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Charles is right... but that doesn't mean the architects are wrong

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Beyond the Prince Charles debate lie brave new ideologies, argues Sam Jacob

It’s not that it’s boring, although it is. It’s because it’s an argument where everyone is wrong, all the time. I’m talking about the big ‘debate’ raging over Prince Charles’ letter to the Chelsea Barracks developer, asking him to remove Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners from the scheme. The spectre of that hoary debate of traditionalism vs. modernism threatens to rise again.

Truth be told, calling it a ‘debate’ is a little too polite. It feels more like being stuck in a pub in the middle of an argument where everyone is maniacally wrong: the only way of settling this kind of row is with a punch-up. Actually, that’s slightly unfair. The way they criticize each other holds some truth. The historicists are right: modern architecture is horrific, terrifying, uncontextual and difficult. That’s what’s so good about it. And the moderns are right too: historical architecture is ridiculous, artificial, hypocritical pastiche. But that can be a good thing, if you know that it’s a bad thing, if you know what I mean.

So, I would argue, the bad points of both camps are what make them amazing.

Things get really awful when a middle ground is sought and they try politely to learn from one another. We see this when modernism is explained as a reworking of classical architectural proportion, which is like casting Le Corbusier as a James Last, Hooked on Classics kind of guy. We see it again when post-modernism shifted from a complex critique of modernity to simplified pop-historicism.

The rhetoric around architecture in Britain is laden with cultural prejudices

This binary opposition of traditional vs.modern is damaging because it freezes debate within British architecture. It squeezes the terrain of discussion to a narrow ground between false positions from which nothing different can emerge.

Rhetoric surrounding architecture in Britain is laden with prejudices held to be self-evident, but which boil down to cultural prejudices rather than any kind of evidence. Take this from a recent Times leader, which displays tropes of this middle ground, neither modern nor quite traditional: ‘Modern architecture has its critics. But not all developments are monstrous carbuncles. At its best, the design of buildings and landscapes pays heed to the riches of the past while avoiding the falsehood of pastiche.’ It continues: ‘Architectural development works best when it is part of a continuing progression in a city’s landscape. Many modern schemes, especially some that litter London’s skyline, can instead have only been intended to dominate.’ It signs off by saying: ‘The type of modern development that refuses to compromise mathematically pure visions lacks a sense of history.’

Here we see ‘modern’ presented as a thing in thrall to a static, consensually agreed history and modern architecture somehow wishing to deploy ‘mathematically pure visions’ as a means of obliterating history.

If we step outside this oppositional argument, we might find other ways in which history and modernism could meet. Think, for example of those automated crossbow traps, giant balls of rock rolling down tunnels, and statues with lasers for eyes that populate video games and movies. These might point towards an English Heritage Futurism, somewhere that the fear of the past disappearing and the terror of an anti-humanist future meet. It’s a place where Prince Charles and Marinetti could scheme together. The tunnels and ruins of Tomb Raider suggest zombie architectural ideologies waiting to be assembled from fragments of history, reanimated by the science of the contemporary.

The problem of the historical and the contemporary in British architecture tells us more about the status of these ideas in British culture than it does about architecture. Architecture has for some reason become the medium through which we subliminally address the social and political consequences of history in contemporary Britain.Hung around the neck of architects, history acts as a drag on the real business of architecture – providing useful solutions to very real issues in the cause of making the world a better place.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • It's rather depressing to hear writers trying to wordsmith their way out of the 'Prince Charles' issue with articles like the above. We now know from the latest PoW speech that a c.80% of the British public agrees with him - that the current Neo-Modernist approach to building design is perceived as producing ugliness. In 1984, the RIBA ignored the prevailing public view and the problems have just festered ever since. A root-and-branch review of design practice is now needed, to arrive at a consensus (between architects and the public) on what constitutes beauty in architecture. This should then be practiced by architects in our service to the public. Let's do this now, before we're made to!

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