What are we to make of Prince Charles'call for a return to an architecture characterised by high-quality craftsmanship? It is not in itself a controversial stance.
Architects are constantly bemoaning the dearth of skilled labour. But an abundance of high-quality workmanship does not exist in a vacuum. As Ruskin pointed out, there is always somebody prepared to make anything more cheaply and less well. And when the procurement of buildings is tied to the ideals of the free market, the lowest tenderer will always have the advantage.
Most of the buildings generally held up as examples of great craftsmanship were procured outside a pure market economy. The Prince suggests that we should learn from the 'great architecture'; inspired by 'the great belief systems'. But these would never have existed if they had had to meet commercial criteria. The construction of our own Gothic cathedrals was made viable only by forcing the populace to hand over one tenth of its income to the church - a level of public subsidy which makes the funding of the Dome fade into insignificance. More recently, our Neo-Classical town halls and the monumental schools and hospitals built by the Victorians are a legacy of an age before PFI or design and build, when public institutions were examples of patronage or charity, and not the efficient business-minded organisations which they have been forced to become. But the Prince is not only in thrall to the grandiose. He talks of the 'modesty of well-crafted buildings', a description which again suggests building types not dependent on the usual rules of commerce: alms houses for the elderly; tied cottages built by landowners for workers on the estate.
So what is the Prince suggesting about the future of architecture? Presuming he is not advocating a return to feudalism, or to the kind of patronage which depends upon noblesse oblige, we can only assume that he is calling for government investment in architecture.
Are we really to believe that Prince Charles is calling for a public expenditure programme so substantial that it will significantly distort the workings of the free market? I think we should be told.