Let Charles be Charles

When Queen Elizabeth II -- now 84 -- passes on, Prince Charles will finally become king. With a history of active engagement in the built environment, will King Charles become a silent monarch, as some have claimed? David Sucher hopes not.

Prince Charles offers a valuable voice in raising issues around the built environment by conversation and by action: his book A Vision of Britain; the development of Poundbury, England as an illustration of new urbanism; his own Foundation for the Built Environment and the Prince's Rainforests Project; and his many public statements. Even if one disagrees with his views, he has been working the problem. But for one such as myself who is in general agreement with his views, one wonders about his future.

Photo:
Image courtesy of Flickr user Downing Street.

It seems to me that Charles' voice will be silenced by necessity when and if he becomes King. Charles' activism is not appropriate for a King, unless 350 years of British history will be overturned.

Some may claim that his environmental work is non-partisan. But that assumes that reasonable people can never disagree and that there is only one environmental solution. That's not so, of course, and a future Government can be very green and yet at odds with the King's own greenness. Even his supporters agree, and the line has been "The Prince now speaks as Prince. It will be different when he is King."

And of course that is the problem. What is a well-educated 21st century King with ideas of his own to do?

His work in raising consciousness and showing real examples is important work. What is he to do as King? Just shut up and cut ribbons? I would miss his activism on the built environment (even though I disagree with him on some issues - insufficiently distinguishing between traditional architecture versus traditional urban planning. Conflating them creates unneeded rancor as, I believe happened, with Chelsea Barracks.) But overall he is one of the good guys.

My sense is that Charles is truly and absolutely sincere; the man has beliefs. Yet the King's role is to stand for the nation and stand apart from the issues of the day and to reflect Government policy, even if he disagrees strongly. Can you imagine this King Charles backing some future Government's policy which is blatantly anti-green (by any measure.) There's a story of internal personal conflict worthy of Shakespeare.

So, what then? Just mere conjecture of course but I wonder if Charles might simply take himself out of the running as future King, something like abdication. He can continue his good work now and into the future, unencumbered by arguments about his Constitutional role. Abdication (or equal) would actually enhance his global stature - think about the message of commitment for the man who gives up the British throne. I realize that asking a man whose entire life has been aimed to one goal of becoming King and at a personal level it would have to be a wrenching choice.

Photo: The streets of Poundbury.
Poundbury, one of the Prince's best-known projects.
Image courtesy of Zonda Grattus.

But I suspect that the choice is likely to be inevitable. The Prince is now (by one of his own advisors) backed into the role of being "the people's streetfighter." Elements of the public take him at his word and now ask him to help. If he doesn't take part in this instance or another, it will be against his own impulse and he will look a hypocrite to boot.

So if he does get involved, he will get increasingly involved with specific actions of the day and will, I surmise, run up against some Governmental policy in a nasty public row, which he is sure to lose. (Think of the foreign policy implications of the Iranian embassy!) That's not good for him or for the Royal Family as an institution. Now it's possible that the healthy genes of Queen Elizabeth will extend her reign a decade and offer the family a generation-hopping way out to young Prince William. But unless Charles' role is clearly stated - silence or abdication - there will be continuing confusion.

Of course my personal interest is that I don't want Prince Charles' to silence to global voice so I tend that the historical and political tides will end in abdication or equivalent, whatever that may be.* With abdication, the Royal Family's "Charles problem" disappears and there is no threat to the Windsors' control of the Crown, and Charles is free to be Charles.


David Sucher lives in Seattle, develops real estate and writes about the built environment at www.citycomforts.com.

Comments

Comments

Nonsense

This is a woeful opinion, typical of a North American view of 'England' (not Britain) that like Prince Charles is living in the past, and heading backwards. As JG Ballard, a writer who has rather more to offer in terms of analysis of the modern world, said of this kind of viewpoint on England:

"(They) still believe that England is a land of gothic quadrangles and village greens, all that John Major rubbish about warm beer and spinsters cycling to evensong. Give us a break."

