Prince Charles vs. the Architects: Planetizen Explains


Chelsea Barracks, as designed by Lord Rogers

For over 25 years, Prince Charles has been at the middle of the debate about the place of modern architecture. It started with 1984's "carbuncle speech" to the Royal Institute of British Architects, where the Prince said:

"[A] large number of us have developed a feeling that architects tend to design houses for the approval of fellow architects and critics, not for the tenants."

25 years later, he told the same group:

I am sorry if I somehow left the faintest impression that I wished to kick-start some kind of "style war" between Classicists and Modernists; or that I somehow wanted to drag the world back to the eighteenth century."


Chelsea Barracks, By Quinlan Terry

But he did, and he does. Tim Halbur, Managing editor of Planetizen, summarizes the history of the "British brouhaha." He tells how the prince used his influence to kill Lord Rogers' design for Chelsea barracks (although a commenter points out that perhaps Lord Rogers' arrogance had something to do with it).

Halbur thinks we are arguing about the wrong thing. He writes:

Quality and thoughtfulness are the real concerns, not traditional vs. modern. The enemy is not style, but the un-thoughtful building, the cheaply-made development, and the poorly-planned project. As the Prince himself put it,

"Well-designed places and buildings that relate to locality and landscape that are, as the dear old Prayer Book puts it 'in love and charity with their neighbours' and that put people before cars enhance a sense of community and rootedness."


The Prince's development at Poundbury

It is too bad that Halbur didn't cover the latest episode of the British Brouhaha, where the Prince resigned as Patron of
the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, founded by William Morris in 1877. I think it strengthens his argument.

The Prince had been asked to write a forward to the Old House Handbook, their guide to restoring old buildings. Michael McCarthy of The Telegraph writes that

The Prince forcefully took the view in the piece that old houses should always be restored in their original style, while the society, despite its title, is committed to employing the best of modern architecture and design in restoration projects.

When it asked for the foreword to be amended, it was rebuffed and told it was all or nothing. It chose to reject the piece, issuing a virtually unprecedented snub to the Royal Family. The Prince, taking the view that he was being censored, responded by ending his association with the society.

However, when you read the transcript of the Prince's forward in BDOnline,, I think you will find that it is much more nuanced. I repeat the last two paragraphs:

Should a repair, new window or extension be distinct from the original building, or should it draw inspiration from the building or others nearby? To my mind, the best alterations are those which are guided by good manners to the building and its neighbours. 'Honest' repairs or 'frankly modern' alterations to historic buildings too often diminish them. So, too, the desire to 'create a contrast with' or 'avoid archaeological confusion' between new and old can have a disastrous outcome for the old building, resulting in a crude and dissonant collision.

I believe that in most cases we should aim to achieve a more subtle contrast between new and old. The use of traditional craft skills and materials in new work, as well as in repairs, is a good place to start and greatly reduces the risk of dissonance between new and old elements. The use of traditional craft skills in new work is also an excellent way to boost the interest of young people in valuing, learning and evolving these traditional skills — and the future of our much-loved historic buildings will only be assured if young people learn and practise these skills.

I think the Prince agrees with Halbur: Quality and thoughtfulness are the real concerns, not traditional vs. modern.

More in Planetizen.

Full Disclosure: The Author is President of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario.

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