Prince Charles vs. the Architects

A dust-up between architects and the Prince of Wales over a speech and a £1b development is bringing the age-old battle between traditional and modern architecture to a head. Managing editor Tim Halbur summarizes the news.

"[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."

The broadside blast above came from Prince Charles, addressing the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA)- not in May of 2009, but in May of 1984. That speech became known as the "Carbuncle" speech, for the Prince's comment that a proposed contemporary expansion of the National Gallery was like "a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend."

Here's the Prince's speech from this year, 25 years later:

"Now there is something I've been itching to say about the last time I addressed your Institute, in 1984; and that is that 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."

The Prince was being slightly disingenuous- it is clear through his words, activities and the work of the Prince's Foundation for the Built Environment that he has taken sides in the style wars, firmly in the traditional camp. Working with architects like Leon Krier, the Foundation has created masterplans for towns such as Poundbury, using traditional English architecture to create a mixed-use, compact development hewing closely to historic English village models. They've also led a revival of pattern books and urban codes, promoting design standards with a traditional bent. And true to his earlier speech, he's led historic preservation efforts throughout the United Kingdom.

The design for Chelsea Barracks rejected by Prince Charles.

The Perils of Princely Power
But there is a greater issue at stake in the British brouhaha. As Jonathan Glancey put it in 2004, the Prince's activities promoting traditional urbanism have extended into "a rather damp and foggy venture into the world of royal patronage."

In April of this year, word came down that Prince Charles did not like a proposed 1 billion-pound development designed by Lord Rogers for Chelsea Barracks. The Prince reportedly used his influence to contact the Qatar royal family (who own the site), and by June, the plug had been pulled on the project.

Shortly thereafter, a group of well-known architects, including Frank Gehry, Norman Foster, and Zaha Hadid, issued a letter lambasting the Prince for abusing his power. The letter states, "It is essential in a modern democracy that private comments and behind-the-scenes lobbying by the prince should not be used to skew the course of an open and democratic planning process that is under way." It continues to say that if the Prince wants to participate in the planning process, he should do it through proper channels as part of the public input phase.

I'm certain that most of us on this side of the pond would agree that having a powerful figure step in and veto a building that had gone through layers of review and public input is unacceptable. Consider if Angelina Jolie, as a celebrity and a United Nations ambassador, decided she didn't like a proposed skyscraper that was planned in a New Orleans revitalization project and used her influence to nix it.

And this isn't the first time the Prince of Wales has used his power to quash developments he didn't like. Architect Colin St. John Wilson, whose design for the British Library the Prince called "more like the assembly hall of an academy for secret police," has said that the criticism damaged his reputation so badly that he had to close his firm. "It was a bit like someone spitting in your face," he said.

Poundbury from above.

The Age-Old Debate

Certainly, the central issue is the obvious abuse of power the Prince is wielding on developments in the United Kingdom. Regardless, the coming together of this group of personalities -- starchitects and royals, modern and traditional architects -- has created a perfect storm to stir up the age-old argument over the benefits and perils of the two opposing styles.

And yet, the language chosen by both sides of the issue show a misunderstanding of history. The "modernists" so hated by the traditionalists are long gone, and left behind a fairly small legacy of buildings: the skyscrapers of Mies Van der Rohe, the midcentury modern homes of Los Angeles. The bad buildings that plague our cities are not the result of architects, but developers using cheap construction methods and poor city zoning and planning codes.

Contemporary architects, on the other hand, are guilty of over-intellectualizing their profession to the point of mystification, and occasionally making a statement building that fails to "meet the street", as planners say. As the Prince said in his May speech, "there still remains a gulf between those obsessed by forms (and Classicists can be as guilty of this as Modernists, Post-Modernists, or Post-Post-Modernists), and those who believe that communities have a role to play in design and planning." But the world of non-traditional, contemporary architecture is much more than a few "starchitect" designs, and involves many of the same approaches to urbanism that can be found in the Charter of the New Urbanism.

