Carbuncles and King Charles: was the royal family’s meddling supertroll right about architecture?

He was the comedy villain of architecture, dismissed for his kitsch follies and ill-considered outbursts. But has Charles III actually been proved correct?

‘The most prominent architecture critic in the world” is how the New York Times once described King Charles III. It was 1989, and the then Prince of Wales was enjoying a wave of publicity after the launch of his spiritual crusade against the heresies of modern architecture. It was a high-profile, three-pronged attack, comprising a prime-time 75-minute BBC documentary, a dedicated V&A exhibition, and an accompanying coffee table book, grandly titled A Vision of Britain.

As architecture criticism goes, it was an unprecedented assault. “The prince’s performance, even sermon, was startling by television standards,” wrote critic Charles Jencks, “and I don’t know of any comparable use of the medium in our time. He looked straight into the camera, and six million viewers’ eyes, and told them what was wrong with them and what they should do about it.”

The prince relished his position as the high priest of taste. He gleefully scolded the royally chartered professions of architecture and town planning for creating “godforsaken cities” littered with “huge, blank and impersonal” buildings. His words were carefully tuned to grab headlines. Birmingham city centre was damned as “a monstrous concrete maze,” with a library that looked like “a place where books are incinerated, not kept”. The brutalist National Theatre on the South Bank was “a clever way of building a nuclear power station in the middle of London”. The British Library looked “more like the assembly hall of an academy for secret police”.

The original carbuncle … the 1984 extension plan for the National Gallery; the Sainsbury Wing now stands there instead.
The original carbuncle … the 1984 extension plan for the National Gallery; the Sainsbury Wing now stands there instead. Photograph: PA Images/

Like an accomplished shitposting troll, the prince knew how to rile his targets. He had tested his strategy a few years earlier, in an address to the Royal Institute of British Architects, on the occasion of its 150th birthday. Styling himself as a defender of popular opinion, he chided the audience for “ignoring the feelings and wishes of the mass of ordinary people in this country,” and famously damned a proposed glass and steel extension to the National Gallery as “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend,” nixing the scheme in the process. Four decades on, the c-word continues to be hurled by outraged local residents at everything from luxury flats in York to a station revamp in Lowestoft.

To further his campaign, the prince launched an architecture magazine, Perspectives (which folded four years later), and founded his own architecture institute, to teach “the spiritual harmony of classical form”. Over time, his opinions made him an unofficial, and undemocratic, part of the planning process. His comment that a City office tower by Mies van der Rohe would be a “glass stump” saw the project canned; his criticism of an Arup masterplan for Paternoster Square as “half-hearted and grudging” signed its death warrant; and he scuppered several proposals by his bete noire, Richard Rogers, most notably Chelsea Barracks – writing to its Qatari royal developer, Sheikh Hamad, that “quite frankly, my heart sank when I saw the plans”.

But these interventions sometimes had welcome consequences. Where the mute Miesian slab would have risen, identical to his towers the world over, we instead have the riotous No 1 Poultry, designed by James Stirling and Michael Wilford, like a slice of candy-striped stone battenberg, listed in 2016. The mixed-use, mid-rise Paternoster Square is arguably an improvement on Arup’s office behemoth. And instead of ABK’s National Gallery extension – which the prince described, not inaccurately, as “a kind of municipal fire station, complete with the sort of tower that contains the siren” – stands the Sainsbury Wing, designed by American PoMo doyens Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown as a witty riff on its neoclassical neighbour, listed in 2018. The building is now subject to a fervent campaign to save it from a mindless modernist makeover by Annabelle Selldorf (purveyor of “facelifts for failing museums,” in the words of one critic). Ironically, the pleas for protection are coming from the very same people who railed against the prince’s interventions in the first place.

‘My heart sank’ … Richard Rogers’ proposed Chelsea Barracks development.
‘My heart sank’ … Richard Rogers’ proposed Chelsea Barracks development. Photograph: Martin Argles/The Guardian

Which raises the question: might Charles have been right about some things all along? Just as postmodernism has undergone a reappraisal in recent years, is it time to look again at some of his outsider views? And could a king with strong opinions about the built environment turn out to be an unexpected boon?

