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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 French millennials marching behind Marine Le Pen

A Front National rally attracts former socialists with manicured beards, and a lesbian couple. 

“In 85 days, Marine will be President of the French Republic!” The 150-strong crowd cheered at the sound of the words. On stage, the speaker, the vice-president of the far-right Front National (FN), Florian Philippot, continued: “We will be told that it’s the apocalypse, by the same banks, media, politicians, who were telling the British that Brexit would be an immediate catastrophe.

"Well, they voted, and it’s not! The British are much better off than we are!” The applause grew louder and louder. 

I was in the medieval city of Metz, in a municipal hall near the banks of the Moselle River, a tributary of the Rhine from which the region takes its name. The German border lies 49km east; Luxembourg City is less than an hour’s drive away. This is the "Country of the Three Borders", equidistant from Strasbourg and Frankfurt, and French, German and French again after various wars. Yet for all that local history is deeply rooted in the wider European history, votes for the Front National rank among the highest nationally, and continue to rise at every poll. 

In rural Moselle, “Marine”, as the Front National leader Marine Le Pen is known, has an envoy. In 2014, the well-spoken, elite-educated Philippot, 35, ran for mayor in Forbach, a former miner’s town near the border. He lost to the Socialist candidate but has visited regularly since. Enough for the locals to call him “Florian".

I grew up in a small town, Saint-Avold, halfway between Metz and Forbach. When my grandfather was working in the then-prosperous coal mines, the Moselle region attracted many foreign workers. Many of my fellow schoolmates bore Italian and Polish surnames. But the last mine closed in 2004, and now, some of the immigrants’ grandchildren are voting for the National Front.

Returning, I can't help but wonder: How did my generation, born with the Maastricht treaty, end up turning to the Eurosceptic, hard right FN?

“We’ve seen what the other political parties do – it’s always the same. We must try something else," said Candice Bertrand, 23, She might not be part of the group asking Philippot for selfies, but she had voted FN at every election, and her family agreed. “My mum was a Communist, then voted for [Nicolas] Sarkozy, and now she votes FN. She’s come a long way.”  The way, it seemed, was political distrust.

Minutes earlier, Philippot had pleaded with the audience to talk to their relatives and neighbours. Bertrand had brought her girlfriend, Lola, whom she was trying to convince to vote FN.  Lola wouldn’t give her surname – her strongly left-wing family would “certainly not” like to know she was there. She herself had never voted.

This infuriated Bertrand. “Women have fought for the right to vote!” she declared. Daily chats with Bertrand and her family had warmed up Lola to voting Le Pen in the first round, although not yet in the second. “I’m scared of a major change,” she confided, looking lost. “It’s a bit too extreme.” Both were too young to remember 2002, when a presidential victory for the then-Front National leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, was only a few percentage points away.

Since then, under the leadership of his daughter, Marine, the FN has broken every record. But in this region, the FN’s success isn’t new. In 2002, when liberal France was shocked to see Le Pen reach the second round of the presidential election, the FN was already sailing in Moselle. Le Pen grabbed 23.7 per cent of the Moselle vote in the first round and 21.9 per cent in the second, compared to 16.9 per cent and 17.8 per cent nationally. 

The far-right vote in Moselle remained higher than the national average before skyrocketing in 2012. By then, the younger, softer-looking Marine had taken over the party. In that year, the FN won an astonishing 24.7 per cent of the Moselle vote, and 17.8 per cent nationwide.

For some people of my generation, the FN has already provided opportunities. With his manicured beard and chic suit, Emilien Noé still looks like the Young Socialist he was between 16 and 18 years old. But looks can be deceiving. “I have been disgusted by the internal politics at the Socialist Party, the lack of respect for the low-ranked campaigners," he told me. So instead, he stood as the FN’s youngest national candidate to become mayor in his village, Gosselming, in 2014. “I entered directly into action," he said. (He lost). Now, at just 21, Noé is the FN’s youth coordinator for Eastern France.

