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The dead hand of neo-traditionalism
June 16, 2009 4:39 AM   Subscribe

Controversy has erupted in Britain after it emerged that Prince Charles used his personal influence with Qatari royalty to sack modernist architect Richard Rogers from a development in London. Charles has been an outspoken critic of modern architecture and advocate of neo-traditionalist styles, and even created a model village to showcase his ideas about "proper" architecture. Charles' preferred replacement for Rogers is Quinlan Terry, known for his neo-classicist leanings.

There is more at stake than the question of Charles' architectural tastes. For one, Britain's constitutional monarchy is meant to refrain from exercising powers over the day-to-day business of government, and the possibility of the future king having used his influence to bend the planning process to his tastes raises a troubling precedent. Some are saying that such interventions on his part are specifically unconstitutional.
posted by acb (95 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite

 
Is this interference with the planning process? It seems more like personal intercession with the developer, which isn't the same thing. Self serving yes, but unconstitutional?
posted by biffa at 4:49 AM on June 16, 2009 [3 favorites]


He spends all his time firing off angry letters to those in power about things he knows nothing about.
posted by jessicajulie at 4:50 AM on June 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


Previously (related).
posted by MuffinMan at 4:50 AM on June 16, 2009


The link to the model village of Poundbury on Wikipedia suggests that it was built on New Urbanist principles. Maybe New Urbanism is neo-traditional, but it's gotten a lot of praise in the States for making cities more "walkable." Modernism ain't as "modern" as it used to be.
posted by jonp72 at 4:54 AM on June 16, 2009


Poundbury also has a lot of pointless archaicisms, such as houses built with bricked-up windows, in fetishistic imitation of the practice when England levied taxes on windows. Essentially it seems to be a kitschy, chocolate-box take on New Urbanism, as befits a project co-planned by someone of populist takes whose authority doesn't come from accomplishment.
posted by acb at 5:02 AM on June 16, 2009


that should be "of populist tastes"
posted by acb at 5:03 AM on June 16, 2009


Is this interference with the planning process? It seems more like personal intercession with the developer, which isn't the same thing. Self serving yes, but unconstitutional?

I think it's a conflict of interest problem. The prince actually ended up betting the commission for his own architectural team instaid. If you had a situation in the U.S. where the president got the plans for a development scraped in favor of his own friends, it would be considered corruption, although it would be only minor corruption compared to what we've got. Certainly you saw all kinds of craziness during the Iraq War.
posted by delmoi at 5:03 AM on June 16, 2009


Charles famously engaged in a struggle for power with the Parliament of England. He was eventually beheaded...in 1649.

And now you know....the rest. of the story.
posted by DU at 5:07 AM on June 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


(Oops, I kinda plagiarized from Wikipedia. I meant to go somewhere else with that and then didn't change the exact sentence I pulled from there, nor did I acknowledge it. Until now. And now you know...the rest. of the story.)
posted by DU at 5:15 AM on June 16, 2009


When our head of state violates the constitution, it's to commit war crimes. When their head of state violates the constitution, it's to foster neo-traditionalist architecture.

Make of this what you like.

*Carping that the Windsors aren't really the heads of state? That's a paddlin'.
posted by Joe Beese at 5:18 AM on June 16, 2009 [9 favorites]


Quinlan Terry is to architecture what Pizza Hut is to Italian food. An obscene practitioner of the worst kind of insulting, vapid pastiche. Gets his ideas from God, apparently. It wasn't Rogers best work but id take a tent designed by him over a palace made by Terry's Vegas infected imagination.
posted by The Salaryman at 5:19 AM on June 16, 2009 [9 favorites]


This is why we can't have nice things.
posted by The Whelk at 5:20 AM on June 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


acbPoster: " Essentially it seems to be a kitschy, chocolate-box take on New Urbanism..."

There seems to be a lot of that in New Urban developments. I work in a retail/office building that takes up a city block but from the outside looks like a series of individual shops. I guess that it's supposed to mimic the rows of shops on the actual victorian-era shopping district that it extends but it ends up looking kind of cartoonish.
posted by octothorpe at 5:26 AM on June 16, 2009


jessicajulie: "He spends all his time firing off angry letters to those in power about things he knows nothing about."

Trying to be a man of the people, eh?
posted by Joe Beese at 5:27 AM on June 16, 2009 [3 favorites]


Oh and the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery, also subjected to his ignorant and reactionary meddling looks and feels like the result of Godzilla eating a wing of Ceasar's Palace and vomiting it back up through a defective colander
posted by The Salaryman at 5:28 AM on June 16, 2009 [10 favorites]


" Britain's constitutional monarchy is meant to refrain" ...
"the possibility of the future king having used his influence to bend the planning process to his tastes"


I ask this in all possible earnestness, but: Isn't this kind of thing what a king is for in the first place? If a guy just went around refraining all the time, would you call him a king or just "that guy?"
posted by majick at 5:28 AM on June 16, 2009 [4 favorites]


Charles is easily led by the stronger personalities around him. And the people around him these days are largely the middle-aged-to-elderly, culturally conservative types who make up Britain's upper class.

The man is an odd mixture of things, architectural pain in the ass being just one aspect. If he weren't in line for the throne he'd most likely be running a new-age bookshop in Glastonbury or somewhere. And probably not complaining about architects so much.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 5:29 AM on June 16, 2009 [5 favorites]


Oh and the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery, also subjected to his ignorant and reactionary meddling looks and feels like the result of Godzilla eating a wing of Ceasar's Palace and vomiting it back up through a defective colander

Which is not to say that the proposal he meddled with was not, as he said, a hideous carbuncle.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:39 AM on June 16, 2009


Actually, I think I see how this could be controversial. O Albion, if you want to have a royal family they will have power to exercise. That's sort of the crux of the thing. You've got to sort out the political schizophrenia shit out. Or, you know, don't. It's not like there's an empire at stake!
posted by clockzero at 5:43 AM on June 16, 2009


I hear he's also lobbying MOMA to replace all the Andy Warhol's with Thomas Kinkade.
posted by jenkinsEar at 5:44 AM on June 16, 2009 [5 favorites]


Am I the only one who thinks he'll never make it to the throne? Somehow I have it in my head that his son will take the responsibilities from the queen. And everytime I see him talking on television, I see him thinking just that, no matter what he's talking about. That would be a rather long winded but surprising and satisfactory twist in the plot.
posted by ouke at 5:44 AM on June 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


I wish the sheds and outhouses most American public buildings (especially in small-to-medium towns) resemble were half as good looking as the ugliest image linked in this thread.
posted by DU at 5:44 AM on June 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


Hard to pick a side; Charles, Rogers and the Qatari royal family will all be up against the mock-Tudor wall come the glorious day.
posted by Abiezer at 5:44 AM on June 16, 2009 [3 favorites]


It's good to be the King ... Prince ...
posted by homodigitalis at 5:48 AM on June 16, 2009


Charles famously engaged in a struggle for power with the Parliament of England. He was eventually beheaded...in 1649.