Poundbury (not Poundsbury) has been a complete waste of time and resources, if not a disastrous distraction - car dependency there is higher than the surrounding (rural!) area, leaving aside what the architecture implicitly speaks of (again, a conservative sensibility that has nothing to offer the contemporary world). The housing is getting unaffordable. It's essentially a form of gated community, as with most new urbanism projects. It's a Prince's plaything, not far off a dolls house at the scale of a town. If, having been created and controlled in such totalitarian fashion, it can't even achieve a basic level of walkability what can it offer us? There is nothing in its approach in terms of broad-scale replicability - what exactly are Charles (and Krier) suggesting? That we relocate 58m people to such conditions?

His intervention in Chelsea Barracks has been similarly unhelpful; whether it's been unconstitutional or not is for others to decide but it's certainly been counter to good ethical or business practice. Charles has little to offer the contemporary world and all its vital richness, diversity and complexity. I suggest he, and the writer, needs to get out more.

Modernist Ideology

"It's essentially a form of gated community, as with most new urbanism projects."

You give yourself away by showing that you are not only against Prince Charles but against new urbanism in general.

Do you want to go back to the planning principles that were dominant before new urbanism: building housing projects, shopping malls, and other single-use superblocks surrounded by arterial streets?

New urbanism is a set of principles for designing neighborhoods - including a connected street system, small blocks, and buildings oriented toward the sidewalk - that works much better than the modernist planning ideology that it has replaced.

"the architecture implicitly speaks of (again, a conservative sensibility that has nothing to offer the contemporary world)."

You are making the obvious error of confusing progressive politics and modernist architecture.

In reality, there are many progressive environmental organizations that support new urbanism, but I do not know of any political organizations that support modernist planning.

Modernist architecture seemed progressive early in the twentieth century, at a time when progressives were fixated on technology and economic growth. It became the established style in the 1950s and 1960s.. Today, it is conservative or even reactionary - attempting to keep the mid-century attitude toward technology and growth after it has become obsolete.

Though modernist planning has been discredited, modernist architecture remains the established orthodoxy. We are lucky to have Prince Charles to speak up against ugly proposals like Chelsea Barracks, representing the majority of people against the architectural establishment.

Charles Siegel

See above

Charles, I guess I wrapped my reply to this one into the one above.

Attack on Prince Charles

My goodness, what a bitter and pitiable comment by Dan Hill (alias cityofsound). He must really have issues with Prince Charles, and I will not attempt to deprive him of his pleasure of hating what the Prince represents -- a way for architecture and urbanism to look forward, not backward.

Yet Mr. Hill makes a small slip, just enough to undermine his own argument. He states a truth about the urban development in Poundbury, which is masterplanned by my friend Léon Krier: "The housing is getting unaffordable". Yes it is! But Poundbury also contains a fixed percentage of rent-controlled residences of social housing subsidized by the Guinness Trust. So those (poorer) people continue to enjoy living in Poundbury, and you cannot guess which houses belong to whom -- I have been there and checked. How do Planetizen readers normally judge the success of an urban development? I would say by seeing how the market evaluates it, and according to this criterion, Poundbury has been an overwhelming success! No wonder the housing prices are going up -- that means it's a SUCCESS. Period.

Of course architectural ideologues couldn't care less about the market or people's choice but judge only according to whether buildings and urban fabric obey the dictates of the Geometrical Fundamentalism Cult. I'm sorry but I cannot argue against those (pseudo-religious) prejudices, because it gets too tedious and leads nowhere.

There are many, including myself, who feel that Prince Charles has a lot "to offer the contemporary world and all its vital richness, diversity and complexity". His ideas about human-scale urbanism have been taken over by several famous architects and presented as their own (no names here, as those individuals are vicious, wealthy, and love to sue!). As for the shameful attack on the Prince by the usual bunch of super-rich Starchitects following his intervention in the Chelsea Barracks fiasco, well... that was "certainly counter to good ethical or business practice" but in an opposite sense to what Mr. Hill implies. The letter signed by those Starchitects did them more harm than it did the Prince.

