Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
PRINCE WITHOUT PREMISE
E. M. FARRELLY
NO-ONE could call it a good book. Indeed, let it be said, no-one would have given a second thought to publishing the work, much less reviewing it, were its author not a prince of the realm. For the prose is well-formed but trite, the argument specious and crudely drawn, the illustrations inapposite and the layout inelegant at best.
Reviewed, however, the book has been – at great length, with great frequency, and in almost every respectable organ of the British press. But then it is not really the book itself – A Vision of Britain: A Personal View of Architecture – which is under such scrutiny as much as the underlying architectural argument and, deeper again, the much more serious constitutional issues around which controversy rightly rages.
The argument runs like this. In Britain, architecture – so-called “modern”architecture – is blamed for the poverty and the squalor, and architects are blamed for the architecture. The people, it is said, don’t like modern architecture – don’t like its scale, its materials, its abstraction or its putative effects – and they don’t like the architects who foisted it upon them. Simplistic, no doubt, but there you are.
What they do like, according to HRH, and should therefore be encouraged to have, are the curves and the ornament, the bricks and belfries, the columns, pediments and arches (he seems, as fashion would dictate, to prefer round to pointed), and even
– bless his fanciful soul – the dear fat thatched cottage roofs of yesteryear.
All very well. And, of course, he’s right, on one level. The architecture of the modern, corporate urban world is very often less than lovely, and the human animal is generally happier with smaller, more legible, buildings, rougher materials, and a tangibly present history.
And, of course, history is to be admired and treasured – goodness knows there are few enough Taj Mahals or Salisbury Cathedrals being built today. But the crucial question, which the Prince fails adequately to address, or even ask, is why. Why did Modernism fail? Why do we like old stone streets and village squares?
Simple nostalgia won’t do it. HRH talks much of “principles”, but an almost complete absence of analytical thought commits him to dealing in symptoms rather than causes. So that while the book contains some quite accurate observations, it is bedevilled by wildly inaccurate conclusions and boggling inconsistencies.
Like his presumption that urban blight is an architectural problem at all, in spite of the fact that neither crucial causal link – from the blight to the buildings, or from buildings to architects – has ever had more than anecdotal support. The Prince himself cites the conversion of a Glasgow slum into desirable housing by simple refurbishment; architecture is not the problem.
He extols “community participation” in architecture; “planning and architecture”, he repeats the old cliche, “are much too important to be left to the professionals”. And proposes, as if it were a new idea, a “code” (of the kind, for example, that makes white picket fences mandatory in the cute new old-town of Seaside, Florida); but rejects and manipulates Britain’s existing, democratically-based planning system.
What the Prince hasn’t realised, apparently, is that although as oldest son and heir apparent he commands still a quite alarming degree of power (power, for example, to make and break architectural practices with a mere glance of approval, or of censure), there are some things he cannot, and should not, change.
Modernity, for example. Modernity is a fact, his inclinations to the contrary notwithstanding. “People say,” confides the Prince ingenuously, “you can’t house up-to-date office space, with all its ducts and cables, behind a neo-Georgian or more traditional facade. Well, I’ve looked into this, and you can.” (His italics.)
But Modernism, and all the technological and cultural upheavals designated thereby, has happened; like it or not we live in a post-modern era. And since artefacts acquire significance, meaning and even beauty only within their social context, a thatched roof from the 14th century is simply not the same thing as even an identical one built last week. Further, to build such a roof- or, as he so dearly craves, a Wren church, Georgian house, or Cotswold village – with the help or even in the knowledge of the modern world is to indulge in exactly that peculiarly modern phoniness that is meant by kitsch.
Dangerous superficiality characterises his book. The Prince vilifies architects, yet leaves the real forces of mass environmental destruction – the big developers and captains of industry – untouched. He harps on about the need to learn from tradition, but does not see that learning from tradition is a very different thing from simply copying its forms.
Helplessly romantic, the Prince is in thrall to historic buildings for their “beauty”: few would demur. But it is difficult to escape the suspicion that his sense of beauty – his entire nostalgic obsession – is shaped less by the buildings themselves than the kind of society, however mythical, that he believes them to represent: well-ordered, God-fearing, and above all hierarchical, with a place for everyone and everyone safely in place. It is, one feels, such a society – especially his own place at its pinnacle – that this future king really, perhaps unwittingly, craves. The book is the lament of one who would gladly, unlike that earlier Royal unfortunate, swap his horse for a kingdom.
Perhaps allegiance to democracy is too much to expect from one born to rule. But scrupulous honesty is not, and it is this sense of a hidden agenda which, much more than its intellectual and visual clumsiness, makes the book fundamentally offensive.
The Prince launches himself on his path of unassailable righteousness, pausing at intervals only to ridicule his opposition, those “porcupine-like professionals and cantankerous critics”. In the tradition of demagoguery there are, scattered gratuitously through the book, some 20 pictures of himself whose purpose can only be to portray the Prince as a jolly good, socially responsible and above all accessible chap but, as in a bad novel, the intrusion of self (the word “I” appears no fewer than 18 times on the first page) is persistent and irksome; and only heightened by regular doses of mock-humility – so essential an ingredient of the public school charm.
Not since he likened a competition-winning scheme to extend the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square to “a monstrous carbunkle on the face of a well-loved and elegant friend” in 1984 has he shrunk from making public, outspoken and not always well-advised judgments of this kind. Several times over the past five years he has drastically changed the course of major public projects, in a series of peremptory, if unofficial, interventions in the planning process.
Never mind the ethics of the competition system; democracy go hang. Never mind the building, for that matter. Britain has a new censor; if the Prince doesn’t like it – off with its head |
This Royal prerogative is constantly apparent – and not just in his assumption that “what I like” should so terribly matter. Supermarkets, office blocks, mass housing and unlovely car-oriented suburbia; what the Prince really resents is the architecture not of Modernism, but of democracy. The gothic churches and stone villages that he grieves for came about not through any egalitarian altruism but, necessarily, through some imposed authoritarian regime. It can be no accident that one of the few modern buildings of which the closet monarch approves is I.M.Pei’s new glass pyramid at the Louvre which, he says “recalls Napoleon’s Egyptian conquests”.
One cannot doubt that he means well. But there is another, more serious issue at stake. The Prince of Wales, still at 41 an “unemployed youth” (as Walter Bagehot wrote of the then Prince of Wales in 1867), has a mid-life crisis to beat them all. Others may fear for their career, their youth, their libido; he fears for his kingdom. No doubt, like any good monarch, he is genuinely reluctant to preside over a “divided nation”, and no doubt feels duty bound to do what he can to rectify the situation.
But there’s the rub. What he can do. For the Prince of Wales, now, is not a real Prince, any more than his mother is a “real” Queen. England’s sovereigns these days, being merely Constitutional monarchs, are empowered, properly speaking, to act only as sanctioned by Parliament and the Constitution. Charles Windsor’s job is to be seen and not heard, at least not in politics; and planning, inevitably, is politics. Of course, he nearly had a real job, once, as Governor-General of this far-flung outpost of Empire: Australians should be thankful the proposal fell through, or we might have lost more than one prime minister.