And now spends all his time firing off angry letters to those in power about things he knows nothing about?


Who IS this guy?
posted by mattoxic at 5:49 AM on June 16, 2009


Yeah, a plague on all their houses.
posted by Phanx at 5:58 AM on June 16, 2009


O Albion, if you want to have a royal family they will have power to exercise.

Depends on the details. One could have a Dutch/Scandinavian-style "bicycle monarchy", which is purely ceremonial, and effectively functions as a republic with added ornamentation; that way, one would get a modern, forward-looking state with nifty coins and tourist attractions.

The alternative is to turn Britain into a theme park of archaic quaintness. Build all new houses with the windows pre-bricked up (how quaint!) have one of the houses of parliament stuffed with hereditary aristocrats, and have the Royal Family consulted on everything from urban planning to the colour schemes of the national airline. Oh, and while you're at it, have everyone wear bowler hats and bring back the law requiring cabbies to keep a bail of hay in the trunk. Which would be a lot more exotic and exciting than a boring old modern technocracy, albeit in a cranky, bleedingly inefficient way. As cool as it would be to briefly visit Ye Olde Englande of the Second Elizabethan Age, I'd rather live somewhere a bit more forward-looking.
posted by acb at 5:58 AM on June 16, 2009 [4 favorites]


Wait, a guy working for the Qatari royal family complains about the power of monarchy?
posted by Sova at 6:02 AM on June 16, 2009 [5 favorites]


Charles is easily led by the stronger personalities around him

That's pretty harsh. He was a proponent of sustainable domestic farming and ethical consumerism a couple of decades before it became fashionable (even if he was driving an Aston Martin about the place at the time). His work on the Prince's Trust was pioneering in the 70's and anything but conservative even against modern benchmarks.

Poundbury, for all that it is an architectural franken-estate, is a successful, put-your-money-where-your-mouth is response to the shapeless, community-less housing estates that are still being built in Britain. People I know who live there love it and it is in high demand as a place to live despite its unlovely location.

Prince Charles isn't alone in his dislike for modern carbuncles and so on. For better or worse, great swathes of the middle classes and the older generation are in tune with his thinking. His architectural vision isn't much to my liking but I can at least see his point on neoclassical (even rendered unfaithfully) architecture - compared against some of the jawdroppingly ugly buildings blighting city centres it's not the worst that can happen.

In this specific case - on the edges of Chelsea and opposite the Royal Hospital, a modern building isn't what the residents want and would stand out like a sore thumb. I'm a fan of some of Richard Rogers' work but of all places Chelsea is a poor home for it.
posted by MuffinMan at 6:06 AM on June 16, 2009 [6 favorites]


*Carping that the Windsors aren't really the heads of state? That's a paddlin'.
The Queen certainly is the head of state. However, she is not the head of government - that's the Prime Minister - and her powers are strictly limited in theory and in practice. Bills must get the Royal Assent before becoming law - but no monarch has withheld their assent in centuries. The Prime Minister must ask her to dissolve Parliament before an election.

Following an election, the Queen must invite someone to become Prime Minister to form a government - but this is nearly always the leader of the majority party. Things get interesting in the event of a hung parliament (one in which no party has a majority) - but in practice it would be up to the incumbent Prime Minister to either try to form a government or resign. (King George V once refused to dissolve Parliament when asked by Stanley Baldwin, and asked Ramsay McDonald to form a government instead: but this was immediately after the 1923 Election when Baldwin had been defeated in a confidence vote.)

Monarchs are supposed to be above politics and not supposed to have opinions on anything. Prince Charles, however, is not the monarch yet, nor has he actually intervened in the formal planning process. He has merely talked to his chums in the Qatari Royal Family. This is certainly fairly unbecoming of the heir to the throne. Whether it is unconstitutional is rather less clear.
posted by Electric Dragon at 6:09 AM on June 16, 2009


There is nothing unconstitutional about this. For starters the UK does not have a constitution. But putting that aside, the monarch is expected to remain impartial only on matters of party politics.

He has strongly held views on a number of subjects, of which architecture is one, and has voiced his opinion on modern architecture numerous times. Of course, being a member of the royal family, his views get publicised and carry more weight than those of most of the population, but I for one would prefer they were aired, even if I don't agree with them. Although in this case, I have to say I do.
posted by bap98189 at 6:15 AM on June 16, 2009


And some background to what looks less like monarchical meddling and more like a good old fashioned feud.

Directly opposite the site is a Quinlan Terry building, in the grounds of the Royal Hospital. If Roger Scruton is to be believed:

"No one has been more malicious in the attempt to deprive Terry of work than the great guru of modernism, Richard Rogers [....] when at last Terry fought his way through to a public commission in London — the new infirmary at the much-loved Royal Hospital in Chelsea — and had obtained all the necessary consents, Rogers had the impertinence to write to the Deputy Prime Minister asking him to call in the plans"
posted by MuffinMan at 6:20 AM on June 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


For starters the UK does not have a constitution.

That isn't true.

...less like monarchical meddling and more like a good old fashioned feud.