The debate is less about two different approaches to architecture, and more about how buildings work on the ground and how they relate to the environment around them. As Alain de Botton put it last week in BD,"The real issue is how to pay homage to something old. Taking literature as a guide, it seems that a proper homage seldom looks like one. The genuine admirer of Shakespeare knows not to write in old-fashioned stanzas but rather searches for the underlying principles that made Shakespeare great."

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."



Off the mark

A rather faux-balanced editorial. The plan wasn't foiled because of Prince Charles, it was foiled because "Rogers had felt so confident of his influence in the corridors of London power that he produced a plan for the £1billion site which disregarded Westminster's planning brief so as to increase the profit for the luxury developers, the Candy brothers, then project partners of the Qataris," as Simon Jenkins reports. See

Furthermore, the legacy of the modernist goes far beyond the small number of buildings built by Van der Rohe, et al. It is indeed still a culture war: As Jim Massengale writes:

"There are over 30 architecture schools in Britain, but when Prince Charles said there should be one in the country that taught traditional architecture and urbanism, the architectural establishment successfully campaigned to put his school out of business. Part of the campaign included personal smears in the newspapers."

Talk about undue influence. With the public at large overwhelmingly favors traditional styles and the Starchitect establishment doing everything in its power to prevent new construction thereof, there is your real undemocratic process. Cheers to the Prince for standing up for the people.

Tim Halbur's picture
Blogger / Alum

Thanks Greg

Your input is appreciated, and you're correct that I didn't take into account that Lord Rogers may have had his own influence to throw around. Thanks for the addition.

And I understand that trad. vs. mod. is still very much alive as a culture war: my feeling is that it is misguided, and obsessed with form when function should be the true debate. I realize this is a provocative opinion, and I invite discussion.

Firmness, Commodity, and Delight

"obsessed with form when function should be the true debate."

It sounds like you want firmness and commodity (= function) without delight. Function is obviously the sine qua non, but style and ornamentation are also important if you want to create pleasing places.

Architectural style has also had real cultural importance. Eg, the renaissance style in architecture was one part of the renaissance's broader revival of classical culture, and the modernist style in architecture was one part of the twentieth century's broader faith in modernization and technology.

Go to and just scroll through the page looking at the pictures and reading their captions, and I think you will see my point. Figures 6 and 16 makes my point about ornamentation being important in addition to function: imagine what they would look like if they were bare, unadorned boxes.

Charles Siegel

Tim Halbur's picture
Blogger / Alum

Delight, Yes: In All Its Forms

I'm not separating form and function- good form is essential to function. I am a lover of delight and beauty in architecture. But the argument you are using is exactly the argument that contemporary architects make against New Urbanism, that traditional ornament and style lack delight, and seem cookie-cutter. I don't happen to agree, but I also see that the field is mired in an argument over who is right about style when there are architects creating wonderful, people-oriented places on both sides.

I'm taking the position that perhaps it is time to let go of the tightly-held idea that contemporary architects are the enemy and attack the true sources of error. That includes some academic programs at architecture schools that forget to include people in the picture. It also includes planning commissions that fail to uphold quality in design, and outdated Euclidean zoning.

But whether a streetlamp is traditional and ornate or elegant and contemporary does not change the fact that a nice streetlamp makes a street attractive and pleasant to walk down, and that is where I am suggesting we turn our attention.

If it were only so...

The only difficulty I see in implementing the even handed approach you are proposing is how would one explain modernism in architecture schools with out it's intellectual framework? In other words, the founding documents if you will, all had a totalitarian bent in their approach which today sounds as dated as the Communist manifesto.

I agree that there can be beautiful modernist style buildings, but to teach "delight" in schools much the way it was taught before the Bauhaus would involve stripping away all the anti-ornament and pro-technology claptrap associated with modernism's birth (as a style). In it's place one would have to go back to studies of massing, chiaro scurro, hierarchy and the like.

With out the ideological frame work, modernism wouldn't stand a chance in the academic market place of ideas. I don't think academics would allow the openminded approach you espouse because it would be tantamount to professional suicide.

Three Approaches To Architecture

whether a streetlamp is traditional and ornate or elegant and contemporary does not change the fact that a nice streetlamp makes a street attractive and pleasant to walk down"

It seems to me there are three approaches to architecture current today:

1) Historicist Humanism: Wants to create attractive pleasant places using historical styles. This is the approach of Leon Krier and Prince Charles.

