He’s infuriated architects for more than 30 years – but Prince Charles’s new set of rules for architectural practice might be his silliest intervention yet
The prince believes in certain things that have become truisms in architecture and planning, things even Richard Rogers would agree with: that the dominance of the car in the late-20th century was a terrible development, and that in fact the pedestrian street is the most important artery connecting the different mixes of uses and functions within a community. As a result, urban density – once considered one of the primary sources of slum misery – is definitely in. Charles himself offers Kensington and Chelsea as an example of high-quality, high-density urbanism, but then, he would say that, wouldn’t he?
He is on shakier ground when he emphasises that buildings must “relate to human proportions”, a statement so obvious it is essentially meaningless – even the tallest skyscraper has human-sized WC cubicles, after all. What he means is that architecture should return to the harmonic principles of the classical orders of ancient architecture, themselves inspired by the sacred geometry of what Charles insists on calling “nature”. Here we’re in more sinister territory. According to Charles, nature’s order is “innately beautiful”, the harmonic and geometrical division of circles “displays the order which is sacred to all things”, and this language, this geometric grammar, “communicates directly to people by resonating with their true being”. In this scheme, the geometric rose windows of a medieval cathedral, as “physical manifestations of the Divine order of the universe”, are inherently beautiful – but are we also to understand that the concrete windows of Le Corbusier’s brutalist La Tourette monastery, themselves designed in accordance with a mathematical harmonic system, are also beautiful? I wouldn’t bet on it.
In the end, what it boils down to for HRH the Prince of Wales is that designing according to nature’s order fulfils humanity on the “physical, communal, cultural and spiritual levels”. But he is disingenuously silent about why “traditional” architecture was superseded in the first place. What he wishes to ignore is that, since the industrial revolution, the human environment has changed, for ever. New building technologies such as steel and glass superseded stone and timber construction, allowing for new kinds of building for which there was literally no precedent. New modes of transit such as the railway changed the way humans experienced space and time, while the circulatory potential of the industrialised world allowed for global capitalism to develop. The modern architecture that the Prince hates so much became dominant after the war not only because it was cheaper and more efficient than traditional methods, but also because it embodied a modern world that actively wanted to cast off the traditional past – a past that had culminated in the carnage of the world wars.
Charles’s 10 key principles …
- Developments must respect the land
- Architecture is a language
- Scale is also key
- Harmony: neighbouring buildings ‘in tune’ but not uniform
- The creation of well-designed enclosures
- Materials also matter: local wood beats imported aluminium
- Limit signage
- Put the pedestrian at the centre of the design process
- Space is at a premium – but no high-rises
- Build flexibility in
… and Douglas Murphy’s1
- The city belongs to everyone
- Public space gets ever more murkily private; we need to redress the balance of who owns what. It’s people like the Prince that stand to lose out.
- Your home is not a castle
- We’d be a far more equal and civilised island if the desire for home ownership wasn’t pandered to at every turn.
- Architecture is not a language
- The idea of an underlying grammar to architecture implies urban life peaked in the piazzas of Renaissance Florence – a period of pestilence, gangster princes and public executions.
- But architecture can still be read
- Buildings have no language. But the mightiest palace and the tiniest shed can tell us how those who build see the world and their place in it.
- Mimesis is not mimicry
- Talented architects can work with classical traditions in contemporary architecture. It’s unlikely Charles would recognise this if he saw it.
- Honesty is still a virtue
- The architectural era Charles helped usher in was filled with inane jokes and frivolous nonsense. Architecture doesn’t need to be fun.
- The street isn’t everything
- It’s right that the importance of the street is recognised, but we must avoid turning city centres into identical forests of privatised space.
- Nature is not our friend
- On respecting nature, let us quote Werner Herzog: “There is a harmony [to nature] – it is the harmony of overwhelming and collective murder”.
- Harmony involves dissonance
- Cities must improve their interactions with the natural world. This does not mean architecture must copy natural forms; rather it must reconcile itself with cycles of energy and material.
- Change is coming
- The next century will be pivotal for humanity, and architecture will play a huge role. Cute cottages with nice local stonework won’t help.
- 1. Douglas Murphy is the author of The Architecture of Failure