Er, why can't it be both?
posted by ninebelow at 6:25 AM on June 16, 2009


Thanks, MuffinMan, that's some interesting backstory between Terry and Rogers. The Times has a few pics of Rogers modernist design, and also mentions it's Lord Rogers, thank you.
posted by mediareport at 6:31 AM on June 16, 2009


There is more at stake than the question of Charles' architectural tastes. For one, Britain's constitutional monarchy is meant to refrain from exercising powers over the day-to-day business of government, and the possibility of the future king having used his influence to bend the planning process to his tastes raises a troubling precedent. Some are saying that such interventions on his part are specifically unconstitutional.

Yes. The architectural stuff might have annoyed a handful of people but in itself it's not that important. The monarch has power but is expected to act as a safety valve more than anything else. This is because, in principle, Parliament can pass any law they feel like (subject to the Lords' approval) without the limitations imposed by something like the US constitution.

For example, if the unthinkable happened and the BNP actually achieved political power, they could pass a law decreeing that all non-whites have to leave the country. The Lords would shout it down but, given a sufficient majority, the government could use the parliament act to push it through. However, the monarch has the final say on ratifying laws, so their modern role is to stop exactly this kind of thing from happening. While their powers technically do extend further than that, for the last century or so they haven't really been used. Queen Elizabeth II, particularly, has been carefully apolitical in her public life.

If Charles is willing to interfere on things like architecture, that's an extremely worrying precedent given his vocal support for voodoo alternative medicine and homeopathy, among other nonsense. Assuming he takes the throne, if he actually tries to use his power and influence I can see it precipitating a pretty serious constitutional crisis. A lot of Brits very strongly support the Royal family, but none of us can remember a time when they actually used their power. It'll be interesting to see what happens.
posted by metaBugs at 6:34 AM on June 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


It's good to be the king? Seriously, this is one of the perks of being royalty. You don't want kings/princes/etc exerting "personal influence"? Then don't have kings/princes/etc.
posted by Brocktoon at 7:25 AM on June 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


Seriously, this is one of the perks of being royalty.
It certainly used to be; not so much these days.
posted by acb at 7:52 AM on June 16, 2009


In all fairness, and I'm really trying hard to be fair here, fuck Prince Charles.
posted by ob at 8:04 AM on June 16, 2009


"There seems to be a lot of that in New Urban developments. I work in a retail/office building that takes up a city block but from the outside looks like a series of individual shops. I guess that it's supposed to mimic the rows of shops on the actual victorian-era shopping district that it extends but it ends up looking kind of cartoonish."

That comes from a couple of things—First off, folks are suspicious, at least in America, of this new-fangled New Urbanism thing. Mixed use? No setbacks? Pedestrian friendly? They imagine the horrors of Le Corbusier and Cabrini-Green. So a bit of pastiche nostalgia is the sugar on the pill, and locals are willing to say, yes, yes, that looks very much like something I'm familiar and comfortable with. Second off, construction in authentic Victorian or whatever older styles is incredibly expensive compared to modern construction. It's easier and cheaper to make something that has a vaguely past-ish facade than actually hew to either the materials or decorative elements that would be authentic. So when you see one of the developments, it almost always looks all fakety, and most people don't have the vocabulary to articulate why, so it's hard to inveigh against. Besides, your mom kind of likes it anyway.
posted by klangklangston at 8:10 AM on June 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


But... but... Kings are Steampunk!
posted by Artw at 8:16 AM on June 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery

Our motto: three containers of Müller Rice for £1.50 and all the paintings you can view.
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 8:18 AM on June 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


The fundamental and most important tenets of New Urbanism have nothing to do with style. Sure, you have a lot of cookie cutter "New Urbanist" designs that look like the village from The Prisoner, but that's uninformed design that relies on style to elicit an emotional response. (klangklangston hit the nail on the head)

New Urbanism is about making spaces livable at human scale. You can accomplish this with any style. Good design looks like what it is - legitimate, and not contrived. Bad design gets you those fakey looking "town centers" that give everyone the creeps.

Prince Charles has legitimate complaints about the failures of modernist design. Unfortunately, he focuses on the failures of modernism, or rather, the failures of architects to recognize what modernism actually is, and who implement it poorly. Modernism isn't to blame.

The ultimate failure is that planners, at least here in the U.S., are not trained as designers. They don't design. They have implemented an anal retentive, unnecessary and arbitrary planning paradigm that divides spaces based on colored blobs on a piece of paper, and connects them with arbitrary colored lines that accomplish the separation of space more then the connection. The evolution of suburbanism was probably a good way to escape the failures of 18th century urbanism, but, like an intervention program, it's not somewhere you want to stay for the rest of your life.

The disaster that is conventional modern town planning is also a response to the middle 20th century ideal of the automobile. Now that we have suffered, it's time to rethink the relationship between human beings and space. Not only do we not need to drive everywhere, it's not good for our health and not good for the environment.

For the laymen out there, "good design" should not be a mystery, some realm of the arcane inhabited by hipster architects. Good design simply means things that work well, look good, and in my opinion, are elegant and economical. The recent thread about the square bicycle is a great example. I was thrilled to see MeFites not get hornswoggled by that one.
posted by Xoebe at 8:38 AM on June 16, 2009 [12 favorites]


Seems to me that in matters of design, the prince might profitably turn his attention to reworking the some of the hats his mum swans around in.
posted by BlueMetal at 8:45 AM on June 16, 2009


But... but... Kings are Steampunk!

To get steam, you first need an old windbag.
posted by vanar sena at 8:49 AM on June 16, 2009


He spends all his time firing off angry letters to those in power about things he knows nothing about.
posted by jessicajulie at 12:50 PM on June 16 [2 favorites +] [!]


Get him an account, stat!
posted by atrazine at 8:58 AM on June 16, 2009 [4 favorites]


Free health care, meddling prince > broken medical system, guitar-playing Prince.
posted by incessant at 8:58 AM on June 16, 2009


Funny, I've always rather liked Charles. He seems like a thoughtful, "green" sort sort of chap. This is a small thing to intercede in, in the scale of things, and I'm willing to trust him that the original design probably was a carbuncle anyway. Feels overblown.
posted by mdoar at 9:00 AM on June 16, 2009


Free health care, meddling prince > broken medical system, guitar-playing Prince.

