that are land-efficient, use low-carbon materials and do not depend so completely upon the car.” These are doubted the right questions but such huge challenges require systemic, far-reaching political solutions – not more well-intentioned meddling.

  • Phineas Harper is chief executive of Open City, a charity dedicated to making architecture and cities more open, accessible and equitable

Related Posts