During his decades-long apprenticeship to accede the throne, Charles was always typecast as the comedy villain of architecture, chief agitator in the “style wars” between Mods and Trads. His outbursts were dismissed as illiterate, his Poundbury development in Dorset ridiculed as the kitsch folly of a duke, like Marie Antoinette playing peasant with her rustic hamlet at Versailles. His pleas for traditional building were deemed as harebrained as his passion for organic farming and alternative medicine.

But, if you read his 1984 “carbuncle” speech in full, what follows might come as a surprise. Far from issuing a decree for more corinthian columns and pumped-up pediments, he outlines principles that are now found in practically every best-practice design guide. He argues for the retention and rehabilitation of existing buildings; increased accessibility for disabled people; the importance of community consultation and resident-led housing cooperatives; restoring historic street patterns and reviving traditional housing types, such as terraces and courtyards. He even advocates arches, predicting the design trend that has recently swept our cities and inundated the pages of design website Dezeen.

Royal visit … the former Prince of Wales in Poundbury, Dorset, earlier this year.
Royal visit … the former Prince of Wales in Poundbury, Dorset, earlier this year. Photograph: WPA/Getty Images

Most striking, however – and most hard to stomach for critics (myself included) – is how his own Duchy of Cornwall developments, just like his approach to farming, preempted what has now become accepted thinking. Visit Poundbury today and you will find a place that combines housing, startup workspace and industry, a world away from the monocultural dormitory suburbs churned out by Britain’s volume housebuilders. Along with 2,260 homes, there are now 240 businesses employing over 2,400 people, ranging from an electric bike workshop to a tech company making components for plane wings, with a high-level cancer research and treatment institute on the way. Affordable housing makes up 35%, scattered “tenure-blind” throughout the development, while photovoltaic slates dot the rooftops, EV charging points line the walkable streets, and gas comes from a biomethane digestion plant on a nearby farm, powered by locally grown grass and maize.

The architecture may offend those who still cling to a moral position of “honesty”, but it is more varied than any new-build suburb in the country, ranging from arts and crafts terraces to Scots-baronial courtyards, Palladian apartments to fake Victorian warehouse conversions, arranged along irregular winding streets, designed to slow traffic. It’s a place where the designers have clearly had fun rifling through the pattern books. As one Poundbury architect told me: “HRH loves things that are quirky.” When shown a colour palette, his response was: “Make them bolder.” (That explains the miniature pink gothic castle, then.)

‘Of course there are shortcomings’ … Poundbury.
‘Of course there are shortcomings’ … Poundbury. Photograph: Finnbarr Webster/Getty Images

Of course there are shortcomings. While each neighbourhood is planned to be a five-minute walk to its centre, cars still clog the streets. The main public space, Queen Mother Square, is essentially a car park for the neoclassical Waitrose. The professed use of “traditional materials” rings hollow when you realise that some of the decorative metalwork is painted fibreglass, the stone is reconstituted, and behind the quaint facades are the usual breeze blocks. But no housing estate is built any differently – and few come with their own 30-acre “Great Field”, with wild flower meadows, play areas, an amphitheatre and allotments.

The principles are now being rolled out on an even bigger scale in Nansledan, a Duchy development near Newquay, where 4,000 homes will be built, along less fussy lines than Poundbury. Here, the mandate for local materials means slate roofs and granite kerbs come from nearby quarries, increasing employment and boosting local supply chains. Younger residents have flocked here, drawn by the environmental ethos, which includes edible gardens planted outside the homes. As the Times observed of the young people, somewhat bemused: “They don’t find anything odd about the prince’s much-lampooned ‘holistic’ approach; on the contrary, they seem to love it.” The same is true at Poundbury: on a recent visit, millennial hipsters appeared to outnumber pensioners.

As king, Charles III has promised he will hold his tongue. Yet, when the Guardian requested access to his lobbying letters in 2012, the Conservative attorney general refused, explaining that a monarch has not just a right but a “duty” to make his views known to the government. That may come back to bite them. In the face of a wilfully retrograde Tory cabinet, bent on burning fossil fuels, lining developers’ pockets and deregulating the planning system, the presence of a climate-conscious, conservation-minded, planning-literate king may turn out to be the unlikely voice of sanity we never knew we needed.


Oliver Wainwright

The GuardianTramp

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