As long as the prince doesn't meddle with the health care. Otherwise it'd be homeopathy and aromatherapy all round.
posted by acb at 9:02 AM on June 16, 2009


That isn't true.

Depends on your definition of the word "constitution". If you use the common "a written instrument embodying the rules" definition, it's definitely true; from that link: "The UK has no single constitutional document comparable to those of other nations /.../".

I suspect the phrases "depends on your definition" and "not comparable to those of other nations" applies pretty well to the Prince, his architectural leanings, and this specific feud, too.
posted by effbot at 9:04 AM on June 16, 2009


I really wanted to like Quinlan Terry's designs, given how Rogers came off as such a whining entitled fool, but seriously, look at the Downing College Library.
posted by HopperFan at 9:07 AM on June 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


What is the actual role of Prince Charles? What can, or should, he be doing? Re-designing communities and their fire stations, in an appearance of quaint old-timey England seems like piddly bits when compared to the whole of England. Shouldn't he be practicing some kingly things? Or is meddling king-like enough now-a-days?

As noted upthread by jonp72, New Urbanism has design principles, not design styles. The idea is to look at traditional neighborhood structure, not traditional design styles.

But... but... Kings are Steampunk!

I've always thought of royalty as being more fluffy than punky. Either way, no one has really claimed the title of Steampunk King, though some have dubbed the Welsh author Alastair Reynolds the coming king of steampunk. He seems to be lacking sprockets and gears.
posted by filthy light thief at 9:22 AM on June 16, 2009


Monarchs are supposed to be above politics and not supposed to have opinions on anything.

The classic statement of the monarch's constitutional role, as formulated by Walter Bagehot in the nineteenth century, is that the monarch has 'the right to be consulted, the right to advise, and the right to warn'.

As it happens, I've just been cataloguing some of Queen Victoria's political correspondence. She certainly exercised her right to advise, and so did Prince Albert, whose constitutional position, like that of Prince Charles, was extremely unclear. Indeed, Albert frequently intervened in matters of art and architecture, very much as Charles does now.

I'm not much troubled by Prince Charles's role in this case, but I am troubled by the role of the Qatari royal family. If they have given way to Prince Charles over the Chelsea Barracks development, it's because they expect a favour in return -- and who knows what that may be? The real issue here is the hidden influence of Saudi Arabia and the Arab Emirates in British politics.
posted by verstegan at 9:27 AM on June 16, 2009


It's good to be the king? Seriously, this is one of the perks of being royalty. You don't want kings/princes/etc exerting "personal influence"? Then don't have kings/princes/etc.

Its usually because the king starts exerting his influence that people decide to get rid of them
posted by dng at 9:32 AM on June 16, 2009


Depends on your definition of the word "constitution".

it's kind of like they wrote win95 on a msdos code base - legacy crap, code bloat and lots of bad hacking
posted by pyramid termite at 9:33 AM on June 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


Wait, a guy working for the Qatari royal family complains about the power of monarchy?

This.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:38 AM on June 16, 2009


If they have given way to Prince Charles over the Chelsea Barracks development, it's because they expect a favour in return -- and who knows what that may be?

If it has anything to do with HRH and Chelsea, the tabloids will be all over it, no worries.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:41 AM on June 16, 2009


He spends all his time firing off angry letters to those in power about things he knows nothing about.

And he lives in England, but I repeat myself...

(Just kidding. Love ya, England.)
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 9:47 AM on June 16, 2009


"Prince Albert, whose constitutional position, like that of Prince Charles, was extremely unclear."

Prince Albert's constitutional position was from the frenulum into the urethra.
posted by klangklangston at 9:51 AM on June 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


He spends all his time firing off angry letters to those in power about things he knows nothing about.

And he lives in England, but I repeat myself...
Dear Mr. Howie,
East Grinstead, Friday.

I must protest in the strongest possible terms to the ill-informed comments of correspondents to your esteemed news-letter "Meta Filter". Far from knowing nothing about the topics my epistolary communications are concerned with, I speak from great experience, having assembled Nissen huts in Burma for four years. Furthermore, too many people on television to-day wear long hair. How is one supposed to tell whether they are male or female?

Yours etc,

Brigadier-General Charles Worthington-Fortescue (Mrs.)
posted by Electric Dragon at 10:49 AM on June 16, 2009 [8 favorites]


I really wanted to like Quinlan Terry's designs, given how Rogers came off as such a whining entitled fool, but seriously, look at the Downing College Library.

I don't really understand this comment, HopperFan; what's wrong with it? Have you been to Downing College? The library fits absolutely seamlessly into its environment. It looks like it was always there, and if you didn't know it was new you would never guess it hadn't been built with all the other buildings in the early 19th century. Downing is a wonderful space. You walk in off one of the most bustling and busy streets in the city and suddenly find yourself in this wide open, almost pastoral space with a sense of timelessness and formal unity. The only way to add to such a scene, without wrecking it, is to build something that blends right in, in materials, details and proportions.
posted by Dreadnought at 10:55 AM on June 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


He spends all his time firing off angry letters to those in power about things he knows nothing about.

If only he would send them to The New Yorker so they could revive the "There'll Always Be an England" feature!

Yes, I think Poundbury does drink from the kitschy end of New Urbanism, but there's a lot of value there. And I'm not sure why walkability shouldn't be modern (one of the things I like about old English movies is how they show people walking everywhere, but damn, doesn't it keep you healthy). Nor is New Urbanism derived from Le Corbusier -- it's actually in direct opposition in many ways.

At the same time, great architecture is not slavish. Modernism is not incompatible with classical architecture when it is great architecture (e.g. St. Mary Axe, the Eye, the Millennium Bridge). Even Tower Bridge is necessarily a product of its era of engineering, and seems to fit into London as well as its rough contemporary, the Eiffel Tower, does Paris.

Nor are modern materials per se incompatible with historically-inspired styles. Few Americans, certainly, are aware that 75% or so of the Houses of Parliament are a 19th-century Gothic Revival structure. An architecture created for cathedrals was harnessed for a seat of government. In the US, Roman architecture was the preference. In both cases great buildings resulted.

