Charles Wright: Charles III’s influence on London architecture will not end now he is King

Charles Wright: Charles III’s influence on London architecture will not end now he is King

When playwright David Hare dramatised the life of Robert Moses, the man who shaped modern New York, he pitched the powerful, autocratic official against Jane Jacobs, the campaigning advocate of “human-scale” neighbourhood planning.

The equivalent London drama would surely match the late Richard Rogers, epitome of the modernist “starchitect”, with the erstwhile Prince Charles, who were protagonists for some 30 years in a battle over the shape of the capital.

Rogers, best-known for the remarkable Lloyd’s building, left an indelible mark on the city, but the new King Charles III has had a major – and continuing – impact too, both on London and on wider planning policy.

The then Prince famously opened hostilities in 1984 with a vigorous assault on Ahrends Burton Koralek’s “high-tech” plans for an extension to the National Gallery (pictured), describing them as reminding him of “a kind of municipal fire station…a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend”.

Those plans were rapidly killed off, along with a proposal by eminent modernist Mies van der Rohe for a 19-storey tower in the heart of the Square Mile, described by Rogers as “the culmination of a master architect’s life work”, and by the prince as a “giant glass stump, better suited to downtown Chicago than the City of London”.

The royal interventions continued. In 1987 Charles saw off plans by Rogers and others for the redevelopment of Paternoster Square just north of St Paul’s cathedral. “You have to give this much to the Luftwaffe: when it knocked down our buildings, it didn’t replace them with anything more offensive than rubble,” he told Guildhall planners.

Schemes to redevelop Bishopsgate Goodsyard and Smithfield Market also came under fire, while in 2009 Rogers’ glass and steel designs for some 500 homes at Chelsea Barracks were dumped after a royal plea to the site’s owners, fellow royals from Qatar.

“For the entire duration of my life we have had to witness the destruction of so many parts of London with one “Brutalist” development after another, the prince wrote, adding that his “heart sank” at the sight of a “gigantic experiment in the very heart of our capital history”.

At that time Rogers accused the prince of “abuse of power”. Other leading architects, sometimes seeing their practices suffering after a royal intervention, took the same view.

In 2009, Charles told the Royal Institute of British Architects he had never intended to start a “style war” between Classicists and Modernists. But he had certainly not shied away from polemic, describing the Paternoster Square debate, for example, as “central to the argument between modernist and traditional architecture, or, as I’d rather put it, the argument between the inhuman and the human.”

Architects seemed to have given up on producing “visually beautiful” buildings people actually wanted to live or work in, he said. And while conceding that London was a place where the “demands of the new” would inevitably clash with the “apparent constraints of the old”, his prescriptions leaned towards the traditional. Could we not “rebuild a City without Towers?” he pleaded.

A cursory glance at the Square Mile’s “eastern cluster” of skyscrapers might suggest the prince was the loser in the battle for the city’s skyline. But the tide may be turning, particularly in the suburbs, with the government’s “Building Better, Building Beautiful” commission arguing against “building upwards”.

And Charles’ concern more than a decade ago that planning policy would only allow rejections of buildings on aesthetic grounds if they were “absolutely hideous” while anything “merely ugly” must be allowed to get through, has also been heard. The commission’s call to put “beauty” at the heart of planning decisions is now recognised in policy.

Last month’s rejection of plans for 539 new homes, 35% of them affordable, on a disused gasworks site in New Barnet shows the prince’s influence clearly. Its seven-storey blocks would “insert an alien typology of larger mass and scale” into the suburban character of the borough, the inspector said, adding that it was not “well-designed” either.

More generally, the prince’s concerns for sustainability – low carbon development using traditional materials, “creative recycling” rather than demolition and less dependence on cars – are not so far away from Rogers, who was arguing for a compact, polycentric, walkable city well before “15-minute” neighbourhoods became fashionable.

Yet Rogers’ point that architecture is an “evolving language” of technology and materials, not fixed in any one time or desirable style, involving a “dialogue” between buildings with different identities, continues to have purchase. “We always have the shock of the new and that’s fine,” he said.

As King, Charles will not be intervening in the way he used to, but his influence remains. And as London faces the continuing challenges of affordability, housing need, climate change and more, the arguments will no doubt continue to be made.

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Categories: Analysis

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