Royal Pain

Peter Campbell

  • A Vision of Britain: A Personal View of Architecture by HRH The Prince of Wales
    Doubleday, 156 pp, £16.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 385 26903 X
  • The Prince of Wales: Right or Wrong? An architect replies by Maxwell Hutchinson
    Faber, 203 pp, £10.99, September 1989, ISBN 0 571 14287 7

For decades the Barber Surgeons lanced boils, cut for the stone and trimmed whiskers indiscriminately. Then the surgical specialists got a little education, left off hairdressing and became a profession. The architects, by contrast, made no clean break between the art of building and its ancillary sciences.

In the 18th century, as the profession emerged from its gentlemen-and-surveyors phase, it may have seemed that art had rules – that aesthetic and practical decisions were of the same kind. This consensus on taste, if it ever existed, was brief. Intuition, often dressed as a moral imperative – Gothic is true, ornament is crime, displayed functionality is honest – reasserted itself; architecture, with art and knowledge still in harness, began its uneasy journey as a contradiction in terms: an artistic learned profession.

One can see why architects hankered after the restrictive practices of the law and medincine, but there was a price to pay: the other side of the professional bargain was the guarantee of a degree of demonstrable competence. In so far as aesthetic competence was promised, the undertaking was absurd. Many aspects of building do fit the professional model (engineers are at fault if a building falls down, craftsmen work to specified tolerances and architects have management roles), but in its most publicly sensitive and creative aspect, aesthetics, there are no objective criteria. To sue a man for making an ugly thing is absurd. Why did you let him? What are drawings for? Architects are, like the barbers and unlike the surgeons, and however unwillingly, artists. Only a misunderstanding of their vocation could have led them to make the blunder of suggesting that they were social engineers, and that the right built form could improve society. When things went wrong, it was too late to adopt a modest pose and make the failures the responsibility of the politicians, the planners and the developers.

The ambivalence of the architectural profession has been highlighted by the fuss surrounding the Prince of Wales’s entry into various debates on building and buildings. For example, Martin Pawley in the Guardian complains that the V & A exhibition put on to coincide with the publication of A Vision of Britain would not have been allowed by any other profession. Where, he asks, does one find public displays of botched medical operations? If the exhibits were all of technical rather than visual cock-ups – of spalling concrete and buildings without staircases – he would have a point. But what the Prince castigates are not errors of that sort. They are children of the optimistic dream of a style-free way of building for a new egalitarian society. The dream led, in the Prince’s eyes at least, to the nightmare stumps and carbuncles which have pained him so much. Whether or not his judgments are correct, these buildings are certainly part of the profession’s history, not just of the history of its mistakes.

The Prince not only believes that most people dislike most of what has been built in Britain since the war, but also that the architects cannot escape blame for it: ‘It was the architectural profession, or a powerful group within it, which made the running in the Fifties and Sixties. It was they who set the cultural agenda. They were extremely persuasive ...’ His own preferences and prescriptions can be extracted from his ‘Ten Principles we can build upon’: respect for the genius of the place; recognition of the human scale of existing buildings, of the need for the new to be in harmony with the old and of the same materials; acknowledgment of the interests of the community, and of hierarchy (important buildings and entrances should, for example, be bigger than unimportant ones); provision of enclosure, decoration and works of art, and discretion in the use of signs and lights. A selection of recently completed buildings which meet with his approval illustrates these generalities. It includes Classical buildings – Quinlan Terry’s Richmond scheme and Robert Adam’s computer centre at Dogmersfield Park in Hampshire – as well as jokier numbers – Terry Farrell’s boathouse at Henley and John Outram’s Isle of Dogs pumping-house. It stretches to high technology in Michael Hopkins’s stand at Lord’s cricket ground and to eclectic neo-vernacular in Jeremy Dixon’s crow-stepped-gabled housing in Docklands. Among the targets for the Prince’s brickbats are London’s Royal Free Hospital, most new building in the City of London, and what is planned for Canary Wharf.

All this is presented in a book in the style of the glossiest kind of Annual Report and Accounts. The company crest of three feathers decorates the end-papers. The text, which is short and set very large, runs over some of the big illustrations and is punctuated by many of the small ones. There are pictures of the Prince – the Chairman, as it were – at home (with pensioners and community workers) and abroad (in front of the Louvre pyramid and the Taj Mahal). There are even a few of his watercolours, and asides on forays into amateur architecture by his ancestors. There is a spread of ‘worst eyesores’ sent in by enthusiastic viewers of the TV programme on which the book is based. The captions take the form of brief homilies: ‘It is the lovingly created detail’ – reference to six little photographs superimposed on drawings of James Stirling’s building for the Mappin and Webb site in the City of London – ‘as well as their scale that makes the listed buildings so important. Look at the replacement. Is somebody supposed to jump from this tower?’ It is an easy book to mock, but at least its messages are clear.