Anyway, I'm not really troubled by Charles getting his pals to switch architects. I don't exactly see the constitutional implications at that level. It's the kind of soft power that powerful people exercise all the time. To the extent that it results in slush, pork, and other vague corruptions, it's a carbuncle of its own, but that's a slightly different matter anyway. I am concerned if a first-rate architect is replaced by a second-rate one. This just happened with Brooklyn Yards in the US, for economic reasons they say. It's always disappointing when an opportunity for a really amazing building is squandered.
posted by dhartung at 11:04 AM on June 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


I have to applaud Prince Charles for not only using his royal influence for something good, but for stunting the blight of modernist architecture that pollutes post-WW2 London. That gherkin building is so ugly it makes me want to cry.
posted by shii at 11:40 AM on June 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


you would never guess it hadn't been built with all the other buildings in the early 19th century

Well that's kind of the point isn't it. Do we want buildings that look like they were built in the 19th Century when we're building them in the 21st? No, I have seen this particular building and maybe it does work, but I have been to Poundbury several times as I grew up in Dorchester, the town next-door. It is attractive, in a way a 1980's housing estate isn't, but it's just so fucking false. And want to talk about mixing styles? There's stuff based on English village architecture and then this monstrosity, known locally as Disney Towers which is pretending to be some sort of French chateau. And what the fuck is this supposed to be?

The originals of these buildings were new and fresh in their time, we need to continue doing that, not just rehashing and "modernising" designs from the past.
posted by jontyjago at 11:45 AM on June 16, 2009 [2 favorites]


Oh and the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery, also subjected to his ignorant and reactionary meddling looks and feels like the result of Godzilla eating a wing of Ceasar's Palace and vomiting it back up through a defective colander
posted by The Salaryman at 8:28 AM on June 16 [8 favorites +] [!]


Yeah, but his "reactionary meddling" stopped it looking much, much worse.

See the new ROM for an example of something truly vomited all over a beautiful old building. The wikipedia page won't even put images of the old and new parts together, because they are so bloody incongruent.
posted by jb at 11:47 AM on June 16, 2009



The British constitution (or so I've been told by a law student) isn't unwritten in the literal sense of the word; merely un-codified. It exists as a large body of statutes and legal precedents rather than a single document.

When our head of state violates the constitution, it's to commit war crimes. When their head of state violates the constitution, it's to foster neo-traditionalist architecture.

On the other hand do you have any idea what our head of state can do within the constitution? Although as is said the Queen is apolitical and only exercises prerogative on behalf of the cabinet the fact that this is her royal power has implications. See for instance the case of Diego Garcia where a High Court ruling was overturned by orders in council (essentially government fiat). OFC as is said anything too dodgy would cause a political storm. There is also the European Court of Human Rights to consider.
posted by Erberus at 12:03 PM on June 16, 2009


what I find frustrating is that the prince has somehow emerged as champion of the everyman versus conniving, elitist modernist architects, all because of the style of the building, when the actual constitution of these buildings - what's the percentage of affordable housing? how are the public spaces actually working with the existing context? - are sidelined or ignored in the mainstream news reporting. yes the look of them is important, but in ignoring how the look, distribution and connection of spaces works in tandem with their purpose the conversation reduces looks to the status of superficial appliqué. part of this development is going to be a boutique hotel in one of the richest parts of London and you can bet that it's going to be another gated, exclusive non-place whether it's designed by Rogers or Terry.
posted by doobiedoo at 12:20 PM on June 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


and then this monstrosity, known locally as Disney Towers

Jesus, that's pretty bad.
posted by maxwelton at 12:22 PM on June 16, 2009


"I don't really understand this comment, HopperFan; what's wrong with it? Have you been to Downing College? The library fits absolutely seamlessly into its environment. It looks like it was always there, and if you didn't know it was new you would never guess it hadn't been built with all the other buildings in the early 19th century. Downing is a wonderful space. You walk in off one of the most bustling and busy streets in the city and suddenly find yourself in this wide open, almost pastoral space with a sense of timelessness and formal unity. The only way to add to such a scene, without wrecking it, is to build something that blends right in, in materials, details and proportions."

I've only seen mainly outside views of it, but it looks like a cobbled-together hash of all the cliches of the time. No line or flow. Perhaps the inside is nicer. Also, as jontyjago mentioned, it looks false. See this photo - it doesn't seem to blend in. You've been there, though, so I accept your opinion of it.
posted by HopperFan at 12:35 PM on June 16, 2009


One could have a Dutch/Scandinavian-style "bicycle monarchy", which is purely ceremonial, and effectively functions as a republic with added ornamentation; that way, one would get a modern, forward-looking state with nifty coins and tourist attractions.

The "bycicling monarchies" are a myth. I don't know about the Scandinavians, but in their countries the Dutch and Belgian royal families are actually considerably more powerful than the Windsors. For starters, both in the Netherlands and Belgium proportional representation voting systems and extremely fragmented political landscapes make that in both countries hung parliaments and coalition governments of at least three parties are the rule, not the exception. Under such conditions, the monarch's power to designate who's to lead the cabinet formation after an election is far from ceremonial: an anti-royalist politician is, well, rather unlikely to be the chosen one, independently of his popularity.

Moreover, these royals also wield their power with gusto: for example, Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands had her niece's husband spied upon by the intelligence service...without the knowledge of the government, who first denied the screening, then had to issue a very red-faced acknowledgment. The most astounding aspect of this matter is that it was quickly swept under the carpet with scarcely an eyebrow being raised. Can you even imagine Queen Elizabeth sicking MI5 onto, say, the Princess of Wales? Er...never mind.
posted by Skeptic at 12:40 PM on June 16, 2009


Is anyone else channelling their inner Howard Roark while reading this?
posted by fairmettle at 12:47 PM on June 16, 2009


Just another example of why the Colonies do things Bigger and Better. For example, did you know Our Previous Administration lied to the public in order to justify a preemptive war against an enemy that it knew wasn't a threat?

