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Carbuncles and coronets

The Prince of Wales demands that British buildings hark back to the past, but architects will be bul

There is no love lost between architects and Prince Charles. We have known he has baleful taste in buildings ever since he ineptly stuck some pretentious extra classical pilaster columns on to his Highgrove House. This appetite for neoclassical architecture among the upper classes is not entirely surprising, harking back as it does to a time when kings were on their thrones and the rest of us were subservient. With its order and rules, classical architecture is social hierarchy made manifest in built form.

Prince Charles, however, didn’t just privately indulge his nostalgia. Invited to award the Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba) gold medal in 1984, he stole the evening to attack the architectural profession. His “carbuncle” speech (named after his description of ABK’s proposed extension of the National Gallery) decried modernist architecture, accusing it of overscaled insensitivity. The speech and subsequent publicity left architects – already battered by a recession and a drop in public building – reeling.

Indeed, the effect on architecture in this country turned out to be even worse than we imagined. It didn’t just ruin careers at ABK. The prince’s remarks, as well as deepening a general distrust of professionals, peddled by Thatcher and the Murdoch press, encouraged planning committees to exercise a philistinism they had previously suppressed. His proposition was to ignore the professional ability of architects and just follow intuitive likes and dislikes. A very bad ten years ensued, in which architects had to ingratiate themselves with councillors who had a taste for pastiche.

In that depressed time, all the interesting rising stars of architecture in Britain were unable to build here. David Chipperfield, Will Alsop, Zaha Hadid, Rem Koolhaas and Nigel Coates could only find work abroad, and even Lords Foster and Rogers first made their names with buildings overseas. In contrast to our prince, foreign royalty either support modernity or keep quiet. King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia of Spain, for instance, insisted on visiting Frank Gehry’s Bilbao Guggenheim while it was being built, as well as coming to open it.

The prince followed up his speech with a reactionary TV programme and book, milking his royal status rather than offering intelligent analysis. In the Sixties, architects might have agreed with him about horrible system-built tower blocks, but by the Eighties, they had stopped apologising and started to be more optimistic and confident. They did eventually recover from his attack in time for the better economy of the late Nineties and the early Lottery projects, since when architecture has been of increasing interest to the general public. Many new buildings have been well received. The Gherkin is perhaps the most prominent example, but all sorts of buildings have become more attractive and interesting: from affordable housing to football stadiums via health centres, schools, universities, bridges, stations, galleries and concert halls. All by ignoring the prince’s advice.

Meanwhile, the prince was putting his considerable wealth where his mouth was and building a model town extension at Poundbury. The ersatz traditional village is as phoney as a film set. It isn’t saying much that it is superior to the suburban developments of mass housebuilders. But its creepy atmosphere of the retired middle classes living in pseudo-peasant cottages has been widely mocked and reviled by architects. Revenge had to come, and it came as the prince sided with vociferous nimbys against a design by Richard Rogers’s firm for the old Chelsea Barracks site. When it looked as if his displeasure might fail to prevent Westminster City Council from approving the project, he pulled the monarch-to-monarch trick and got the Emir of Qatar, who owns the site, to sack Rogers and start again.

It seems hard to care one way or the other about a spat over some fancy flats for very rich people – a spat between a prince and a peer who himself has power of patronage and legislation as the Mayor of London’s adviser and through his place in the House of Lords. But it isn’t good for anyone else thinking of investing in development in this country to observe the summary dismissal of a carefully conceived project in a supposedly democratic country. In the subsequent hooha, seemingly powerful developers have been privately poodling up to the prince, it is said, to seek his assurance that he won’t attack their plans.
No wonder he was emboldened again.

Amazingly, Riba decided to invite the prince back to give an anniversary speech. Perhaps it expected him to bury the hatchet, kiss and make up. Did it think he would praise modern architecture, celebrate that Hadid, Alsop et al were building bigger, more exciting projects here? He did make some placatory remarks and “jokes”. But his overall message was as pernicious as before. In effect, he invited architects to stop innovating, stop thinking for themselves, stop trying to take architecture forward, and instead look back, learn from the past, be traditional, be comfortable, tried and tested, and so on.

Such a proposition would be laughed at if it were made about any other aspect of our lives or culture: painting, music, dance, or science and medicine. But somehow, in architecture, it has traction with otherwise intelligent commentators. Don’t be fooled. What the prince and his supporters really want is for architects to stop building anything at all and retreat. He wants architecture to stagnate and die. This time, however, the war is won: we are a more confident profession and don’t have to bow to such tosh.

Piers Gough’s many projects include Green Bridge in the East End and new galleries at the National Portrait Gallery, London

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times