Canada's Condominium Magazine
It can’t be easy being the Prince of Wales at the best of times. When the current holder of that title has a mother, the reigning Queen of England, whose longevity genes just won’t quit, the heir-apparent gig can go on for a very long time. And so it is that HRH Charles faces the prospect of not becoming king until he is in his eighties, assuming he has the same genes as his mother and grandmother. He is already the longest-running heir-in-waiting in the history of the British monarchy. Most previous monarchs died before reaching his current age of sixty-six. It is entirely understandable, therefore, that he should use the very large, very visible platform that his role in life affords him to try to accomplish some good, or at least amuse himself.
As is well known, especially in Britain, the Prince of Wales does not much like modern architecture. Over the past thirty or so years he has made some very public statements, including a notorious speech he made at a dinner to honour the 150th anniversary of the Royal Institute for British Architects in 1984. It was at that moment that the still young prince chose to refer to a proposed extension to one of England’s most beloved institutions, the National Gallery in London, as a “monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend.” He was called, among other things, a “young fogey,” a meddler in things he clearly did not understand, and the “bane of the architectural profession.” In the following years, he is reported to have used his position to influence the selection of architects for certain key projects in London, including barring certain ones entirely.
Understandably, Charles says he was surprised when the respected journal Architectural Review asked him to write a piece explaining his views on architecture. Rather than longing for “some Golden Age” of architecture in the past, Charles says he is looking firmly into the future, a “terrifying” prospect that could see three billion more people living on the planet. What we need, he writes, is “resilient, truly sustainable and human-scale urban environments that are land-efficient, use low-carbon materials and do not depend so completely upon the car.”
Everything in that statement is orthodox urban planning as we know it today. No one could reasonably disagree with a single element—resilient, sustainable, land-efficient, low-carbon. But Charles doesn’t stop there. He goes on to explain that in order to enhance the quality of people’s lives and strengthen the bonds of community—again, no one would say those were not worthy goals—“we have to reconnect with those traditional approaches and techniques honed over thousands of years which, only in the 20th century, were seen as old-fashioned and of no use in a progressive modern age.”
As traditional thinking teaches, basing designs on the timeless universal principles expressed by Nature’s order enables the full scope of our humanity to be fulfilled, on the physical, communal, cultural and spiritual levels. What has concerned me about the design and planning of so many modern built environments during the greater part of the 20th century is that these four interconnecting levels have been completely abandoned and ignored, to the extent that their rediscovery is seen as an exciting revelation.
Prince Charles, in Architectural Review
From there the prince gets into a discussion of “nature’s order” and a quasi-mystical reflection on the nature of the circle and the sacred. He mentions Plato and “spiritual mathematics” and a “precise grammar of harmony” that communicates with people by “resonating with their true being.” Comments like these, in our opinion, can only harm his position. A friendly editor or other advisor should have suggested their omission.
Otherwise, the views he lays out concerning the importance of “the street” are sensible and completely orthodox. He speaks of the need for streets to be laid out with the pedestrian at the heart of the design. Urban centres should be walkable, with mixed-income housing, shops, business premises and leisure facilities fitting together. Local materials should be used. There should be a strong sense of place, where people take a shared pride in where they live. All of these opinions are shared by urban planners around the world and owe much to the late Jane Jacobs.
It’s likely that the prince’s latest efforts to explain his views on architecture will be met with derision in some quarters. Author Douglas Murphy (The Architecture of Failure) has published ten key principles that counter those enunciated by Prince Charles in his Architectural Review article. One of Douglas’s principles, clearly a swipe at Charles’s well-known affection for the picturesque, states that “cute cottages with nice local stonework” won’t be enough to deal with the enormous challenges the world will face this century.
However, ignoring the slightly silly and wholly unnecessary reflections on the meaning of “Nature” and beauty, it’s clear that Prince Charles has pretty sound ideas about urban development. Below are his ten key principles.
- Developments must respect the land. They should not be intrusive; they should be designed to fit within the landscape they occupy.
- Achitecture is a language. We have to abide by the grammatical ground rules, otherwise dissonance and confusion abound. This is why a building code can be so valuable.
- Scale is also key. Not only should buildings relate to human proportions, they should correspond to the scale of the other buildings and elements around them. Too many of our towns have been spoiled by casually placed, oversized buildings of little distinction that carry no civic meaning.
- Harmony – the playing together of all parts. The look of each building should be in tune with its neighbours, which does not mean creating uniformity. Richness comes from diversity, as Nature demonstrates, but there must be coherence, which is often achieved by attention to details like the style of door cases, balconies, cornices and railings.
- The creation of well-designed enclosures. Rather than clusters of separate houses set at jagged angles, spaces that are bounded and enclosed by buildings are not only more visually satisfying, they encourage walking and feel safer.
- Materials also matter. In the UK, as elsewhere, we have become dependent upon bland, standardised building materials. There is much too much concrete, plastic cladding, aluminium, glass and steel employed, which lends a place no distinctive character. For buildings to look as if they belong, we need to draw on local building materials and regional traditional styles.
- Signs, lights and utilities. They can be easily overused. We should also bury as many wires as possible and limit signage. A lesson learned from Poundbury is that it is possible to rid the street of nearly all road signs by using ‘events’ like a bend, square or tree every 60-80 metres, which cause drivers to slow down naturally.
- The pedestrian must be at the centre of the design process. Streets must be reclaimed from the car.
- Density. Space is at a premium, but we do not have to resort to high-rise tower blocks which alienate and isolate. I believe there are far more communal benefits from terraces and the mansion block. You only have to consider the charm and beauty of a place like Kensington and Chelsea in London to see what I mean. It is often forgotten that this borough is the most densely populated one in London.
- Flexibility. Rigid, conventional planning and rules of road engineering render all the above instantly null and void, but I have found it is possible to build flexibility into schemes and I am pleased to say that many of the innovations we have tried out in the past 20 years are now reflected in national engineering guidance, such as The Manual For Streets.