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March 31, 2005

Prince Charles on Architecture

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Back in 1989, when Prince Charles published "A Vision of Britain," I was prepared to find it naive, laughable, or worse. What could the Prince possibly have to contribute to the conversation about architecture and urbanism? Instead I found his book articulate, full of good sense, and quite moving.

John Massengale reprints one of the Prince's recent speeches. Here's an excerpt:

As important as creativity is in all aspects of life, I simply do not see why it should be used as an excuse to sacrifice literally thousands of years of continuity with tradition in the process. In this regard, the desperate obsession with being “modern” seems rather old-fashioned – after all Modernism is only a style. But why can’t we be obsessed with being, above all, “human?” That way, I believe, lies true modernity since the process of life itself involves a subtle balance between the past and the future. Most of us need roots and a sense of belonging in order to feel some degree of security and meaning. Our built environment best enshrines that psychological need in a physical form. And in a world dependent on technology, surely we need a contrast in our surroundings that reflects our innate humanity and not just a continuity of the DVD player or the lap-top computer?

There is plenty of scope, then, for the creative mind in applying the principles of traditional urbanism to contemporary human needs. Creativity is important, but it is not a trump card.

Nothing wrong with this man's taste or brains, as far as I can tell.

I notice that an Amazon Reader-Reviewer who dislikes the book can't resist comparing the Prince to Hitler. Sigh: how would the leftie-modernist team score any points at all if they didn't have Hitler to compare their opponents to?

Visitors curious to eyeball the structures new-traditionalist architects are designing and building should enjoy this A Vision of Europe page.



posted by Michael at March 31, 2005


Somebody make that man king, I say.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on March 31, 2005 5:50 PM

Although I am so glad that the Prince has spoken out over the years against what orthodox modern architecture has done to cities -- every time I saw the Gehry plan for the Lower Manhattan Guggenheim, I thought of the Prince's famed "carbuncle" statement -- it seems to me that the Prince's views about architecture (at least from what I've read in U.S. newspapers) are so narrow that they ultimately tend to discredit, or limit the appeal of, the "anti-modernism" movement.

For instance, I got the feeling from an article I'd read, that the Prince was even against art deco architecture as being too modern. (If I remember correctly, the article included a picture of a handsome London building that the Prince criticized.) As a result, the Prince comes across (perhaps erroneously) as an impossible fuddy-duddy who is stuck in the first decade of the 20th Century.

I think there are many people who are dissatisfied with orthodox modern architecture who nevertheless feel there are times when even orthodox modernism can be appropriate and useful -- let alone the other more "people-friendly" schools of modernism.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on March 31, 2005 6:25 PM

that actually sounds quite interesting i shall have to take a look at it sometime

Posted by: tracie bartleman on April 1, 2005 5:54 AM

His aesthetic seems to be 'just because it's not ugly doesn't mean it's bad.'

Posted by: Sluggo on April 1, 2005 3:46 PM

actually, the prince has got it somewhat wrong.
the problem is his definition of creativity.
i've recently quoted the theater director robert lepage, a very "experimental" artist, about the role of history in the creative process. do drop by, and maybe rethink this matter (or make me see it differently).

Posted by: vvoi on April 1, 2005 4:44 PM

FvB -- I'm on board with that.

Benjamin -- I don't think I've run across the Prince's view on Art Deco. I wonder what he's got against it. And you're raising a great topic, about how the Forces of Good might best present themselves. I wonder ... Should the Prince be a figurehead for all the FoG? Or is it OK that he stands up for fuddy-duddyism, and we should maybe hope others will stand up for the many other groovy tradition-based architectures -- rural shotgun shacks, Spanish Colonial, etc. I wonder if the web is going to help a bit of all this seep out into the general consciousness. Maybe a few people will start taking a little more note of their environments ... Maybe they'll start thinking it's OK to mock silly/destructive new architecture. I guess I hope that breaking the establishment's lock on the conversation about architecture can't hurt. But maybe I'm being naive. What are your hopes for this?

Sluggo -- That's a great way of putting it!

Vvoi -- Welcome to blogdom. Congrats on your new blog, which I'm looking forward to following, and thanks for stopping by and commenting here. I confess I'm not sure what the point of Lepage's statement was. Can you elucidate? Seemed to me like the usual modernist-Romantic line, but I may well be reading it wrong. I think a point that the Prince (and Leon Krier, and many others) might emphasize is that architecture is a public art. It couldn't matter less if a new poem, or painting, or piece of installation art is wild 'n' crazy. But buildings, neighborhoods, towns and cities are things we have no choice but to interact with. We live in, work in, and play in them; we pass through them. They have a big impact on us, over which we seldom have much control. So, as arts, they should probably be treated more cautiously than the other arts. What has worked in the past needs appreciation and respect as a useful (and probably beautiful) evolved form that fits and suits human needs and pleasures. We monkey with these forms and patterns at our peril -- cities can collapse, neighborhoods can lose their magic, towns can repel. That's been the story of much post WWII architecture and urbanism. Why not go back to the basics? An analogy is with cooking. The various cuisines have evolved to please and nourish us. No reason, as a cook or restaurateur (or store owner, or cheesemaker, or baker, or whatever) not to have a little fun with what you're making. But venture too far away from what's been learned about what people like (and what's good for them), and you'll lose all your business. People simply won't eat it. Probably best to learn the conventional/traditional craft of cooking (making, raising, etc), and then work within what's known. The occasional flaming genius might generate a worthwhile innovation or two, but in fields like architecture and cooking, it's probably best that innovating not be prized above all other values.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on April 1, 2005 6:38 PM

I don't remember exactly what the Prince said that led me to believe that he was not fond of Art Deco, but I do remember reading some article (probably in the "New York Times") where he seemed to be making disparaging comments about a London building that appeared to me to be a bulky, but handsome, Art Deco structure. It may have been a criticism of the building's size, however, as I also got the impression (I believe, in another article from about the same time) that the Prince did not care for skyscrapers or other large commercial structures.