Metz, Creative Commons licence credit Morgaine

Next to him stood Kevin Pfeiffer, 27. He told me he used to believe in the Socialist ideal, too - in 2007, as a 17-year-old, he backed Ségolène Royal against Sarkozy. But he is now a FN local councillor and acts as the party's general co-ordinator in the region. Both Noé and Pfeiffer radiated a quiet self-confidence, the sort that such swift rises induces. They shared a deep respect for the young-achiever-in-chief: Philippot. “We’re young and we know we can have perspectives in this party without being a graduate of l’ENA,” said another activist, Olivier Musci, 24. (The elite school Ecole Nationale d’Administration, or ENA, is considered something of a mandatory finishing school for politicians. It counts Francois Hollande and Jacques Chirac among its alumni. Ironically, Philippot is one, too.)

“Florian” likes to say that the FN scores the highest among the young. “Today’s youth have not grown up in a left-right divide”, he told me when I asked why. “The big topics, for them, were Maastricht, 9/11, the Chinese competition, and now Brexit. They have grown up in a political world structured around two poles: globalism versus patriotism.” Notably, half his speech was dedicated to ridiculing the FN's most probably rival, the maverick centrist Emmanuel Macron. “It is a time of the nations. Macron is the opposite of that," Philippot declared. 

At the rally, the blue, red and white flame, the FN’s historic logo, was nowhere to be seen. Even the words “Front National” had deserted the posters, which were instead plastered with “in the name of the people” slogans beneath Marine’s name and large smile. But everyone wears a blue rose at the buttonhole. “It’s the synthesis between the left’s rose and the right’s blue colour”, Pfeiffer said. “The symbol of the impossible becoming possible.” So, neither left nor right? I ask, echoing Macron’s campaign appeal. “Or both left and right”, Pfeiffer answered with a grin.

This nationwide rebranding follows years of efforts to polish the party’s jackass image, forged by decades of xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic declarations by Le Pen Sr. His daughter evicted him from the party in 2015.

Still, Le Pen’s main pledges revolve around the same issue her father obsessed over - immigration. The resources spent on "dealing with migrants" will, Le Pen promises, be redirected to address the concerns of "the French people". Unemployment, which has been hovering at 10 per cent for years, is very much one of them. Moselle's damaged job market is a booster for the FN - between 10 and 12 per cent of young people are unemployed.

Yet the two phenomena cannot always rationally be linked. The female FN supporters I met candidly admitted they drove from France to Luxembourg every day for work and, like many locals, often went shopping in Germany. Yet they hoped to see the candidate of “Frexit” enter the Elysee palace in May. “We've never had problems to work in Luxembourg. Why would that change?” asked Bertrand. (Le Pen's “144 campaign pledges” promise frontier workers “special measures” to cross the border once out of the Schengen area, which sounds very much like the concept of the Schengen area itself.)

Grégoire Laloux, 21, studied history at the University of Metz. He didn't believe in the European Union. “Countries have their own interests. There are people, but no European people,” he said. “Marine is different because she defends patriotism, sovereignty, French greatness and French history.” He compared Le Pen to Richelieu, the cardinal who made Louis XIV's absolute monarchy possible:  “She, too, wants to build a modern state.”

French populists are quick to link the country's current problems to immigration, and these FN supporters were no exception. “With 7m poor and unemployed, we can't accept all the world's misery,” Olivier Musci, 24, a grandchild of Polish and Italian immigrants, told me. “Those we welcome must serve the country and be proud to be here.”

Lola echoed this call for more assimilation. “At our shopping centre, everyone speaks Arabic now," she said. "People have spat on us, thrown pebbles at us because we're lesbians. But I'm in my country and I have the right to do what I want.” When I asked if the people who attacked them were migrants, she was not so sure. “Let's say, they weren't white.”

Trump promised to “Make America Great Again”. To where would Le Pen's France return? Would it be sovereign again? White again? French again? Ruled by absolutism again? She has blurred enough lines to seduce voters her father never could – the young, the gay, the left-wingers. At the end of his speech, under the rebranded banners, Philippot invited the audience to sing La Marseillaise with him. And in one voice they did: “To arms citizens! Form your battalions! March, march, let impure blood, water our furrows...” The song is the same as the one I knew growing up. But it seemed to me, this time, a more sinister tune.