METRO POLICY DECEMBER 11, 1989
A Vision of Britain:
A Personal View of Architecture
by H.R.H. The Prince of Wales
(Doubleday, 160 pp., $40)
Tudor, Regency, Georgian, Victorian, Edwardian: as every suburban real estate agent know, some of the most attractive styles in the history of architecture and design took their names from British monarchs. Until a few years ago, however, probably no one imagined that there were still more floats to come in this stately parade of royally sanctioned decorative art. I doubt very much, for instance, that the current monarch either hoped or wishes her name listed to the Festival of Britain style, a prissy modernoid mode named after the 1951 event held two years before her coronation, much less to the style called Brutalism that captivated architects a few years later.
But then, in 1984, rounding the bend of the peculiar time warp in modern history known as Postmodernism, the heir to the throne loped into view, cupped hand waving, media horns blowing, cameras running as stirred the stagnant air of contemporary Britain with a stream of sophomoric insults aimed at proposed architectural projects. Monstrous carbuncle. Giant glass stump. Old 1930s wireless. Frankenstein’s monster. Last year this killer wit fleshed out his views to the length of a seventy-five minute BBC documentary, A Vision of Britain; and now there’s a book of the same title, based on the broadcast. Sumptuously illustrated with watercolors by the prince, paintings by Turner and Canaletto, and dozens of color photos of buildings he dislikes and those he favores, its endpapers and chapter headings adored with his personal crest, the book sets forth the tenets of a new Power Look. Windsorism, anyone?
The selling point of the book is that it marks the first publication of Charles's fully developed Ten Principles--"a set of sensible and widely-agreed rules, saying what people can and what they cannot do." But some may find the book mote useful as a textbook study in the use of language to prop up the privileges and the self-esteem of a declining nation's pooped-out ruling class. Anyone who's spent time on the sceptered isle will recognize with a shudder the mixture of heavy cream laced with bile that Charles pouirs out in his prose: the false modesty ("I humbly acknowledge my lack of academic credentials"), the scribble, scribble, eh, Mr. Gibbon? contempt for achievement (the twentieth century has produced no great architects, only "great architects"), the ostrich stance toward the present ("Many architets and developers believe that architecture should reflect the spirit of the age-- whatever that might be!"), and the utterly charming loopiness ("Have you noticed how unfinished so many new housing developments seem nowadays without chimneys?").
There's nothing specifically English about the most egregious of Charles's rhetorical devices. It is the "silent majority" tactic cherished by demagogues everywhere. There would be more substance to Charles's "personal view of architecture," as his subtitle describes it, if he didn't feel the need to prop himself up with populist crutches on every other page. But in a way that's the real subject of this book: not architecture, but the contract between a Postmodern prince and his subjects. He wants us to know that "99 percent [of the letters he received after his BBC broadcast] agreed with my feelings," that "although I'll be criticized for myy ideas [by 'porcupine-like professionals and cantankerous critics'] I'm sure there is general agreement" among the good folks. No doubt Charles does feel deeply for Madge Atkins, the resident of a Modern high-rise building that has developed such serious structural problems that water pours in through the cracks and the window frames keep falling out. But, like silent majoritarians everywhere, Charles exploits the plight of the poor Madges of the world to hide the cracks in his own privileged position. It's Madge's job to wrap the populist veneer over a sagging structure of privilege.
As for the Ten Principles themselves, they are intellectually closer to Hints from Heloise than to Ruskin's Seven Lamps, but they are reasonable enough. Buildings, Charles advises, should enhance the landscape (The Place); their size, and the proportions of their constituent elements, should match their cultural and functional significance (Hierarchy); they should respect the proportions of the human form and that of the existing physical context (Scale); their exteriors should also relate visually to their surroundings (Harmony); they should provide a sense of shelter from the world (Enclosure); utilize the physical resources of the region (Materials); offer pleasure to the eye (Decoration); incorporate paintings and sculptures (Art); remain undisturbed by visual distractions (Signs and Lights); reflect the needs and desires of the public (Community).