Architecture disputes, ho ho, tut tut, and all that. Should I say, "cor blimey"?
posted by mark242 at 12:47 PM on June 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


Seconding Xoebe's comment, both for the wisdom it contains and for the use of 'hornswoggled'.
posted by BinaryApe at 1:06 PM on June 16, 2009


Nobody messes with Mister Rogers. Wait, what? Oh. OK, then.
posted by infinitywaltz at 1:13 PM on June 16, 2009


Lord Rogers could always return his peerage. His work recently has been horrible, brutal stuff.
posted by A189Nut at 1:26 PM on June 16, 2009


For example, did you know Our Previous Administration lied to the public in order to justify a preemptive war against an enemy that it knew wasn't a threat?

You picked a vary bad example for contrast there; see .
posted by Erberus at 2:28 PM on June 16, 2009


It appears that the EU was not as circumspect as Obama when it came to its opinion of the Iranian election results--and Iran was quick to share their opinions on that.
posted by elfgirl at 3:03 PM on June 16, 2009


WTF? Wrong thread.

*slinks out*
posted by elfgirl at 3:04 PM on June 16, 2009


Anyway, I'm not really troubled by Charles getting his pals to switch architects. I don't exactly see the constitutional implications at that level. It's the kind of soft power that powerful people exercise all the time.

It's the principle that counts. What if he, for example, used his influence to have homeopathy promoted in the National Health Service, resulting in people with serious complaints getting placebo "treatment" and dying as a consequence? Or pushed to have the railway budget diverted to building new steam trains because they look more "majestic" or something?

The thing is, Prince Charles' power is unearned; he is not an expert, except in the armchair amateur sense, nor did he earn it by his work or contributions. He had an expensive education, read a bit, and now this plus his royal title entitles him to inveigh on debates about architecture. Which he would be perfectly entitled to do, if his opinion didn't hold influence disproportionate to its merit.

Had he gone to architecture school, joined a practice and made a name for himself without relying on his position, it would be different. But in the absence of this, he should be content to be a figurehead, cutting the odd ribbon here and smiling for the cameras there and wisely defer to those who know when it comes to content.
posted by acb at 3:26 PM on June 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


fairmettle: It's not just you. Ellsworth Tooey at least had some program in his meddling — Prince Charles just wants some columns n' shit tacked on the outside of your box.
posted by blasdelf at 3:30 PM on June 16, 2009


Doobiedoo mentions affordable housing, the houses in Poundbury may be "pretty" but they're also fucking expensive compared to the rest of Dorchester. The snob value of the place is very high, simply because of the link to Charles. Affordable it ain't.
posted by jontyjago at 3:43 PM on June 16, 2009


The originals of these buildings were new and fresh in their time, we need to continue doing that, not just rehashing and "modernising" designs from the past.

So any architectural movement that used the prefix "Neo" or the word "Revival" was a waste of time?

The reason that many buildings created during the 19th/early 20th-century Greek Revival or Neo-Classical or Spanish Colonial Revival movements worked and are still pleasing is because they employ basic architectural principles of harmony and symmetry, as well as having elegance and dignity. Nowadays, people confuse employing styles from the past with throwing ill-sized columns on the outside of buildings. And then people look at these pathetic buildings and assume that any attempt at using a tried-and-true architectural style from the past is a wasted effort.

I'm all for trying new things in architecture, but we've thrown the baby out with the bathwater when it comes to how we approach this idea of innovation. And we're left with a lot of unlovely places.
posted by hadlexishere at 5:00 PM on June 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


When the finger points at the moon, the idiot stares at the finger. In this case, the finger is pointing at human-scale urban planning and rules of proportion, and the idiotic response is to interpret that as an imperative to slap on colonnades and heritage window frames and make everything look "ye olde" and redolent of a grandeur which never really existent, like some slave-owner's mansion in the old South hearkening back to the glories of ancient Greece.
posted by acb at 6:23 PM on June 16, 2009 [1 favorite]


"I don't really understand this comment, HopperFan; what's wrong with it? Have you been to Downing College? The library fits absolutely seamlessly into its environment. It looks like it was always there, and if you didn't know it was new you would never guess it hadn't been built with all the other buildings in the early 19th century. Downing is a wonderful space. You walk in off one of the most bustling and busy streets in the city and suddenly find yourself in this wide open, almost pastoral space with a sense of timelessness and formal unity. The only way to add to such a scene, without wrecking it, is to build something that blends right in, in materials, details and proportions."

I agree with this. I have been to Downing College, and the library really does fit in perfectly with everything else. The photo linked above is misleading, too.
posted by jayder at 8:43 PM on June 16, 2009


"I agree with this. I have been to Downing College, and the library really does fit in perfectly with everything else. The photo linked above is misleading, too."

OK, I'll withdraw my judgment, then, until I've seen it in person. Why is the photo misleading, in your opinion?
posted by HopperFan at 9:06 PM on June 16, 2009


I haven't seen Downing College Library in person either, but:

It looks like it was always there, and if you didn't know it was new you would never guess it hadn't been built with all the other buildings in the early 19th century.

But it wasn't, it's dishonest, and it sells short this period of time in favour of mimicking the past. Those qualities, the timelessness and openness and serenity, can be achieved without it looking like the things from the past which have the same characteristics.

The only way to add to such a scene, without wrecking it, is to build something that blends right in, in materials, details and proportions.

Seriously? No. Sensitive contemporary architecture can take cues from materials, details and proportions, and come out with contemporary solutions. They don't wreck it unless one is happier with a historical fantasy than a built environment that acknowledges the passage of time and its development through different periods. It makes a cheap motif of the past to replicate it as if the technical and cultural context today dictates the same built styles, and I certainly admire and respect period architecture more when the modifications or additions are like the work of Carlo Scarpa than a pattern-book recreation, however well-executed.

(Trinity College Dublin has architecture from and fairly representing 1700-2007 so far, and it's a beautiful campus, just for another example.)
posted by carbide at 2:47 AM on June 17, 2009


But it wasn't, it's dishonest, and it sells short this period of time in favour of mimicking the past. Those qualities, the timelessness and openness and serenity, can be achieved without it looking like the things from the past which have the same characteristics.

Not when you're adding to a very compact area which already had a uniformity of style. Adding the library to Downing isn't like putting in a new building to a varied site, because Downing isn't like the medieval colleges which really did have bits from all time periods (see Trinity Hall). It was all built within a very short period.

