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Prince rains on 150th parade

Hugh Pearman

It's the year of THAT speech, and HRH catches out the Journal by going off-script

The nearest the City ever got to that Mies building – a mock-up of a window module in the late 1960s.
The nearest the City ever got to that Mies building – a mock-up of a window module in the late 1960s. Credit: John Donat RIBA Collections

‘Members might have been somewhat surprised last month when the Journal discussed the Prince’s views on access to buildings by the disabled,’ wrote editor Peter Murray in the July 1984 issue of this magazine. ‘Views which formed a major part of the speech and seemingly ignored everything else HRH had said. The reason for this is that the article in the Journal was prepared and printed before the speech was made and at the time of going to press we had no idea that he was involving himself even deeper in the architectural debate.’

We know what he’s referring to, don’t we? THAT speech. The speech Prince Charles made on 30 May at the Hampton Court gala which was meant to be the highlight of the Institute’s 150th anniversary Year of Architecture. The one in which, without warning, he launched his campaign against what he saw as the evils of modern(ist) architecture. The one in which he dismissed ABK’s winning entry to the first competition to extend the National Gallery as ‘a kind of municipal fire station, complete with the sort of tower that contains the siren’ and, most famously, as ‘A monstrous carbuncle upon the face of a much loved friend’. The one in which he contributed uninvited to the public inquiry debate on his polo-field friend Peter Palumbo’s plans for a Mies tower and plaza in the City, Mansion House Square. About that he said: ‘It would be a tragedy if the character and skyline of our capital city were to be further ruined and St Paul’s dwarfed by yet another giant glass stump, better suited to downtown Chicago than the City of London.’

As the guests stared at him open-mouthed and RIBA President Michael Manser’s face became a glazed mask, the prince concluded: ‘In this 150th anniversary year, which provides an opportunity for a fresh look at the path ahead and in which by now you are probably regretting having asked me to take part, may I express the earnest hope that the next 150 years will see a new harmony between imagination and taste and in the relationship between the architects and the people of this country.’

He might as well have dropped the mic as he walked off. Editors hate it when this kind of thing happens, and they had reason to hate it even more then. In those pre-Internet days Murray couldn’t rush out an online newsflash, critique or pithy tweet as we can now: the lengthy lead times of the print journal meant that his response had to wait until July. By which time the Charles anti-modernism stance had gone several times round the world and the Institute was knocked into a policy tailspin from which it took years to recover.

Perhaps not such a good target for royal ire – ABK National Gallery extension with its tower.
Perhaps not such a good target for royal ire – ABK National Gallery extension with its tower. Credit: John Donat RIBA Collections

Looking back on it all now, it is instructive how the traditional respect for the monarchy then prevalent made people bite their tongues rather than snap back. The Sainsbury family stumped up the money for the National Gallery to run a second competition for a larger extension – the Sainsbury Wing by Venturi, Rauch and Scott Brown that we see today. Palumbo’s Mansion House Square was duly rejected, whereupon the prince took a swipe at its utterly different replacement by Stirling Wilford, No 1 Poultry (‘rather like an old 1930s wireless set’). Finally Palumbo was piqued to respond: ‘I can only say God bless the Prince of Wales, and God save us from his architectural judgement.’  Apropos of which, the old wireless set is now listed grade II* while another building the prince – having laid the foundation stone – later had a go at, Sandy Wilson’s British Library (‘more like the assembly hall of an academy for secret police’), is now listed grade I.

Perhaps the prince’s comments helped usher in the commercial-postmodernism boom of the late 1980s, not that he ever liked that stuff either. Back in July 1984, Murray was diplomatic. ‘On two points everyone I have spoken to are agreed: firstly, it was a good thing that the heir to the throne is so passionately interested in architecture and, secondly, that the Royal Gala at Hampton Court, organised for the presentation of the Gold Medal to Charles Correa, was the wrong place for him to voice his criticisms. Correa’s triumph was overshadowed by the debate surrounding the Prince.’ 

Both the Prince and Correa – with a lifetime-achievement exhibition – were much later to be hosted at the RIBA. Just not at the same time.