These are all useful things to keep in mind when we're looking at architecture. The problem is not with the Principles, but rather with the thesis they have been constructed to support. These ideas, Charles believes, are "a simple extension" of the rules and patterns that have guided architects and builders for centuries"-- until, that is, the postwar period, when suddenly Things Went Wrong. Suddenlv, in the 19.50s and 1960s, architects abandoned the time-honored lessons of the forefathers and set out across the land on an orgy of destruction. tearing down beloved landmarks. herding the populace into bleak boxes, trampling on all the values the English have held dear since the dawn of time. Suddenly there was Modernism: concrete bunkers on the Thames to house, of all things, the performing arts; blocks of functionalist council flats scarring the countryside, spoiling the view.
There’s only one solution: send the architects back to school for a classical education. Let them relearn “the true and ancient art of architecture.” Let them reclaim the heritage of the traditional styles. And Charles makes quite clear that the matter of style takes precedence over even the best of his Principles, the advocacy of community involvement. “I feel if architects are not thoroughly versed in an architectural tradition, Gothic or Classical, no amount of community consultation can produce really good buildings.”
Charles gets a lot of mileage, in this book and in the press, by presenting himself as a fearless interloper, willing to endure the scorn of architects for venturing onto their territory without the proper credentials. But the problem is not that Charles it not qualified to speak about architecture. The problem is that he presents himself as an advocate of history and he knows next to nothing about it.
There’s nothing wrong in learning from the past,” Charles pouts. There certainly isn’t. One day he ought to give it a whirl. Modern architecture was not born the day before yesterday. At a modest estimate, its history is two hundred years long. It beings in late-eighteenth-century France with a show of initiative by architects seeking to reform the environment in accordance with ideas that evolved, over the years, to embrace aims not dissimilar to Charles’s Principles: to enhance the lives of those previously disfranchise by the restriction of “architecture” to socially powerful institution; to find a common language for building that can be understood without access to privileged information; to integrate architecture with painting, sculpture, nature, and open space; to construct cities based on reason, harmony, proportion, and the hierarchical relationships of social institutions. Unfortunately, being born the embodiment of tradition has not endowed Charles with either a knowledge of history or a capacity to interpret it.
If Charles is so intent on recovering national heritage, let him ponder the extent to which the Modern program was framed by British architects, designers, and critics, many of whom had passed into history long before the dreaded 1950s rolled around: by John Ruskin, who brought to architectural criticism a sense of morality and a voice for the working class; William Morris, who encoded these messages in household furnishings; Joseph Paxton, whose Crystal Palace of 1851 (under the patronage of Prince Albert) gave the public its first look at the architectural potential of modern materials and construction methods; Lewis Cubitt, whose design for King’s Cross train station demonstrated that modern functions such as mechanized transportation need not hide behind historical facades to be dignified; William Lethaby, who in 1893 called on his fellow architect to devise “a symbolism real and comprehensible by the vast majority of spectators”; Charles Rennie Mackintosh, the Scotsman who turned this idea into built form; Ebenezer Howard, inventor of the "Garden City"; Nikolaus Pevsner, the adopted Englishman whose classic histories of the Modern Movement clearly (if somewhat overgenerously) established the importance of the English contribution to the formation of the Modern canon; and, closer to our time, to Peter and Alison .Smithson, who, in the 1960s, modified the canon to create an urban vocabulary for Britain's postwar welfare state.
Which is broadly to say that the Modern Movement, as codified in the years after 1923, was primarily an English invention. If we're going to talk about orgies of destruction, let's not forget that the movement's internationalism, which Charles finds so deplorable, had its roots in a very big Thing Gone Wrong called World War I. Modern architects not only sought to rebuild a continent ravaged by that war; they were also determined to build across national differences in the hope of preventing a repeat of the catastrophe into which Europe's ruling classes bad plunged a civilization.
Nor does the British contribution to 20th-century design die out with the waning, in the 1960s. of the International Style. For the past 20 years, the Architectural Association in London has rivaled and perhaps even surpassed the Baubaus as a training ground for young architects. It has spawned a generation of some of the most gifted practitioners now entering the building phase of their careers: Zaba Hadid. Bernard Tschumi, Rem Koolhaas, Peter Wilson, Nigel Coates, to name a few. Coates, an architect scarcely less outspoken than Charles in his contempt for the British architectural establishment, has sought particularly to adapt urbanism to the social issues of Thatcher's Britain. In a series of radical, visionary projects such as the 1986 "Gamma City," Coates and his "NATO" group have tapped the driving street smarts that have energized British fashion, music, and commercial design.