2) Eclectic Humanism: Wants to create attractive pleasant places using either historical or modernist styles. This is the approach of Andres Duany, who says you can create good urbanism using modern or traditional architecture and who says he doesn't care about architectural style.

3) Modernism / Avant-Gardism: Wants to create flashy high-tech buildings that draw attention to themselves. Doesn't care about creating pleasant places, and in fact, sometimes deliberately creates places that are unsettling and disorienting. This is the approach of Richard Rogers, Zaha Hadid, Thom Mayne, and the other starchitects.

I take approach 1, but I can also appreciate the work of people who take approach 2. I think they are missing something because they don't see the larger cultural importance of architectural style, but I appreciate the fact that they do create attractive places, including the places that use modern architecture.

You, Tim, seem to take approach 2. If so, you should not be defending Richard Rogers and the starchitects who support him, since their approach is just the opposite. Rather than being open to a variety of styles, they insist on the orthodox modernist style, and they say that anything else is a "pastiche" and a "theme park." And as Rogers' design for Chelsea Barracks shows, they care about exercises in modernist esthetics rather than about creating pleasant places.

In addition, they control the architecture departments of the universities, the public agencies that make decisions about projects like Chelsea Barracks, and most of the architecture criticism in the press. They used their insider status to get Rogers' design for Chelsea Barracks approved, though the great majority of local people disliked it. They were only stopped because there happened to be a celebrity who is interested in architecture who worked against them (Prince Charles), and they are trying to prevent him from speaking about public projects to suppress criticisms of their work.

So, Tim, if you really support appoach 2, as it seems from your statement

whether a streetlamp is traditional and ornate or elegant and contemporary does not change the fact that a nice streetlamp makes a street attractive and pleasant to walk down"

then you have chosen a singularly bad example, since: 1) Rogers and his supporters insist that the streetlamp and buildings be in modernist style and won't tolerate traditional styles, and 2) Rogers and his supporters don't care abut creating attractive and pleasant streets, as you can see by looking at his design for Chelsea Barracks. Take a look at Thom Mayne's Federal Building at by a Pritzker Prize winner that this school loves, and then tell me if you think they want to create attractive, pleasant places.

Charles Siegel

entitled to his opinion

Prince Charles is entitled to his opinion and the freedom to express it much as the Dixie Chicks were entitled to theirs. The architects and planners who would tell the Prince to shut up and be princely are no different than the rednecks who told the Chicks to "shut up and sing."

Recycled Modernists

The "modernists" so hated by the traditionalists are long gone, and left behind a fairly small legacy of buildings: the skyscrapers of Mies Van der Rohe, the midcentury modern homes of Los Angeles.

I wish it were true, but much of the work of today's starchitects is recycled modernism - repeating the ideas of fifty years ago while claiming to be more modern than anyone else. Look again at Rogers' design for Chelsea Barracks: that design would have fit right into the modernist mainstream if it had been proposed in 1959.

"... the world of non-traditional, contemporary architecture is much more than a few "starchitect" designs, and involves many of the same approaches to urbanism that can be found in the Charter of the New Urbanism."

Modernist urbanism was discredited by the New Urbanists, and now most modernists create a hybrid of modernist architecture and traditional urbanism. But some of the starchitects are still stuck on modernist urbanism: Zaha Hadid's proposal for an Olympic Village in NY looked like a 1960s housing project. And look once again at the two pictures in this post. Was Rogers' design for Chelsea Barracks inspired by New Urbanism? Or was Poundsbury inspired by New Urbanism? (To be more precise, the influence goes in the other direction: Leon Krier, the designer of Poundsbury, helped to inspire the New Urbanism.)

The enemy is not style, but the un-thoughtful building, the cheaply-made development,

Generally true, but not in this case. Rogers design was carefully thought out, and was expensive rather than cheap. Its problem is that it dogmatically follows the modernist style.

Let me also agree with what Greg2 said: if anyone is undemocratic, it is the Starchitects, who do their best to stiffle any opposing opinions.

Charles Siegel

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