British architects and planners are agog at Prince Charles’ latest trodding on their turf. The Independent titles their article Prince Charles discovers 10 ways to antagonise architects with list of ‘geometric principles’. Critic Tim Abrahams calls it “a flight of whimsy from an elderly laird strolling in his tweed plus-fours around an estate.” and ” It reads like the list of requirements for a particularly fussy grandmaster of a masonic lodge.”
Some of his ten principles do sound a bit stodgy and silly, but when you read the full article by the Prince in the Architectural Review and see where he is coming from, you see them in a different light. In the introduction, HRH writes (emphasis mine)
I have lost count of the times I have been accused of wanting to turn the clock back to some Golden Age. Nothing could be further from my mind. My concern is the future. We face the terrifying prospect by 2050 of another three billion people on this planet needing to be housed, and architects and urban designers have an enormous role to play in responding to this challenge. We have to work out now how we will create 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.
The emboldened sentence just about defines sustainable design as many of us know it today. So what’s the problem? Perhaps it’s a bit of sour grapes, like the comment about ” the apparent hypocrisy of a man who lives in vast royal palaces arguing for “land-efficient” buildings that “relate to human proportions”.
In fact, when one reads the full article in the AR, he does come off sounding a bit batty, going on about spiritual mathematics and “sacred” geometry. Some of the 10 points are a bit self-evident and common-sense, but he’s not talking to architects. It’s hit and miss; Being an adjunct professor teaching sustainable design, I am going to put on my mortarboard and try and grade this thing, each one out of 10. Thanks to Dezeen for setting them up so nicely.
1. Developments should respect the land. Obvious and meaningless. What does ” they should be designed to fit within the landscape they occupy.” actually mean? 3/10.
2. Architecture is a language. We have to abide by the grammatical ground rules, otherwise dissonance and confusion abound. Totally agree. 100 years ago there were rulebooks for architects, recognized styles and patterns that meant that even hack architects could turn out buildings that at least looked like something. When the ground rules went out the window we got a lot of really terrible buildings that just didn’t work, which is why in the long run Peter Keating probably built better buildings than Howard Roark. 8/10.
3. 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. Simplistic. Go to New York City and stand in front of Rockefeller Center and talk about human proportions, big buildings can be beautiful. 4/10
4. 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. Wishful thinking, we don’t live in Disneyland. But I do like his attention to details. 6/10
5.The creation of well-designed enclosures. Silly and reflecting his prejudices. Yes, Georgian squares are lovely, but so are a lot of other patterns of development. 4/10
Points 6-10 are where it gets interesting.
6. Materials also matter…. For buildings to look as if they belong, we need to draw on local building materials and regional traditional styles. Indeed, we have long made the case that local materials and vernacular styles make a lot of sense when dealing with different climates; that’s the Original Green. Today designers don’t even learn these things. 8/10.
7. Signs, lights and utilities. They can be easily overused. We should also bury as many wires as possible and limit signage. A minor but important point. In North America, where nobody wants to pay for anything, our infrastructure hangs up there in the air, waiting for a tree branch in Cleveland to take out half of North America’s electricity, or an ice storm to close down a city. 8/10
8 The pedestrian must be at the centre of the design process. Streets must be reclaimed from the car. Can’t add anything but a 10/10.
9. Density. Space is at a premium, but we do not have to resort to high-rise tower blocks which alienate and isolate. 10/10 for making one of my favorite points, that mid-rise designs can easily achieve the same or greater densities than high-rise. Minus 3 points for picking really terrible examples of Kensington and Chelsea that make Charles look totally elitist and out of touch. 7/10
10. Flexibility. Rigid, conventional planning and rules of road engineering render all the above instantly null and void. A good point about how the traffic engineers with their rigid standards really make it difficult to build better cities. Sounds a bit pompous though. Read Emily Talen on issues like curve radii at intersections as an example of how little rules have big effects. 8/10
Now I tend to agree with Oscar Wilde who noted that all criticism is autobiography; I obviously like those points that reinforce what I have been writing about for years. Being a Past President of the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario and involved in architectural preservation, I have always appreciated the Prince’s strong positions and support in that field. But he is a bit fussy and out of touch, and grades out at 6.6, which I will round up to 7/10. As critic Stephen Bayley notes, “The good bits are commonsensical stuff about public utility and democratic beauty which no sensible person would ever dispute. The original bits are, frankly, cranky.” But there are still lessons to be learned.