A history of two centuries may seem a flash in the pan compared with the 2,500-year-old legacy Charles claims to represent. The truth is that the Modern tradition is no less venerable than the heritage be proposes to restore. Builders have indeed been active in the British isles since prehistoric times, but the tradition Charles bolds up for us to emulate-- the idea that "the styles" of Gothic and Classical should be recovered from the past--is a product only of the Victorian age. Historicism is a little older than Ralph Lauren's Polo look, but not much. The White House had been standing hor hall a century before they held a competition to design the Houses of Parliament-- which during the Victorian period served the similar purpose of masking the stresses of an anxious age behind symbols of stability and order. Like the innocent tourist who mistakes Gothic Revival buildings for medieval monuments, Charles seems unaware that his view of the "true, ancient art" is a I9th-century fiction.
Charles is right to object when his critics accuse him of wanting to create a Disneyland, Compared with the global scale of Victoria's historical re-creations, Disney's theme parks are, well, Mickey Mouse. But, like Disney, I9tn-century historicism could embody progressive ideas as well as nostalgia for a fictional past. When Victorian narrative painters employed Gothic motifs-- depicting Queen Victoria, for instance, as a figure from Arthurian legend-- the glorification of monarchy was often incidental; the real subject was Britain's heroic resistance to feudal oppression. These paintings proclaimed that the true tradition of England is social progress. The Greek Revival, similarly, sought an affinity between modern democracy and its ancient antecedent to prop up democracy's advance. And despite the vigor with which the War of the Styles was waged, the two architectural vocabularies could even be combined-- as in the Houses of Parliament, for which a classical plan, denoting democracy. was clothbed in Gothic ornament, denoting the British development of representative government.
But it was one thing to evoke the medieval world in narrative painting, and another to consign the British population to an antiquarian architect's faithful reconstruction of the medieval world. Often these reconstructions appealed less to progressive instincts than to a craving for traditional authority to step in and clean up the mess that progress had made. This was the case with Pugin’s contrasts, a book whose 1841 edition used graphic images to juxtapose the harmony of medieval times and the chaos of the industrial city. (Charle’s book forces a similarly odious comparison by setting a photograph of modem London atop a painting by Canaletto.)
Every fan of Upstairs Downstairs (itself, of course, a historical re-creation) knows how the desire to smooth over the bumps of modem life with the illusion of harmony and grace served to perpetuate social privilege. Virginia Woolf, writing at the height of the Edwardian age, satirized in Mrs. Dalloway the "grand deception practiced by hostesses in Mayfair from one-thirty to two, when, with a wave of the hand, the traffic [of aproned, white-capped maids] ceases, and there arises instead this profound illusion in the first place about the food--how it is not paid for: and then that the table spreads itself voluntarily with glass and silver." Windsorism is less a style than a bid to revive this kind of "grand deception." For all his appeal to populism, Charles's vision denies the connection between the architecture he values and the submerged social structure that kept it running smoothly. He wants to extend the Edwardian hostess's sleight of hand from the dining room to the street of every town and village in Great Britain.
The point of Modernism was, in fact, to make such connections visible, to exhibit as physical structure a social framework in which value was derived from work. That is partly why Modern buildings took their cues from factories: not from some perverse inhuman whim, but to embody what Charles terms "hierarchy." Architects hoped to impress upon our consciousness that work was the basis of wealth, the connecting fiber of society. Perhaps it's not surprising that this meaning has escaped the author of a book whose dust jacket declares that "all royalties will he donated the Prince of Wales' Charities." When he looks out at the London skyline, he must see nothing but lèse-majesté: all these ugly, boring boxes that blot out his view of St. Paul's. He is unable lo see, or to accept, the idealism of an architecture that elevated workers from the squalor that Canaletto found so picturesque to the eminence enjoyed by the princes of church and state. He's not alone in this blindness; it is a mark of our unexamined elitism when we look out at this cityscape and feel disgust instead of at least a measure of pride.
