Prince Toohey: Charles’ Long War on Modern Architecture

by Tim Alatorre

The AFP ran a story yesterday about Prince Charles and his latest clash with architects over his traditionalist views on architecture.  (Prince Charles faces new architecture row)  This isn’t the first time the prince has angered British Architects.  25 years ago he described the proposed National Gallery Extension as “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend”, much to the outrage of the British architectural establishment.

 

The Gherkin

The Gherkin, old vs. new

Yesterday’s British press was rife with stories about the Prince and his architecture views, it was as if he had committed a great sin against humanity just by threatening to again express his views on architecture.  Yet, for Architects, the Prince really has committed an unforgivable crime.  In 1984, he was invited to present the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture to the Indian architect Charles Correa, instead of giving a simple toast and presenting Correa with his medal he lambasted the state of current British architecture.  All of this occurred at the 150th anniversary of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA).  So, now with the news that the prince was again to speak at the RIBA, and the release to the media of portions of his speech, he has reignited the flames.  What the prince doesn’t realize is that Architects more than anything hate to be critiqued, especially by those not in the profession.  In Architecture “everyone is an expert”, and that’s one thing Architects can’t stand.

 

Is Prince Charles really a living Ellsworth Toohey?  Is his mission to stamp out the original, level the playing field, discourage innovation, risk taking and profit?  Does he believe in designing only for the public good and keeping the architecture profession in the glory days of porticoes and Georgian design?  His speeches, books, and Architecture Institute give that impression, but the results have been much different.

Since Charles’ speech 25 years ago Britain has become renowned for some of the most modern structures in the world and architects like Zaha Hadid, Norman Foster, Renzo Piano, Daniel Libeskind, and Frank Gehry have all left their mark on the British soil.  Iconic structures like the GherkinNational Space Centre, Selfridges in Birmingham, the Lloyd’s Building,  and the Millenium Dome stand in resolute defiance to the Prince.

 

Selfridges in Birmingham

Selfridges in Birmingham

The actual speech made by the Prince last night didn’t live up to the hype.  There were no attacks on famous Architectural icons but rather he gave a conciliatory, softer toned encouragement to British architects to embrace harmony and nature instead of modernity and technology with a focus on the effects architecture has on climate change.  The result?  Most likely a truce for now.

 

What are we to make of a Prince who is, it seems, at war with Architectural modernity?  Architectural beauty, like all beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.  Everyone will have their own interpretation of what is good and bad, and no one can tell another person what they should like.  The Prince is no different, and as long as he is not imposing a strict architectural style on the nation I think he has all the right in the world to call Architects out on what he sees is poor work.  I find the planning commission member and the city staff planner a much scarier and bigger hindrance to architectural creativity then Prince Charles.  However, the character Ellsworth Toohey never made any policy, never signed any laws, yet through the power of public opinion he had great sway over the architectural designs of his day.  That is where I would issue a warning to the Prince.  You can have your opinions, but remember that they are yours and there is a good change you are wrong; then again, there is a good chance the rest of us are wrong as well.


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Tim Alatorre