And the other thing is - some of us LIKE this stuff. There's a reason that Georgian was beautiful when it was built. Big full skirts aren't modern, but lots of women still wear them, because they look good.

Saying that we shouldn't imitate the past is like saying we should never perform Shakespeare again - because it sells short the writers of this time in favour of mimicking the past. Or like saying you can perform Beethovan, but only on electric guitars.

There is a place for building things in ALL styles in the world - and sometimes the old style is most appropriate, just like sometimes using the Strativarius from the seventeenth century is the best choice.
posted by jb at 6:35 AM on June 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


And the other thing is - some of us LIKE this stuff. There's a reason that Georgian was beautiful when it was built. Big full skirts aren't modern, but lots of women still wear them, because they look good.

Saying that we shouldn't imitate the past is like saying we should never perform Shakespeare again - because it sells short the writers of this time in favour of mimicking the past. Or like saying you can perform Beethovan, but only on electric guitars.

There is a place for building things in ALL styles in the world - and sometimes the old style is most appropriate, just like sometimes using the Strativarius from the seventeenth century is the best choice.


See, I think the Shakespeare analogy falls down because the buildings exist, constantly performing Shakespeare - if they were demolished and left only to be read from plans or sketches, then yeah, it'd be like never performing old works again, but instead there's plenty of them having hundred- or thousand-year runs. They're really well represented by themselves, and some of us might have to travel to see them, but they're part of our living cities. I agree that sometimes the old style is appropriate - I just think the appropriate sometime is their own period.
posted by carbide at 8:29 AM on June 17, 2009


What really strikes me about this argument that everything has to be unmistakably 'new', is how old-fashioned it is. Somebody up-thread compared these new buildings to Andy Warhol. Really? Warhol is twenty years in the grave! A great artist in his time, but by no means vanguard of the new generation.

Modernism is dead. This idea that we somehow have to reject the past with every new work of art is now as trite and conventional as a Hollywood RomCom. So you're expressing the transformative power of the individual over the stuffy conventions of The Academy? We've been there, we've done that, we get it. Oh, and you know what? You're now the academy! How'd that happen?

This is the age of post-modernism, or post-post-modernism. We still want art that sends a powerful message, but we're quite happy for that message to be a communalist one, or one that shows respect for beautiful things from the past, for craftsmanship as well as inspiration, one in tune with context and nuance and, yes, even nostalgia and Romanticism sometimes.

You want to know where the beating heart of Now sits? Over at Boing Boing, with their papercraft and their steampunk and their remix culture which some of you would so patronisingly call 'pastiche'. Every week, enough great art goes up onto flickr to fill the Tate Modern for a year. And yes, 90% of it is crap, just as 90% of art-school Warholesque is crap, but this is living crap: it doesn't merely stink, it also fertilizes.

As a young consumer and producer of art I have seen what Modernism wrought. It gave us some beautiful art, and great ideas, but it also ripped the medieval hearts out of our cities to build bland and placeless boxes which defy the human in scale and (in the name of individuality!) rob us of our need to have particularity in our culture and landscape.

So hang it up, Modernism. Through your success you've become the very convention that you set out to destroy. And if the only way left you can think of to be 'modern' is to stick your own style into an unbroken range of William fricking Wilkins (like painting Mickey Mouse into the background of a Constable), then even you should be able to see you've gone too far.

There! I feel better now!
posted by Dreadnought at 1:49 PM on June 17, 2009 [3 favorites]


If Charles is willing to interfere on things like architecture, that's an extremely worrying precedent given his vocal support for voodoo alternative medicine and homeopathy, among other nonsense. Assuming he takes the throne, if he actually tries to use his power and influence I can see it precipitating a pretty serious constitutional crisis. A lot of Brits very strongly support the Royal family, but none of us can remember a time when they actually used their power. It'll be interesting to see what happens.

This scenario was played out in 'To Play the King', part of the 'House of Cards' trilogy. It didn't end well for the 'Charles' character. But then, he was up against Francis Urqhart.
posted by Summer at 1:58 PM on June 17, 2009


I think the Shakespeare analogy falls down because the buildings exist, constantly performing Shakespeare

That's a good thought, but I think it applies only if one thinks of the buildings complete by themselves, as atoms separate from the rest of their built environment. I do not think that this is a healthy way of looking at architecture or urban planning. The setting of a building cannot be ignored.

We need to change our built environments over time, just as we need to reinterpret plays and symphonies with every performance. So it could be said that we are indeed continuously 'performing' the architecture of our cities on the streetscape level.

To my mind, it's not enough to simply fail to demolish old buildings in the name of 'progress' (although many people have and still do call for exactly these demolitions for exactly this reason). We also need to be careful adding new buildings. Sometimes this means being sensitive and contemporary, at other times it means being as carefully invisible as a restorer of Old Masters.

And yes, occasionally a bold gesture which takes a space in a whole new direction is called for. But seriously, if visibility is your only metric of great art, you should seriously have a sit down and chat with a bassoonist or a lighting designer some time.
posted by Dreadnought at 3:54 PM on June 17, 2009


Modernism is a pretty big umbrella to charge with anything, the look of modernism would cover both touchy feely contextualists and heroic universalists, both of which have very different aims and different attitudes towards history, the former understands it as a potentially rich reservoir whilst the latter might invoke your good old tabula rasa. I don't think Charles understands this at all, he wouldn't recognise how a minimalist like Tadao Ando is probably more classical than your typical neo-horror Quinlan Terry. Similarly I'd say that the type of responses made by Scarpa to history and context has a lot more to offer as background palimpsest than a throw away sign made by FAT, yet on a superficial level the former would be disregarded as alienating modernism whilst the latter are heralded as pop savantes.

In both cases the language of modernism conceals an understanding of the way buildings settle into patterns of use, occupation, weathering, light etc which you might only recognise from being in the space itself, spreading a life between its rooms and the city afar. Tradition lives in use and becomes a spectacle when only aesthetically referenced, those types of modernism that pay attention to the rhythms and routines of its occupants can claim a continuity with history more credible than your best serving of turrets and gables.
posted by doobiedoo at 5:33 PM on June 17, 2009 [1 favorite]


Modernism is a pretty big umbrella to charge with anything

To a certain extent I'm tempted to warn away from taking my comments too seriously. I was just overcome with pique and the desire to reject the modernists using the same arguments that some people here are using to reject the... what shall we call them... 'neos'? Sounds like they should be fighting the Agent Smiths.