Modern architecture is not above criticsm and architects themselves are not above offering it. Many modern buildings are eyesores. Worse, the functional vocabulary long since ceased to convey the social message it held half a century ago. In the past 2.5 years, architects as diverse in their sensibilities as Aldo Rosi, Robert Venturi, and James Stirling, have adopted our relationship to the past as an architectural subject: they recognize that at the end of the 20th century our view of the past--and the future— differs from the view that prevailed at the century's beginning. But Charles refuses to accept these changes, because he hates the idea that architecture can change. "Don't be confused by postmodernism," he warns his readers, "and all the other 'isms' that clever architecture critics and commentators conjure up in older to lull us into a false sense of security!" Never mind that false security is what his life is made of. Charles doesn't want history, he wants an escape from history. He's like someone--he is someone--who has grown up in the midst of an elaborate stage set, and he's furious that there's a tear in the backdrop, that you can see the pulleys, that the stagehands have walked off the job.
And his vision of beauty is uglier than Pugin's, because it blots out issues of race as well as class. When Charles recalls the English to their heritage, he speaks, whether he knows it or not, for all who resent the invasion of former colonials. This time around, the white man's burden isn't religion, it's classicism. Charles has nice things to say about contemporary Islamic architects who use traditional forms, but he uses this praise as an analogy to drive his countrymen back to their Gothic and Classical roots. Since he doesn't believe in "the spirit of an age," he has no idea that at this moment the issue of cultural difference is critical. He can't see that to describe classicism as a language "universally understood" is to cast out the cultures that won't share that language. But then, to many Englishmen, India and China are still just something you pick before adding cream or sugar.
Charles is careful to exempt developers from his attacks. If he went after the building trades, or anyone else with real economic clout, there would be no more riding around in open carriages. Instead, he believes it was “the architectural establishment, or a powerful group within it. which made the running in the '50s and '60s. It was they who set the cultural agenda. . . . It was the 'great architects' of this period who convinced everyone that the world would be safe in their hands.” Charles is not far wrong in these accusations. Yet I suspect he hates architects not because they are powerful, hut because, like himself, they lack political power. Like princes, architects deal in symbols. And it can't be easy to be a cultural symbol for a culture in whose creativity you play no part; a culture that, for 200 years, has run counter to the belief that birth should confer privileges--and moreover one that, until the 20th century, rarely thought twice about enlisting architecture to provide a symbolic representation of royal power. At one time, after all, cities were simply extensions of royal households.
It's understandable that Charles should want to do something more useful than cut ribbons and produce an heir; that, I assume, is why he has embarked with painful sincerity on this career of architecture critic. But all the opinion polls in the world can't change the fact that, except by accident of birth, and by grace of the media's appetite for mediocrity in all forms and especially in high places, he would not be in the position to occupy our attention with his poor ideas. Is Charles a joke, then, not worth taking seriously? Not unless you think that architecture is a joke. They're laughing much these days in England, where this idiotic crusade has caused architects to lose work and creativity to lose stature.
And yet Charles has opened up a set of questions that can be useful in helping us to recall Modern architecture's aims and the sources of its discontent. How do you judge whether a building is good or bad? Who are the clients for public buildings, and what is the public's stake in privately owned buildings that help to define a cityscape?
The issue of evaluation also arose in the 19th century, as architects found themselves buffeted by the competing claims of industrialization, middle-class prosperity, historical tradition, political reform, and Romantic rebellion. In his brilliant book Victorian Architecture in England, John Summerson writes that Victorian architecture confronts us with a “huge distortion of social and artistic relationships.” Ordinarily, Summerson notes, “we are accustomed to begin evaluating the contents of a period of architecture on the assumption that in relation to the society which built it, it was right. Where the Victorians are concerned it would be much safer to begin, at least, on the assumption that it was wrong.” This is not simply the retroactive appraisal of a Modern ideologue. As the book documents, “Early and mid- Victorian architecture was, in its own time and in the eye of its best-informed critics, horribly unsuccessful.”
The problem was not merely the dichotomy between architecture and engineering, or the conflict between the 19th century's desire for an architecture “of its time” and its belief that it could locate one through a synthesis of the historical styles, or the lack of historical precedent for the new building types and social configurations produced by the 19th century. Victorian architecture was “wrong” in large part because there was no one to say that it was right. Historical forms—“pre-approved,” as they say on today's credit card applications--simply filled up the vacuum left when architecture, like government, was no longer subject to the claims of a central authority. To go back to the Victorian world for anything more than a superficial whiff of the picturesque, then, is to find not a reliable model for guidance, but a muddle of confusion, anxiety, failure, and doubt. Those great hulks of masonry that look so solid, so confident, turn out to be quivering masses of jelly.
