Insights into architecture and the environment mark Charles III as a man ahead of his time | Comment

With the accession of Charles III to the throne, a third Carolean era opens. Never before has a monarch been so interested in the built environment, with opinions so clearly expressed.

Charles is well known for his interventions in a number of major planning decisions. He is said to have played a key role in blocking the RSHP’s Chelsea Barracks scheme. Many felt that it was not his role to do so.

As Duke of Cornwall he was also instrumental in the creation of Poundbury and Nansledan. These are two experiences of “New Urbanism”.

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Dismissed as nostalgic irrelevance by many, they actually represent serious attempts to address the challenges of urban growth, housing shortages and how to build new sustainable communities. They deserve a more serious response from an architecture and urban design establishment that generally has a poor track record in creating compelling new urbanism at scale.

Inevitably, much attention will be paid to the infamous 1984 “carbuncle speech” Charles gave at the RIBA’s 150th anniversary. In architectural folklore, this has become an unpardonable act of treason – he had, after all, been invited to celebrate the RIBA’s anniversary.

You wonder if, rather than being the architectural dinosaur he is sometimes portrayed, Charles was in many ways ahead of his time when it came to the built environment.

But reading today’s speech, what’s striking is how overwhelmingly it sounds. In fact, by the end you wonder if, rather than being the architectural dinosaur he is sometimes portrayed, Charles was not in many ways ahead of his time when it came to the built environment. The speech actually began by praising Charles Correa and, later, Edward Cullinan – just a few die-hard traditionalists.

The then Prince of Wales then ticked off a list of what could today be described as the accepted principles of sustainable town planning: speaking out against the destruction of historic townscapes; advocate the reuse of existing structures; promote accessibility; calling for community engagement; warning of horizons disfigured by “giant glass stumps”; arguing for the rediscovery of ornamentation (now roughly de rigueur even among the fiercest “modernists”) and, most uncontroversial of all, arguing for respect for historic street plans and housing typologies at the traditional scale.

Goldsmith Street ©Tim Crocker

The 2019 Stirling Prize for Goldsmith Street shows that the RIBA was only 35 years behind the curve on this last point.

To be fair, the real heart of the controversy was Charles’ attack on Ahrends, Burton and Koralek’s (ABK) proposed extension to the National Gallery – the famous “monstrous anthrax on the face of a much-loved friend and elegant”. But was Charles really wrong?

I am a big fan of ABK and the damage done to this practice by the speech was, by all accounts, devastating. But while I really like their JCR bar at Keble College, I can’t help but think that the National Gallery extension wasn’t ABK’s best work. It has that slightly lost, apologetic feel of late high modernism, when most architects frankly didn’t know which way to turn.

How much more resolutely “in its time” the complex and disorienting post-modernism of Venturi Scott Brown? A building that addresses the fundamental confusion at the heart of architecture at this time by throwing in (knowingly, of course) a bit of everything.

There are, however, many architects for whom Prince Charles remains an emotional trigger. The mere mention of its name can cause temperatures to skyrocket and cries of “pastiche” to fly. This from architects often in denial of how modernism itself became another historical style, which they just chose to return to and steal from.

On almost all substantive issues related to our cities and the environment, he is broadly right

Why then does Charles remain a figure of hatred for so many architects, when the potential for common ground with the profession appears so much greater than the actual differences?

Perhaps the real controversy was that as Prince of Wales he was not at all expected to express a critical point of view. This, despite the fact that he was merely articulating concerns that many members of the public (and perhaps a few architects) also shared. Don’t we all privately think that much of what is built by our profession is often pretty awful? And what does it say to us as architects if we can’t handle criticism and debate?

At a time when few public figures and virtually no one in frontline politics talk about architecture, I can’t help but feel that this was a missed opportunity that architecture and other allied professions did not have. never found a way to harness Charles’ passion for the built environment to our greatest advantage. On almost all substantive issues related to our cities and the environment, he is broadly correct.

Two-storey example - George Saumarez Smith and Adam Architecture in Poundbury

But the days when Charles could have been treated as an influential and vocal ally are now over. As king, Charles III will most likely remain silent on many of these issues.

He understands that as a monarch, his room to publicly express such opinions will be severely restricted. And now, rather than continuing to resent him for comments made almost 40 years ago, it may be time for the architectural profession to move on.

Ben Flatman is the architectural editor of Building

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