But I think that I had that impulse because I feel this to be an argument that goes beyond architecture. This isn't so much about modernism as a style in architecture, but about the modernist sensibility and movement in art.

Take a look at this thread as, I think, a relatively fair sample of the way this argument always seems to work out:

On the one side you have the 'Charlsians' who keep saying: 'Look, I'm not knocking new design - there are plenty of great modernist buildings - I'm just saying that we should be sensitive to the environment in which a building is situated and stop putting modernist buildings wildly out of context and in opposition to the other structures around them.'

On the other side we have people saying: 'trying to imitate the past is a "horror", and anachronistic [anachronism is always bad, apparently] and just plain wrong, and besides, the only reason you don't want xyz building is because you hate and fear modernist architecture.'

The sheer amount of projection on to the personality of poor, beleaguered Chuck, in this thread, is astonishing. He doesn't understand Tadao Ando, doobiedoo? Really? Have you asked him? I mean from what I've read he's merely a sensitive layman (kind of like Ando, actually) with a penchant for Georgian and a conviction that buildings should blend harmoniously into their surrounding environment (kind of like Wright, actually).

So where does this anger come from, in the modernist camp? I know where it comes from on the 'Charlsian' side... we're still angry about the demolition of Medieval Lincoln, but what about you? I think it comes from the very founding ideas of modernism: the rejection of a 'stultifying past' that's every bit as mythical as the 'glorious past' you impute to our imaginations. Modernists see Terry as a 'horror' for the same reason that American conservatives see social-democracy as a 'horror' or, for that matter, republicans see Chuck Windsor as a 'horror'. Because otherwise they would have to admit that they have won, that they're the dominant paradigm within their sphere, and that if things are going wrong they can't blame it on the Man always keeping them down.

The stultifying past is gone, folks. One little village in Dorset and a Chelsea housing estate are not going to threaten the billions of tonnes of steel and glass leaping up in every major urban centre on the planet. For all his royal pomp, the Prince of Wales is the scrappy insurgent, here, and I for one agree with him.
posted by Dreadnought at 7:07 PM on June 17, 2009


"'trying to imitate the past is a "horror", and anachronistic [anachronism is always bad, apparently] and just plain wrong, and besides, the only reason you don't want xyz building is because you hate and fear modernist architecture.'"

To some extent, I think I started this back and forth, but I didn't imply any of the above - I simply didn't like the look of that building. Not one bit. I don't have a problem with Greek Revival, but that portico looks awful in the photos. As I said, though, I'll hopefully see it one day, and perhaps form another opinion. There are many earlier styles of architecture that I absolutely love, and am glad to see used appropriately in new construction. (Richardsonian Romanesque comes to mind.)
posted by HopperFan at 10:26 PM on June 17, 2009


Take a look at this thread as, I think, a relatively fair sample of the way this argument always seems to work out:

On the one side you have the 'Charlsians' who keep saying: 'Look, I'm not knocking new design - there are plenty of great modernist buildings - I'm just saying that we should be sensitive to the environment in which a building is situated and stop putting modernist buildings wildly out of context and in opposition to the other structures around them.'

On the other side we have people saying: 'trying to imitate the past is a "horror", and anachronistic [anachronism is always bad, apparently] and just plain wrong, and besides, the only reason you don't want xyz building is because you hate and fear modernist architecture.'


I totally agree that the argument gets reductive, but man, that's not a fair representation and it's inflammatory to suggest that the 'Charlsian' side is all mellow and compromise, starting from the constructive criticism of 'monstrous carbuncle' and moving to the present. He's made a built manifesto to neo-classicism/-traditionalism. 'Out of context' and 'in opposition' are both highly subjective, not a benchmark around which the argument can move towards compromise, and those arguments are not solely what's been presented even in this thread.

And yes, occasionally a bold gesture which takes a space in a whole new direction is called for. But seriously, if visibility is your only metric of great art, you should seriously have a sit down and chat with a bassoonist or a lighting designer some time.

I don't see anywhere, though, that visibility is suggested as a metric, and personally, I think the user experience, plan and section of a good modern building are all more important than the facade, and that it should be serving or expressing them, and that boldness, high visibility or transformation of context are not inherent qualities of contemporary or modernist architecture. doobiedoo's made a far more articulate argument for Scarpa that my own attempt, but I think his work is far more comparable to a lighting designer than to, say, Brutalism or some other symbol of Modernism Horrors.
posted by carbide at 4:20 AM on June 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


I hope I didn't come across as angry, I didn't think I had. What I wanted to point out is that Modernism is too big a camp to tar with a single brush. Modernist ideologues were responsible for some terrible decisions in their postwar heyday, no doubt about it, but modernism today is actually only one strand of a pretty diverse field and your all powerful ideologue is a strawman.

In fact there are a few modernists out there who like history and don't see it as a hindrance or obstacle to design, who believe in the spirit of designing buildings that "blend harmoniously into their surrounding environment", they just don't do it by replicating a style, they do it by responding to proportion, orientation, approach, lighting and any other myriad of conditions that folds a contemporary design sensibility into contextual analysis. I think this is the only way in which keeping a tradition alive makes sense beyond fantasy simulation (barratt homes) and ironic novelty (electric substation dress up) in both these cases historicism is a poor substitute for a living continuity built out of an understanding of how people use spaces. Like carbide and others have said upthread there's more to modernism than just the look of it.

In fact if anyone is using visibility as 'the only metric of great art' it's the historicist! This mindset seems to think that a tescos dressed up in pitched roofs and a pretty bond is more acceptably traditional than a country pile in right angles despite the fact that the out of town supermarket is a typological crux (stealthbomber?) of globalisation whilst the country house continues centuries old tradition of monied leisure.
posted by doobiedoo at 5:14 AM on June 18, 2009


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