Even Victorian painters came to recognize the failure of the historicist enterprise. "But what did I know about Arabella Stewart and James I," confessed G. A. Storey in 1899, after a lifetime of painting them, "except what Miss Lucy Aiken had told me in her two volumes, and what I could pick up from prints of the period? I got up my accessories just as a stage manager would do for a new piece, borrowed costumes …" For Storey, the revelation came with a hard look at a painting by Velázquez, in which faces, costumes, and attitudes belonged "so completely to [their] own day, even as the hand that wrought it, that I felt I had a true page of history before me, and not a theatrical makeup of a scene dimly realized in the pages of some book written many years after the event."
The consensus achieved by the Modern Movement in the years after 1923 did not resolve the crisis of evaluation. It proposed that evaluation would have to start from scratch. The Modern tabula rasa cleared a metaphorical space to visualize what a public space might look like. If Modern architects rejected the past, it was partly because the past only clouded the vision of this new entity. All those charming squares, handsome piazzas, stately boulevards merely contained the public; they offered no guidance in how best to represent it. The Modern consensus proposed that in a democratic culture responsibility for architecture should begin with architects. Anyone can become one, even a prince.
This responsibility did not exempt architects from criticism. Quite the contrary, it removed the protection of tradition that Victorian architects had tried to hide behind, The postwar decades, which Charles describes as the origin of the Modern architect's assault on society, in fact brought forth an escalating series of criticisms of architecture, from outside and inside the profession, which made it clear that architects had no more right than monarchs to impose their will on others; that the architect's social contract was provisional and subject to a constant renegotiation of its terms. Housing, land use, building density, transportation, and historical preservation were all inscribed on the slate in these decades as the focus of critical debate to "set the agenda" for architecture and urban design.
Of these, preservation has probably been the most problematic aesthetically because it continued to raise the question of architectural evaluation. Why should this building rather than that building be declared a landmark? What makes it so great? Preservationists have been no better equipped than the Victorians to set forth rules. In place of aesthetics, they have offered anthropology the claim that a particular building is “representative of its time.” Even so, the most astute critics of these years--Summerson, Mumford, Huxtable--found it not only possible but necessary to advance the cause of Modem architecture and to breathe life into the preservation movcment. The two goals were complementary ways of staking the public's claim to public space.
I he point is that for well over a century the history of architecture has been inseparable from the history of criticism. A good deal of 20th-century architecture is about criticism how architects, often drawn to architecture to exercise their critical faculties through the medium of luildings, reset the agenda of competing cultural pressures. The contemporary city is the physical record of renegotiations of the architect's social contract-- between economic, political, aesthetic, and social criteria; and these renegotiations have been carried out in public ever since the Enlightenment to expand the definition of architecture from sacred and state monuments to embrace the community at large.
The lesson that many of today's most gifted architects have drawn from the past is not success, but failure: that to operate in this expanded field is to build things people won't like. The fragmented forms of Post-Modernism and deconstructionism, the Victorian theory that buildings should accomodate, not oppose, their surroundings—all arise from the awareness that architecture unfolds in an arena where criticism reigns. Of course architects can be arrogant. The profession, like all professions, can easily sink into complacent habits of thought. (Even by 1941, Summerson stated that the functionalist canon was old hat.) The combination of stagnant architectural ideas and hyperactive real estate development can be lethal. These tendencies all require sustained criticism--from professionals as well as laymen--to keep architecture alive. And it also takes criticism to make a place for work that may not be popularly pleasing, to point out that to exalt popularity as a criterion is to condemn architecture to the level occupied in literature by Charles's in-law, Barbara Cartland. Whether innovation is inevitably elitist, whether the borders of creativity should be more tightly circumscribed in architecture than they are, say, in fiction, are questions that neither a popular vote nor history can finally settle. It is up to criticism to keep them open.
To the extent that Charles's campaign prods complacency within the profession, that he reminds us unwittingly that the staid architecture of the Victorian era was in fact the swirl of controversy from which Modernism arose, that he reminds us also of the honor of the architect's failures, he is nurturing one of the hardiest roots of Modern architecture itself. To the quite considerable extent that he mistakes the 19th century's confusion as the embodiment of classic and timeless values, however, he is merely delivering a vital tradition into the hands of a dead one.