The Prince is banging his architecture drum again
Thirty years after the Prince of Wales’ ‘monstrous carbuncle’ speech, there is a strange feeling of déjà vu in the air. Not only has the prince issued a 10-point manifesto calling for a return to ‘traditional styles’ that employ the ‘divine geometries’ of nature, but the government has established a housing design review panel that bears the hallmarks of a product of one of his infamous ‘black spider’ memos.
Judging the aesthetic merits of our homes, alongside folksy architecture tsar Terry Farrell, will be the prince’s pet classical architect, Quinlan Terry, and philosopher Roger Scruton, a vocal opponent of modern buildings.
It would be easy to dismiss the committee as the latest ineffectual sop on an impervious house-building industry – if it wasn’t for the fact that the prince’s back-stage meddling has derailed a number of major projects in the past that he simply didn’t like the look of; and that his camp of mindless photocopy-classicism is alarmingly on the ascendant.
For one, there are signs that mighty overseas investors are prince-proofing their projects ahead of planning. No doubt mindful of the fate of Richard Rogers’ scheme for Chelsea Barracks, another Gulf-backed consortium has commissioned Quinlan and Francis Terry to draw up plans for the Hyde Park Barracks site, where Basil Spence’s sadly unlisted brick and concrete fortress stands. The architects claim it takes inspiration from Haussmann’s Paris, while the developer has said it is ‘something which would make future kings and queens be proud’. In reality it will be a glowering mega-block, like some grim Victorian workhouse glorified with appliquéd mouldings and pompous spires.
The truth is that Quinlan Terry and his chums are simply not very good classical architects
Francis Terry has also been drawn into the battle of Mount Pleasant in north London, where the privatised Royal Mail is desperately trying to squeeze out every last penny from its former sorting office car park site with an oversized scheme by a clutch of decent contemporary architects. A local campaign has put forward an alternative scheme, modelled by Terry on a Georgian circus, surrounded by triangular courtyard blocks. But by making the argument one of picturesque pediments vs stripped brick reveals, the campaign has distracted attention from the chief evil – that the scheme includes only 12% affordable housing. Independent assessments have shown it could achieve 50%.
The mods vs trads style war, which threatens to rear its ugly head again, also crucially overlooks the debate we should be having: that of good vs bad architecture, cornice or not. The truth is that Quinlan Terry and his chums are simply not very good classical architects. Historian and traditional architecture enthusiast Gavin Stamp has described Terry’s work as ‘stiff, pedantic and uninspiring’, the result of ‘classical details stuck on to dull boxes’. Terry may well copy faithfully from Palladio and the ancient orders, but he does so with a leaden hand.
Robert Adam, another vocal classicist, might draw on a more liberal back-catalogue with a more imaginative hand, but it verges on Disneyfied vulgarity. His proposal for a trio of tower blocks in Reading topped with green domed cupolas is like something from Ceausescu’s Romania with a twist of Sheikh chic.
None of our self-styled ‘radical classicists’ draw on truly progressive classicism, sticking to a kind of learned-by-rote pattern-book facadism. There is none of the startling originality of Lutyens, or the elegantly stripped classicism of McMorran and Whitby, whose inventive Wood Street police station stands as a monument to a promising strain of 20th century architecture that petered out too soon. The truth is that intelligent classical traditions are being kept alive by talented architects from Stephen Taylor to Caruso St John – but in ways that seem too subtle for the prince and his reactionary design advisers. •
Oliver Wainwright is architecture critic at The Guardian. Read him here every other month and at ribaj.com
If the truth of Prince Charles’s intentions to influence architecture when he becomes king wasn’t already obvious enough, it was made even clearer in the New Years’ Honours. The only architect to be recognised with a royal gong was none other than his personal favourite: step forward Quinlan Terry CBE.