April 6, 2009

Prince Charles: A Champion for Classicism

On March 25, His Royal Highness Prince Charles spoke out against a proposal by architect Richard Rogers to build a massive modernist apartment block in a historic district of London. The Chelsea Barracks scheme calls for superblock of glass and steel apartment buildings standing in a rambling anti-urban park setting, ala Corbusier, directly adjacent to the historic and beautiful Royal Navy Hospital built by Christopher Wren.

The Rogers design had a great deal of local opposition, and during an event at the Wren Hospital, Prince Charles weighed in and backed the opposition and also wrote to the chief financial backer of the scheme, the Emir of Qatar, urging him to reconsider the design. Predictably, the modernist establishment went apoplectic. Some accused Charles of "high-handed arrogance" and one architect said that his opinions were a return to the "era of the divine right of Kings."
In one "news" article the Terry design was described as "a classical pastiche," an overused cliche if there has ever been one.

Now I'm not going to comment so much on the designs themselves, I think readers of this blog will be able to predict my sentiments fairly well. (Feel free however to debate in the comments the merits or demerits of either scheme, I'll save my comments on the designs for then.) What I really want to comment on is the vital role that Prince Charles takes in the debates in the UK about architecture.

Prince Charles is no stranger to debates about architecture. Back in 1984, a modernist scheme had been proposed to the Sainsbury Wing for the National Gallery in London, and in an address to the Royal Institute of British Architects, described the proposed addition "like a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend." The speech hit the architectural establishment like a sledgehammer, and did more than sink the design, it turned the entire architectural establishment on its head and allowed the door to open just enough to let classicism return to life.

Classicism by the 1980s was left for dead and for all intents and purposes, was dead. The number of architects who practiced architecture with a mind to tradition and beauty probably numbered only a dozen or so in the whole world. From this speech by Charles and further comments and speeches that followed over the years, he raised doubts about modernist architecture and its inevitable march, he raised the question, why not beauty?

Before Prince Charles gave his carbuncle speech, modernist architecture reigned supreme, triumphant and defiant. The few who would question the modernist establishment would have a difficult time even making it through university, and none would be able to rise to a level of authority to be a critic of the hegemony. But in the Prince of Wales, by virtue of his royal birth, classicism had for the first time in half a century a champion who would be listened to. Charles was a real voice for those who before had been dismissed as "nostalgic" and "backwards-looking." Certainly the architectural establishment still sneered at him for his traditional and classical leanings, but to the public at large he could not be ignored.

In the UK today modernism still reigns as the dominant force in architecture, but it has lost its monopoly hold on the culture. Today the work of classical architects such as Quinlan Terry and Robert Adam are routinely seen in the architectural press. Now reviews of classical work are dismissive and downright mean, they are not ignored in the way they are in the architectural press in the United States. To architects working in London, Robert Adam is as recognizable name as Lord Foster, whereas here in the US, classicists still labor in anonymity. I would venture that few architects outside the classical community even know of Allan Greenberg or John Blatteau, let alone recognize any of their work.

Prince Charles' criticism of modernism and patronage of classical architecture has opened architecture up for debate. That debate has been rancorous and uncharitable more often than not, but at least classicism is no longer ignored. I only wish that here in the US, good classical architects be taken as seriously as they are across the pond and not simply dismissed.


Anonymous said...

I think classicism is taken seriouslly in this country by people who don't buy into the fallacious arguments put up by modernists. The thing to do is to always challenge their conventional wisdom in any forum it appears because it simply dosen't hold water. If someone likes modernism, that's great, but the justifications they give for it are laughable and contribute to a climate in most architectural schools of ablolute obedience when they should be asking all the questions imaginable. Keep up the good work Boots.

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