Best wishes,
Nikos

Progressive?

Thanks both, for revealing your hands so clearly.

Nikos: "housing prices are going up -- that means it's a SUCCESS. Period."

Right. So house prices and the market are the only judge of something as multi-faceted and multi-valent as urban development? This a clear understanding that neither of you recognise "progressive politics" as Charles would have it. Perhaps you don't believe in climate change, but we might agree that the market successfully delivered that - happy with that one? Likewise income inequality, to which we can now overlay the housing un-affordability you think is not only acceptable but a success (your comment on special measures for "poor people" notwithstanding.)

Moving on, I didn't mention modernist planning or 'Starchitecture', but as you both brought them up as your necessary bogeymen, I'm not really talking about either. I think those two, along with new urbanism, will all be largely consigned to eh waste-bin as we move through the 21st century as well (although I'd add that "modern planning" is a rather large broad brushstroke and less than useful as a shorthand - again, it's an oppositional tactic to enable the 'idea' of new urbanism.)

Meanwhile, you both appear to want to speak for "the majority of people" - tell me, on which basis is this, exactly? No wonder you see so much you like in Charles and his ability to derive a platform and influence public life on such largely spurious terms.

To my core point - I love a 15th century market square as much as the next person (though prefer the Mediterranean version, which has retained a value in public life through a density, richness, and culture of public life not achieved in the Anglo Saxon model that Charles covets and Poundbury has cut-and-pasted with such paucity of thinking and ambition.) However, I ask again, what does Poundbury offer as a model that can actually *used* in the modern world? Does it offer anything that could be replicated or generated to help deal with the drivers of change we're about to face? If not, it remains a Disney exhibit, and not a particularly exciting one at that.

Divorcing this conversation from 'content' i.e. what cities are for, and what they can do - strategically - is the mistake made by much of the profession. The goal is not to achieve a hollow victory in a small patch of Dorset, but something more strategic. One of you at least used the word 'progressive' - can we not imagine that there might be something in between the vast gulf between your generalised conception of modernist planning and your inherently conservative new urbanism, something perhaps better-equipped to meet challenges beyond simply generating a rise in house prices?

Changing Meaning of Progressive

"So house prices and the market are the only judge of something as multi-faceted and multi-valent as urban development? ... Perhaps you don't believe in climate change, but we might agree that the market successfully delivered that - happy with that one?"

That is one of the wildest non sequiturs I have ever seen. Nikos says that rising prices show that New Urbanism is popular, that people like to live in New Urbanist neighborhoods, and you claim that statement implies he is a market fundamentalist who doesn't believe in global warming.

I won't speak for Nikos, but anyone who has read this list knows that I have written at length about the dangers of global warming and the limits of the market. Nevertheless, I think it is good to build neighborhoods that people like to live in.

"a hollow victory in a small patch of Dorset.... your inherently conservative new urbanism"

You have a very narrow idea of New Urbanism. Move beyond the esthetics of this one project, and think about the broader goals of New Urbanism.

One of the great victories of New Urbanism has been the regional planning of Portland, which began with a study by Peter Calthorpe (a founder of the CNU) and led the region to adopt a plan for transit-oriented development - including walkable neighborhoods downtown and walkable New Urbanist suburbs such as Orenco Station. (Incidentally, project manager for Orenco Station was Michael Mehaffy, who later worked for Prince Charles' foundation.)

You seem to think that New Urbanism is just an esthetic preference, but it is actually a general method of building walkable neighborhoods and pedestrian and transit-oriented regions. Andres Duany has emphasized that it works with modernist architecture as well as with traditional architecture.

This planning in Portland was supported all along by progressive environmental groups. Obviously, it did not involve market fundamentalism.