Of course, I could be mistaken about his views, as I've only read a few bits and pieces that have made their way across the Atlantic and into the (orthodox modernist) New York media. But being an enthusiastic admirer of Art Deco, Art Moderne and the romantic New York skyscraper, I was disappointed to read what I ran across.

Skimming the speech that was linked to in your post, it does seem to me that the Prince espouses a kind of "Mumfordian" approach to architecture and planning: smallish towns and cities that are centrally planned by government planners -- and, in the Prince's case, filled with low-scale, highly traditional buildings.

In terms of urbanism, I'm see myself as being in the anti-Mumford and pro-Jacobs "camp."

And in terms of architecture, I see myself more in the Tom Wolfe "camp" of so-called anti-modernism. Wolfe seems to be able to enjoy, at least at times, the modernist architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright, Bruce Goff, Morris Lapidus, John Portman, Eero Saarineen, Edward Durrell Stone, etc. It's the pretentiousness, hypocrisy, ideological blindness and extremism of the orthodox modernist movement that he really seems to disaprove of.

Of course, the more variations on anti-modernism, the better. But I do think it is very important for people to be aware of the various "brands" -- especially since so few anti-modernists get any media coverage at all. So, if my portrayal of the Prince's views are accurate, it would be important for readers to know that he represents only one type of anti-modernist -- because I think a lot of people would find these views very alienating.

I find it really startling (and depressing) that anti-modernist thought gets so little exposure these days in the establishment media -- and how the establishment media appears to be so uncritical of the pro-modernist gospel. No wonder young people in their 20s and 30s can be so unthinkingly pro-modern and anti-urban, as virtually everything they've been exposed to in the media has "educated" them that way.

I feel that media coverage of the 2 Columbus Circle controversy is a good case in point. While I certainly respect people's right to disagree on the aesthetic issues, I've really been shocked at how many otherwise well-educated people (media junkies, really) have been unaware of all the facts in the case -- that, for instance, another museum wanted to preserve the facade and, in fact, made a bid to purchase the building, etc.

I am hopeful that the internet will (continue to) increase the ability of people with non-establishment ideas to communicate these ideas with others. Although, the growth in size of the internet, of course, creates its own problems -- it becomes harder to break through the general buzz, etc.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on April 2, 2005 2:22 PM

Probably the best laugh of my adult life has been at the repeated disbelief of various media types that anyone, anyone would accuse them of bias, political or otherwise.

Of course, these are the same people who never seemed to have reflected on how the endless pursuit of news (which is essentially meaningless without a larger intellectual context in which to evaluate it) automatically leads to the most blinkered kind groupthink. Why? Because the evaluation of groupthink isn't exactly journalism, is it?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on April 2, 2005 4:03 PM

as a fellow Art Deco admirer, I wonder if I come out as unquestionably biased as His Highness(?) when I wish we had whole cities built of late Jugendstiel villas in residential quarters and NY 30's style skyscrapers in business districts?

Oh, those elephant-gray and vanilla concrete beauties, with rounded corners, occasional steamer-cabin window, bas-reliefs of lotuses and locomotives! Magnificent stairs winding around bronze-and-ebony elevators! Alizarin Crimson, Patinated Silver, Antique Mauve and Shiffon Blue!

The joy of elegance is lost between operation-room modernism and excessive fussiness of traditionalism. In my stubborn and un-PC opinion.

Posted by: Tatyana on April 4, 2005 10:25 AM


I enjoyed your spirited ode to Deco!

Despite the style's popularity with the general public (e.g., the widespread appreciation of, for example, the Chrysler Building, Bronx Art Deco apartment houses, Miami Beach hotels), it seems to me that it's a style that, nevertheless, has fallen between the cracks in terms of true architectural respect -- at least in New York City. Perhaps it is too popular with the masses to be properly appreciated or, perhaps, it's too classical / not classical enough to be adopted wholeheartedly by the two major opposing architectural camps?

I say this because it seems to me that one of the easiest things to do in New York City is to destroy or vandalize a Deco-ish or moderne structure: the 46th St. entrance to the Edison Hotel; freestanding Automats; the flagship Kress and Woolworth stores opposite each other on Fifth Ave.; the underground Rockefeller Center concourse; the Hayden Planetarium; the Earl Carroll Theater; that commercial laundry building on Queens Blvd. (that was transformed into a modernist Korean church); the Hearst Building; the Queens Museum (the NYC Pavilion at the 1939 World's Fair); the Beekman Theater. There's also an early Deco parking garage in SoHo that I'm afraid is the next to go.

Maybe they all weren't worthy of preservation as landmarks, but it does seem to me that they deserved more attention and respect than they got.

Posted by: Benjamin Hemric on April 4, 2005 1:35 PM

Googling for these treasures (half of which I don't know nothing about, to my shame), I came across Art Deco Society of New York site, which informed me there is a NY Art Deco week/World congress coming up in May:
"Mayor Michael Bloomberg has officially proclaimed NEW YORK ART DECO WEEK and extended a very special welcome to all participants of the 8th World Congress"

Ahem...I would beleive in Mayor's sincerety if he'd detour funds he destined for completely unnecessary Olympic Poteomkin villages to preservation of Art Deco treasures people from all over the world come to see here.

Posted by: Tatyana on April 4, 2005 5:00 PM

Don't miss Bernice Thomas' book on the Kress art deco department stores:

Posted by: winifer skattebol on April 4, 2005 9:51 PM

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