Prince Charles Makes Nice with Architects

The Royal Institute of British Architects invited Prince Charles to their 175th anniversary, 25 years after his infamous “carbuncles” speech.  The royal video above is a bit long but interesting (to me anyway).  The full text is posted at The Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment.  H/T to the International Network for Traditional Building, Architecture & Urbanism (INTBAU).

His Royal Highness did kiss and make up a bit Tuesday night from that earlier (well-deserved) denunciation of Modernism and Modernist Architects, secure that in the main his criticism has outlived his critics:

All I asked for was room to be given to traditional approaches to architecture and urbanism, so I am most gratified to see that, since then, the R.I.B.A. itself has initiated a Group for traditional practitioners.

To my mind, that earlier speech also addressed a much more fundamental division than that between Classicism and Modernism: namely the one between “top-down” and “bottom-up” approaches to architecture. Today, I’m sorry to say, there still remains a gulf between those obsessed by forms (and Classicists can be as guilty of this as Modernists, Post-Modernists, or Post-Post-Modernists), and those who believe that communities have a role to play in design and planning.

There is certain irony in royalty of any stripe favoring bottom-up anything.  Beyond that, this could be interpreted as revisionism in an effort to make nice.  Or it could be interpreted as an elder statesman learning from history.  Or both.

The scorned son of Modernism is now finding the duties as a father of Traditionalism a bit more complicated, and a bit more rewarding.

…to be helpful I propose to speak of “organic” rather than Classical or Traditional architecture. I know that the term “organic architecture” acquired a certain specific meaning in the twentieth century…but perhaps it is time to recover its older meaning and use it to describe traditional architecture that emerges from a particular environment or community – an architecture bound to place not to time. In this way we might defuse the too-easy accusation that such an approach is “old-fashioned”, or not sufficiently attuned to the zeitgeist.

This term “organic architecture” might also serve to distinguish what I am talking about from the “mechanical”, or even “genetically-modified”, architecture of the Modernist experiment – about which I will have more to say shortly…

Do I detect a whiff of McHarg here? 

The old Scot must be chuckling from beyond the pale.  The enviro connection with Design With Nature would be fitting, as the Prince has also been highly visible on the Al Gore global warming bandwagon.  But I digress.

But, still, we cannot entirely blame architects who think that mere imitations of Nature are sufficient: it is one of the legacies of the long Modernist experiment that we find ourselves so cut off from the real pulse of the natural world. To quote from the Victoria and Albert Museum’s foreword to its recent exhibition on Modernism: “Modernists … believed in technology as the key means to achieve social improvement, and in the machine as a symbol of that aspiration.” In many ways this emphasis on technology has brought us “social improvement”, and many significant benefits, but the side-effects caused by quite unnecessarily losing our balance and discarding and denigrating every other element apart from the technological are now becoming more and more apparent.

A certain tension exists in the environmental movement between a prevalent progressive idealism about the power of the people and a modernist reverence for artifice and mechanics.  The desire for balance and “whole-istic” thinking is often seen as a modern impulse, but to the Prince (and I agree) it’s the most conservative thing in the world.

Nature, I would argue, reveals the universal essence of creation. Our present preoccupation with the individual ego, and desire to be distinctive, rather than “original” in its truest sense, are only the more visible signs of our rejection of Nature. In addition, there is our addiction to mechanical rather than joined-up, integrative thinking, and our instrumental relationship with the natural world. In the world as it is now, there seems to be an awful lot more arrogance than reverence; a great deal more of the ego than humility; and a surfeit of abstracted ideology over the practical realities linked to people’s lives and the grain of their culture and identity.

There’s an entire line of philosophy here that I’m just going to assume smarter people than I are arguing about out there in the big wide world.  Enlighten me if you will?

Charles continued with wide-ranging concerns about society and the economy, urbanism and built environments.  He calls out architecture academia.  He calls out highway engineers.  He calls out zoning.  He’s consistent in delivering a bookend to his declaration of architectural war 25 years back.

For what is tradition but the accumulated wisdom and experience of previous generations, informed by intuition and human instinct, and given shape under the unerring eye of the craftsman, whose common sense provides the organic durability we so urgently need?

Is it settled then?  Has the Prince beat back his unruly subjects??  Oh, heck no.  The argument—traditional vs. modernist, organic vs. mechancial—will continue to play out pro and con.  I like tradition.  Some of friends like the modern.  Most folks I know just want a roof that doesn’t leak and a two-car garage.  The winners (and losers) will be those living in the towns and buildings left standing when we are all long gone.



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