You would have to go back to the 1930s or maybe the 1950s to find progressive groups supporting modernist planning - eg, the New Deal's housing projects.

I think the change in urban design is part of a larger change in the meaning of progressive politics. A century ago, progressives were fixated on technology, because most people were poor and technology offered the opportunity of raising them out of poverty. Today, we have a more ambivalent attitude to technology, because most people in the developed nations are already economically comfortable, and because technology has brought environmental threats such as global warming. We can see that it is necessary to control technology to use it for human purposes.

Modernist architecture and urbanism reflected the technological optimism of progressives during the early and mid twentieth century. Neo-traditional urbanism and architecture reflects the need to use technology for human purposes that progressives and environmentalists work for today. The most important architectural theorist making this point is Christopher Alexander, who rejects modernism in favor of the "timeless way of building" that people feel comfortable with because it reflects human nature. (Incidentally, Alexander is now in Britain, working with Prince Charles' foundation.)

This is the point about architecture and progressive politics that I made in my book "An Architecture for Our Times." You can read the book or glance at its pictures at http://www.preservenet.com/archtime/ArchTime.html

Charles Siegel

This is not about form

Charles, you misunderstood my point, which is perhaps why you see it as a non-sequitur. Nikos Salingaros said that the market was the only arbiter of success. My allusion to climate change was after Sir Nicholas Stern's comment that "climate change is the greatest market failure the world has ever seen". So my point is that, if climate change is an outcome of untrammelled market prices (along with many other negatives too important to now be dismissively described as 'externalities') then we can hardly look to the market as an arbiter of success, can we?

Minor note on technology too - our attitude to technology is far from ambivalent, and perhaps more in thrall than ever. It's simply the technologies have changed from those of the '30s. But we can agree that technology should of course be used for human purposes - but this doesn't mean an ambivalence. We will see more of it in our cities - and our design processes - than ever before.

And I am fully aware of the various histories you describe, and many others you don't choose to describe, such as several so-called 'modernist' developments that are not failures, due to ongoing engagement from communities, management functions, political institutions and others taking care of them and adjacent, strategic developments (e.g. Barbican, Marseille Unite d’habitation) - which is something that Pruitt Igoe or Park Hill never benefited from. So if form or technology, or ideology underpinning form or technology, did not make difference, what did?

To put it another way: rightly or wrongly, Orenco Station (which looks stultifyingly dull if worthy) will probably have an essentially insignificant effect on the next century's urban development compared to what's going on in Shanghai right now. Why?

My general question was after a more progressive understanding of urban development - not the good, simple goals of walkability, TOD etc. (which are so bleedin' obvious that we need hardly spend much more effort thinking about them. Just do it. Would anybody seriously argue otherwise? It's not rocket science.) - towards a deeper understanding of why urban processes do and don't work. And that form is only a part of that, possibly a very small part. This would concern the processes by which a community or city lives, works and plays, or is enabled, by ongoing processes and platforms which are far more important than form, which is something most architects and planners rarely want to engage with (for perhaps obvious if insecure reasons; and with some very honourable exceptions).

So I'm trying to discuss an architecture and planning beyond a focus on form, and really grappling with why cities and communities exist in the first place, and how the ongoing processes or transformations are enabled (which is where social technologies will have a huge role to play, actually). But more importantly, this relies on conceiving of a new understanding of the process, strategy and function of the built environment (and the political institutions in which it sits, such as the various flavours of market, and others) which more explicitly recognises the ongoing processes of inhabitation and crucially adaptation, as well as far richer notions of value. This is something the industry is not currently equipped for, and although I admire some of Alexander's work as regards enabling adaptive design, not something he delivers either. Never mind new urbanism.

Better To Be Constructive Than To Bash New Urbanists

"Charles, you misunderstood my point, which is perhaps why you see it as a non-sequitur. Nikos Salingaros said that the market was the only arbiter of success. My allusion to climate change was after Sir Nicholas Stern's comment that climate change is the greatest market failure the world has ever seen."

