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It's not old-fashioned to believe in the necessity of tradition

An abridged transcript of the address given last week to the RIBA by HRH the Prince of Wales

Mr President, ladies and gentlemen, there is something I’ve been itching to say about the last time I addressed your institute in 1984; and that is that I am sorry if I somehow left the impression I wished to kick-start some kind of ‘style war’ between classicists and modernists; or that I somehow wanted to drag the world back to the eighteenth century […]

For millennia before the arrival of the modern architect, human intervention in the environment often managed to be beautiful, irrespective of stylistic concerns, because the ‘deep structure’ of those interventions was consonant with a natural order, and generated an organic, nature-like order in the built world […] There is an echo of this sort of intervention in so-called ‘slum cities’ […]

Rather than classical or traditional, I propose to speak of ‘organic’ architecture […] that emerges from a particular environment or community. The writer Geoffrey Scott was most eloquent about the way in which buildings can mirror our selves: ‘The centre of classical architecture is the human body … the whole of architecture is unconsciously invested by us with human movements and human moods’. Nature is a living organism; man is a living organism, each of us a microcosm of the whole. What we refer to as ‘tradition’ is a symbolic reflection of the order, proportion and harmony found in nature […]

When you provide people with an alternative vision based on the qualities represented by a living tradition, with the quantitative element playing a more subservient role, they tend to vote with their feet. But the trouble is that nine times out of 10 they are never allowed an alternative, and they are all forced to become part of an ongoing experiment […]

We ought not to forget that modernism was an urban movement […] It preferred abstract thinking to contact with the patterns and organic ordering of nature. The problem for us today is that this approach now lies at the heart of our perception of the world […] Such is our conditioned way of thinking along purely empirical, rational lines that we now seem prepared to test the world to destruction simply to attain the required evidence that that is what we are indeed doing […]

Tradition is a symbolic reflection of the order, proportion and harmony of nature

A considerable number of contemporary architects produce some very interesting and worthy buildings. Two I have seen recently are IM Pei’s new museum of Islamic Art in Doha and David Chipperfield’s restoration of the Neues Museum in Berlin […]

When I was a teenager in the 1960s, I became profoundly aware of the brutal destruction that was being wrought on so many of our towns and cities, let alone on our countryside, and that much of the urban realm was becoming depersonalised and defaced. The loss was immense, incalculable – an insane reformation that, I believe, went too far, particularly when so much could have been restored, converted or re-used, with a bit of extra thought, rather than knocked down. There are few among you here this evening who would now try to defend such things as the soulless housing estates that characterised that time […] Surely you have noticed that the well-proportioned neighbourhoods of the Georgian and Victorian era hold their value far better than the monocultural housing estates of the past 50 years […]

Virtually all schools of architecture and planning have persisted in teaching an approach which is counter-intuitive to the human spirit and to the underlying patterns of nature herself, of which, whether we like it or not, we are a microcosm […] It was because of this that I founded my original Institute of Architecture, to be succeeded by my Foundation for the Built Environment.

Since the 1960s, I have become convinced that the ‘experiment’ on our towns and cities that had such a negative effect on me at that time is only a small part of a much larger experiment. I don’t believe I am the only one to feel that the experiment has gone too far.

The trouble is that very few people dare to call it into question, for the very good reason that if they do they find themselves abused and insulted, accused of being old-fashioned.

The crisis in the banking sector, devastating though its consequences will be for some, has at least brought to light something of the short-termist, unsustainable, and experimental nature of the way many professionals now operate in the world […] The great irony is that many of the social challenges we hoped economic growth would solve still remain deeply resistant to resolution. Experience now tells us that poverty, stress, ill-health and social tensions could not have been ended by economic growth alone. At the heart of this dilemma is the issue of global urbanisation. The primary response so far to this accelerating urbanisation has been to view it as a short-term challenge of scale, and to respond to it by building bigger, more and faster, rather than questioning whether and to what extent such development – still based on an outmoded paradigm of planning and design – is actually sustainable. Some, at least, are beginning to regard the growth of shanty towns – a highly-visible consequence of rapid urbanisation – as more than just a nuisance that needs to be cleared away, in the same way as the ‘slums’ of our British cities were cleared in the 1960s, but as a possible clue to how we might respond better to growth in the future – from the bottom up […]

What is needed, it seems to me, is a three-stage approach: first, a grounding in precedent, building upon what has worked well in the past; second, an understanding of locality, the specific DNA, if you like, of a place, incorporating local intelligence and community input; and third, the incorporation of the best of new technology.

Since the 1960s, I have been concinved the ‘experiment’ on our towns and cities has gone too far

I realised 20 years ago that I had an opportunity to give room to an alternative way of doing things. I set out to try to embody these principles in the development of an area on the edge of the town of Dorchester […] Poundbury has challenged contemporary models for road design by designing for the pedestrian first, and only then the car; and it has challenged the conventional model of zoned development by pepper-potting affordable and private-market housing, and integrating workplaces and retail within a walkable neighbourhood. Thus we can enhance social and environmental value, as well as commercial. Why on earth all this should be considered ‘old-fashioned’ and out of touch, when we took the greatest trouble to sit down and consult with the local community 20 years ago, is beyond me – for we find, so often, that communities have the best answers themselves if they can be engaged in a meaningful way […]

What is tradition but the accumulated wisdom and experience of previous generations, informed by intuition and human instinct, and given shape under the unerring eye of the craftsman, whose common sense provides the organic durability that we so urgently need?

I pray that a new relationship between this institute and my Foundation for the Built Environment can enable us to create the kind of organic architecture that not only reflects the intuitive needs, aspirations and cultural identity of countless communities around the world, but also the innate patterns of nature. As Sir John Betjeman wrote in 1931: ‘There is no battle for the intelligent artist. The older men gradually discard superfluities. The younger men do not ignore the necessary devices of the past. Both sides find their way slowly to the middle of the maze whose magic centre is tradition.’

If we can find the right path, perhaps you would care to accompany me to the middle of the maze.

comment@architectsjournal.co.uk

 

For more on Prince Charles’s architectural aesthetic, see here

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