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Prince Charles was right to speak out, now architects must listen

The Prince was sticking up for a general public denied a voice by an architectural closed shop dominated by modernists, says Alireza Sagharchi

People care about their environment, it cuts across creed, generations, race and income bracket. If there is any issue that would get a local community to come together and pay attention is a development on the door step , because it affects one of the basic human necessities of shelter and quality of life.

It is no surprise therefore that we find a well organized and vocal campaign against the Chelsea barracks scheme, what is amazing is that that the whole saga has brought out the inherent contradictions that have been bubbling under the surface among the profession for the past three decades since the emergence of modern classicism and traditional architecture and urbanism as new approaches to how we look at our buildings, neighbourhoods and towns.

The recent criticism of the Prince of Wales’ intervention in the controversial new designs for Chelsea Barracks and comments by the RIBA president, Sunand Prasad and a group of leading modernist architects in a national newspaper has highlighted the widening gap between the profession and the ordinary people whose environment we help to shape. I believe that the Prince of Wales made his
intervention on behalf of local people who felt unrepresented and are excluded without recourse from a decision-making process that can totally transform their environment.

The ‘we know best’ attitude of the complaining architects and - incredibly - their retreat behind an inherently flawed planning system will do the profession no favours. Whilst the Modernist dominated establishment are spurned on by the need for so called Iconic buildings regresses into a derivative and abstract architectural language, another group has been quietly pushing the humanist agenda of a return to a sustainable ecological humanism and urban civility. The way out of this disjoint between the public and the profession requires a sea change in the way we educate and practice.

The ‘we know best’ attitude of the complaining architects and - incredibly - their retreat behind an inherently flawed planning system will do the profession no favours

Reform is also needed to create a new public vote process that will inform planning committees about local opinion, the result would give a hard-to-challenge account of how local people feel about any proposals. This process can run alongside the existing planning procedures and committees would still make the decisions, but with the clear knowledge of local opinion. This has already been tried in a recent hotel development in Hampton Court where it generated considerable local interest. While this idea would need to be developed in detail, it has become evident that specialist design reviews and the increased complications in the planning system have the effect of diminishing democratic accountability. The public view design review panels and quangos such as the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) with suspicion, they have no real public input and in most cases are an architectural closed shop dominated by modernists.

More democracy in the planning system and a direct voice for those affected is the way forward, it fits in with government policies for local involvement and would by-pass consultation processes which may be open to cynical manipulation. Traditional architecture and urbanism resonates with the public, it is inventive, innovative and part of a continuum, but is always fundamentally inseparable
from the fabric of tradition and connects with the environment form which it emerges. The difference between traditionalists and modernists is that the latter see tradition as static and an obstacle to their creativity, the former see it as source of inspiration, thoroughly alive and very changeable.


Alireza Sagharchi is chairman of the Traditional Architecture Group
asagharchi@stanhopegate.co.uk

Readers' comments (3)

  • This isn't an issue about architecture but about democracy.

    I assume that the people of Chelsea - if they make the effort to vote - are represented by democratically elected politicians.

    Prince Charles is likely to become a non-elected head of state. I don't envy his position; it is one that makes such interventions - and the media attention given to them - inappropriate.

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  • As a designer, I agree with Charles that current practice is failing to enhance or compliment the historic character of our towns and cities. Imagine placing one of those ubiquitous glass blocks with random windows (yawn, yawn) into a Constable painting. It wouldn't be counterpoint, it would be vandalism. the services of all other professions (wihbthe exception of estate agency of course) enhance our lives, not have us living in dread over the next iconic design to come off the drawing board.

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  • A very dull populist article. Prince Charles is entitled to his opinion - there is a saying about opinions...you may have heard it - I shall not repeat it here. Unfortunately, precisely the sort of rubbish you would expect from a representative of the TAG...hiding behind a 'people need their voice' banner is weak journalism.

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