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