Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Section: News and Features
The pushy philistine formerly known as prince
How it warms the heart to know the Thousand Years War between the angels and the philistines is not Sydney’s alone. And yet how it bewilders the mind that, in this particular stoush this furious tilting twixt peers and princes, a mere hounds’-ride from the palace! it is all but impossible to tell just who is angel, and who philistine.
The confusion arises in part from a failure to separate the aesthetic question at issue (is Prince Charles right?) from the political (is he right to say it?).
“Prince Charles is clearly a philistine,” expostulates Baron Hattersley of Sparkbrook Roy Hattersley, whom you may recall as one of the spittingest of Spitting Images but who is now, as privy councillor, charged with advising the Queen. In which capacity Hattersley continues.
Philistinism, he says, “would not be a handicap in [Charles’s] line of work [except that it] prompts him to believe he is an expert on subjects about which he is ignorant.”
The subject, here, is architecture, specifically by Lord Rogers of Riverside. Richard Rogers designed Paris’s Pompidou Centre with Renzo Piano, and the Lloyds Building in London. He also, less creditably, designed the Millennium Dome, reviled by Iain Sinclair as “an obscene fungus on Bugsbys Marshes”. But anyone can have a bad day, and the point is, love him or hate him, Lord Rogers is no weakling in the jousting arena.
Rogers himself, marginally more temperate, called the prince “an unemployed individual looking for a job”, his recent actions “directly self-serving and unconstitutional”.
What actions? Just a spot of letter-writing really, expressing Charles’s dislike for Rogers’s Chelsea Barracks scheme and addressed, prince-to-prince, to its backers, the Qatar royals. And it’s clear that he, quite as much as they, regards his opponents as tarred with philistinism.
The Chelsea Barracks sit near the Embankment on a triangle cucumber-sandwiched between Belgravia and Wren’s Royal Hospital, 10 minutes’ walk from Sloane Square. Nice spot, if you can get it. Currently sporting two dull 15-storey towers and some low-rise ’60s rubbish, these may be the only five hectares in London entirely innocent of anything that anyone, even the prince, wants to keep.
So it’s not a heritage skirmish. Not strictly. And yet, as Hattersley laments, it turns on the prince’s “mindless admiration for antiquity” and his concomitant some might say contradictory refusal to revere equally a constitution that makes the monarchy politically passive.
Even if one supports the prince’s general “Luftwaffe” abhorrence of modernism, the results of his own interventions Field Farm in Shepton Mallet or Poundbury in Dorset have such a queer, deathly feel, like a scene from The Prisoner that on balance you’d probably stick with the Luftwaffe.
But this particular Rogers scheme is actually quite charming. Its main fault is repetition a dozen buildings of broadly the same height and treatment. But you’d want a certain something for your $2 billion, and the height (seven storeys, plus two set back on the roof) is half the existing and wholly in keeping with context, while the facade treatment a filigree of fine white concrete and perforated, patinated copper is warm and sophisticated in a way not implied by the phrase “steel and glass modernism”.
Set in a luscious landscape of sunken gardens, floral avenues and parks and comprising half affordable housing, it’s hardly the “Gucci ghetto” many suggest. Others argue it is niggardly in “giving back” to the city, but in truth it’s more generous than we can expect from, say, Barangaroo for which Rogers is also, as it happens, a primary bidder and where Keating plays prince.
The skirmish may centre on architectural aesthetics but debating the issue is something Charles declines to do.
It is 25 years since his notorious “carbuncle” speech at the Royal Institute of British Architects, where he publicly jackbooted the competition-winning scheme for the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square.
Since then, although usually more discreet, he’s killed a number of major projects and got Rogers sacked from two Paternoster Square near St Paul’s and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. You can see how a lord might start to take it personally.
What are the royal rights to spout off in front of or behind the arras? Clearly, if Charles were king, he’d be expected to forgo such indulgences but then, presumably, he’d have other things to do. As it is, Charles’s apologists emphasise his right to speak his mind. They tend also to support Charles’s preference for thatch.
But it’s not really so simple. No commoner could scotch billion-dollar developments with a whisper. And when, as at Chelsea, the job then goes to the whisperer’s own firm, the Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment, it starts to look like that old, Sydney-style trough, just on a royal scale.
It’s enough to make you upend Voltaire. Even where I support what he says, I reject forever his right to say it.