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Princely without privilege

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The Prince of Wales's Institute has gone all gritty, urban and East End. In a startling overhaul of the way the school is run, involving a change of name, location and key personnel, the new-look Prince of Wales's Foundation for Architecture and the Urban Environment, as it will be called, will be based in a six-storey, loft-like building in Charlotte Road, Shoreditch. It will nestle in with the Urban Villages Forum in a mutually beneficial proximity, rubbing shoulders with artists in the community and drawing inspiration from its environs to concentrate on a revivified graduate school looking exclusively at housing. It will, says foundation head Adrian Gale, be a far cry from its current illustrious home, snootily peering from the edge of Regent's Park.

'Those two villas project an understanding that I think we're trying to avoid,' he says. 'They speak of privilege in a way that part of the Classical tradition also does. They speak of authority and of privilege, and this is something that we clearly wish to disassociate ourselves from. We wanted to be in a working environment, hence our original wish of finding a garage. But we settled for a fur warehouse.'

Alongside former Plymouth school head Gale in the new-look foundation will be David Porter. The pair met at Canterbury when they were both lecturing many years ago. Porter, formerly at the University of East London, will take charge of the housing end: looking in depth at models offered by Holland and Denmark, countries he knows well, and analysing, via a new 'Arts of Making' course, materials and scale, drawing, photography and skills training. On the other side, the 'Arts of Dwelling' students will be looking at community input, the 'place' and how we inhabit it in time and space. 'So we'll be coming from an approach which is philosophical, but also at the other end practical, and then converging in the middle on housing.'

Gale spent 14 years at Plymouth, 'in surroundings of incredible beauty', after a Modernist upbringing as an apprentice with 'an architect in Chicago' (he worked in Mies van der Rohe's office), and then in the uk with leading Modernist Douglas Stephen and Erno Goldfinger. Porter has taught at the aa and the Bartlett, and worked with Neave Brown at Camden, on Fleet Road. For a while he had a small practice, Clements and Porter, which his wife now runs - and in 1986 he went into partnership with Brown again, working on schemes including one for 23 buildings in the Hague. 'Architecture schools,' he says, 'are full of gross generalisations. We're trying to get closer to the particularities - what Le Corbusier called 'the patient search'.' That emphasis on the crafting and workshop side will be in line with what the pair both refer to as the prince's 'passion' about the way things are made - a subject Porter notes is peculiarly absent from last month's Egan report. It is that same passion that Gale says is behind the prince's 'general exhortations to the institute about the qualities he'd hope to see within the environment . . . I think what we're interested in doing is seeing what the implications are of those very general exhortations when it comes to people's very existence in all the things they touch and experience on a day-to-day basis.'

What better way is there, Gale argues, to study history than through the house, the oldest building type in the world? What better way to show how man (his word) inhabits the city? Getting the volume housebuilders involved will be important in this respect, and the uvf's work in dispensing English Partnerships' cash to schemes up and down the country will be handy. Porter attacks the 'complete loss of cultural memory' which has bedevilled housing so that no generation really looks hard at its predecessors to see what works and does not work, pledging that the new course will do just that 'without coming with a big bundle of preconceptions'. It will also address the problem of how architects currently learn to 'do' housing: 'they do an oyster farm in year four and then they do an opera house in year five,' he says.

Gale recalls the immediate reaction of Chris Wilkinson to the new housing push: ''Oh Adrian,' he said, 'there's no architecture in housing', and I understand what he means by that, but I think in a way that actually sums up the view of the profession - I think we intend to overcome it and demonstrate in deeds that housing is an architectural matter.'

The new structure is also significant, with uvf chief executive David Lunts in overall charge, uvf exhibitions and events on the doorstep, and the possibility of low-rent space becoming available for young architects and designers as long as they do some teaching in the school in return. Funding arrangements, says Gale, are also key. The accusation was always thrown at the institute that it had got through five directors and £15 million over seven years, but the money was never there to endow the institute - it had been acquired in order to top up the activities he says. The academic future will now be related to a funding programme on a five-year basis. The foundations have been laid.

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