Prince Charles and the Royal Drama Over Chelsea Barracks

It’s hard to be an architect in the UK, where as far as Prince Charles is concerned, all architecture since 1700 — lumped together as “modern,” a word as uselessly vague in describing architecture as it is in describing art — should never have been built. Good ol’ Carbuncle Charlie announced his position in 1984 in a now infamous speech at Hampton Court. From the 17th-century hall designed by Sir Christopher Wren (of St. Paul’s fame) Prince Charles spat at a proposed addition to the National Gallery, calling it a “monstrous carbuncle.” Since then, he’s called the British Library a secret police academy, the National Theatre a nuclear power station, and pretty much all new development in the city “not just one carbuncle on the face of a much-loved friend, but a positive rash of them that will disfigure precious views and disinherit future generations of Londoners.” Mumbai slums, he said, “provide a better model for housing a booming urban population in the developing world than western architecture.”

One such project, Rafael Viñoly’s eco-friendly redevelopment at the Battersea Power Station, was shut down by London Mayor Boris Johnson when he realized Viñoly’s proposed 250-meter tower would block his views of Westminster Abbey.

Now, the Prince is trying to scuttle plans for a 1 billion pound development at Chelsea Barracks by Richard Rogers and financed by the Qatari royal family, who own the land. Condemned as way too “modern” (the buildings have glass!!!), and too funny-looking next door to Wren’s Royal Hospital, the Prince secretly proposed his own plans and suggested they pick his favorite architect, Quinlan Terry, to realize them. Rogers, of course, was pissed, and so was the architecture community. Ten architects, including Pritzker Prize–winners Jacques Herzog, Norman Foster, Zaha Hadid, Renzo Piano, and Frank Gehry, sent a letter to the Sunday Times saying, in part:

“Rather than use his privileged position to intervene in one of the most significant residential projects likely to be built in London in the next five years, [Prince Charles] should engage in open and transparent debate.”

They’re right, of course. But the truth is, it’s astonishing — and a little encouraging — that Prince Charles and Mayor Johnson care so much. Yes, Bloomberg — with Deputy Mayor Patricia Harris and the Design Commission — has been great for design in New York (remember the bike rack contest?). A bit development-hungry, but at least design is a priority. Still, even with a president and vice president who claim to have wanted to be architects, there’s little talk from US politicians about how our cities look. Shouldn’t there be? Isn’t urban beauty—in all its forms, “modern” or otherwise — be part of the national debate about urban decay and failing infrastructure? We deserve cities that are a joy to live in, or at least a spirited debate about what that means.