Your point is a non sequitur because Nikos did not say that the market was the only arbiter of success. He said that high prices show that Poundbury is popular, and that popularity is a sign of success. That does not imply that the market is the ultimate or only arbiter of success, and it does not imply that there are never market failures.

In fact, Nikos also said that Poundbury provides affordable housing, which would not be provided by the market. This implies that lack of affordable housing is a common market failure. Poundbury is a success both because it is popular and because it compensates for the market's failure to provide affordable housing.

"Orenco Station (which looks stultifyingly dull if worthy) will probably have an essentially insignificant effect on the next century's urban development .... My general question was after a more progressive understanding of urban development - not the good, simple goals of walkability, TOD etc. (which are so bleedin' obvious that we need hardly spend much more effort thinking about them. Just do it. Would anybody seriously argue otherwise? It's not rocket science.) - towards a deeper understanding of why urban processes do and don't work."

I did not say that Orenco Station was important in itself. Let me repeat what I actually said:

"One of the great victories of New Urbanism has been the regional planning of Portland, which began with a study by Peter Calthorpe (a founder of the CNU) and led the region to adopt a plan for transit-oriented development - including walkable neighborhoods downtown and walkable New Urbanist suburbs such as Orenco Station."

That replanning of the entire Portland region will have a significant effect on the coming century's urban development. It has already had a significant effect in changing America's ideas about urban planning.

I wish it were true that "the good, simple goals of walkability, TOD etc. ... are so bleedin' obvious that we need hardly spend much more effort thinking about them." In fact, in almost all of the United States, most new development is still made up of auto-oriented shopping centers, housing tracts, business parks, and the like, which are totally unwalkable. The New Urbanists are fighting hard and gradually having success in shifting this to the more walkable forms that they have pioneered.

Rather than bashing the New Urbanists for the work they have done in furthering "the good, simple goals of walkability, TOD etc," you might want to write a piece for planetizen about the ideas that you think will lead to a "deeper understanding of why urban processes do and don't work." I have written a couple, and so has Nikos. I have found that Tim Halbur is receptive to proposals for opinion pieces, so why don't you email him with a proposal that focuses on constructive work that is being done to lead to a deeper understanding of how cities work?

Charles Siegel

Check this out

In case anyone is still reading, check out this article and see if Charles intends to be a silent King. Good for him!

Then judge for yourself if being an activist King is consistent with a constitutional monarchy.

One of the ironies might be that conservatives (anti-green, climate change-denialists) would be to complain the most about such an activist King's role.

Life is interesting.

---

Prince Charles on the Environment, the Monarchy, His Family, and Islam
http://www.vanityfair.com/online/daily/2010/10/exclusive-prince-charles-...

For example:

' “I am absolutely determined to be the defender of nature. Full stop. That’s what the rest of my life is going to be concerned with,” Prince Charles tells Vanity Fair special correspondent Bob Colacello, in an exclusive interview at his estate, Highgrove, in Gloucestershire. “I think people don’t quite understand how much it requires to put your head above the parapet,” he says. “It’s no fun having your head shot off all the time. But I just feel deeply … I know perfectly well this book is going to bring all of my critics out of their lairs. It’s probably just as well …

'When asked how, as the future King of England, he views the role of a constitutional monarch in the 21st century, Charles is circumspect, saying that he most likely sees it “in a different way” than his predecessors, “because the situation has changed.” Referring to the fact that he was the first heir to the throne educated not by palace tutors but in a far more progressive way at Gordonstoun and Cambridge, he remarks that his parents shouldn’t have sent him to schools that were “precepted on taking the initiative … or to a university where you inevitably look into a lot of these issues,” if they didn’t want him to do so. “So it’s their bad luck, but that’s the way I intend to continue.” '

---
http://citycomfortsblog.typepad.com/

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