Moreover, much of what he says is not controversial. Most architects would reckon his Ten Principles are nothing new: they are so broadly framed that almost any architect could claim that he was, in some way or other, following many of them. (Just as most architects claim that they are, after their fashion, designing in a Classical tradition.) There is no lobby defending Sixties public housing, and there are plenty of architects who are, like the Prince, critical of what has been built in Docklands.

In so far as his Vision and the profession’s ambitions differ they do so in the matters of scale and style. The buildings he praises are small ones; he admires community rehabilitation projects a few streets wide for their intimacy as much as for their architecture. He flinches at the sheer height of the 800-foot Canary Wharf tower as much as its design (its pyramidal finial should be a mark in its favour – he likes buildings with hats on).

The Prince’s call for a kindly, tweedy aesthetic which makes the new look like the old has been successful partly because it speaks to a fear of change. Stuart Lipton, who as developer of the Broadgate scheme should know, says we, the public at large, don’t like new building, whatever its style. Through support for the conservation lobby and the heritage industry we ask the world to stand still. We want the city to ripen and sweeten like an apple, but not to grow. This passivity reflects a social pessimism which goes deeper than stylistic conservatism. The profession, on the other hand, is eager to build big and to be seen to be doing so. When, in his RIBA Presidential riposte to the Prince, Maxwell Hutchinson tells us to go on taking the medicine, the sense that we are being offered the dose which failed to cure last time round is hard to avoid:

There is a growing feeling among the young architects now emerging into the profession that our ideas have become static and outdated. They have no interest in the inherited guilt of the late modernists. They want to build, and they want to find forms that reflect a new reconciliation between art and science. A new interpretation of modernist principles is needed now which performs the role architecture has always performed in bringing the benefits of an industrial revolution to the ordinary home. If everyone can have a Sony Walkman everyone can have an energy-efficient house.

This is all rather nebulous, but it is clear Hutchinson sees large-scale change as a challenge, not a threat.

Architects tend to repeat the line that architecture reflects changes in society, and that style echoes the spirit of the age. The fact is that although changes in architectural style may reflect our dreams and ambitions, it is new building types through which economic and social change are expressed. The Modern style was applied to the houses of a few of the liberal middle classes in Europe in the Thirties, to the offices of Corporate America in the Fifties, and to public housing in Britain in the Sixties and Seventies. Victorian Gothic was applied to every building type from town hall and railway station to terrace house. In the current debate, fears and hopes about social and economic change – about what we build – get confused with arguments about design – how we build it. New building types of the last decade – hypermarkets and trading floors, for example – directly reflect market forces. Architecture cannot offer alternatives to these if you dislike them, only palliations. The argument is not whether the Sainsbury business is to be fragmented into a million village stores, but whether we want the scale of the huge shops we have voted for with our feet to be camouflaged or celebrated.

The Prince, in so far as he recognises the problem in these terms, is for camouflage. He wants a happy realm, and believes we are, as he is, disturbed by change. As neither party has the power to change the economics of building, many of the differences between the Prince and the profession become arguments about style. The profession, wishing to make its contribution seem technical, not a matter of fashion, has tended to disable itself in this debate by suggesting that style is superficial, which is a superficial view of style. It is as foolish to think of Palladianism as mere surface decoration as it is to see Hi Tech buildings as the answers to equations free of aesthetic variables. The style of a building does not predicate its function, but style does have functions of its own. Eighty years ago a bank’s probity was confirmed by the conspicuous expense of its high, baroque banking hall; today the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank advertises its liquidity by importing a potlatch of exquisitely-tailored precision engineering into Hong Kong. The Prince’s prescriptions show a dislike of the large scale. They also show a distaste for the dynamics of style.

We do not, as his text seems to imply, agree about what is agreeable. Too much Georgian can make one hanker for a nice bit of light-industrial bricolage. A painter can make poetry out of discards – thus Hopper’s diners and gas stations. Betjeman proved you can revalidate cast-offs with wit; photographers prove you can make them look good in black and white. The beauty of bath can be oppressive, and if the choice were put in terms of living rather than visiting, many might prefer the visual anarchy of a development zone. The anxiety the Prince’s polite cityscapes would save us from could be replaced by boredom. To shock and advertise has become a function of buildings – the most important function of such buildings may in the end be to celebrate their owners and occupiers, and themselves. The headline on Lloyds’s current advertisement, which shows their building by night, reads: ‘Prominent on London’s skyline, prominent in Britain’s economy’. The spaces many of the members have criticised work wonderfully well as an advertisement for the business. Hutchinson cites the 2,000 visitors the Lloyds building can attract in a day as evidence that ordinary people like it. Even if this means no more than that they are curious, it might set one thinking how far buildings can, like clothes, be worn for effect, not comfort.

The Prince is keen on preservation of the old urban textures. He is also keen on the Rod Hackney do-it-yourself concept of Community Architecture. The implication of Hutchinson’s comments on the second of these princely enthusiasms is that its interest for architects generally has waned – except as a way of sweetening planning applications what with the building boom and the appearance of big-scale better-paying work.