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Princely fallout

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It is 20 years since Prince Charles lambasted contemporary architecture with his notorious 'monstrous carbuncle' speech, and the repercussions are still being felt today.

Michael Hammond reports When Prince Charles criticised a proposed extension to the National Gallery as 'a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much- loved friend', it may have appeared to an outsider as an amusing spat or a storm in a tea cup.

However, to those in the UK's architectural profession, the fallout from the speech was both devastating and immediate. Projects collapsed all around - the first being Ahrends Burton and Koralek's (ABK) competion-winning design for the National Gallery.

What no one could have foreseen was that the Prince's 'legacy' would fundamentally shift the balance of the 'preserve or enhance' requirement in favour of preservation. The UK's planning process would never be the same. This is the view of many architects - both those involved at the time and those who have been trained in the intervening years.

Paul Koralek of ABK maintains that, even now, the Prince's intervention is still being felt. 'Planners up and down the country have used the comments for their own ends and believed his comments legitimised their conservation stance. He made pastiche respectable, and that's a shame.'

Julian de Metz of De Metz Architects is adamant that the repercussions of the carbuncle speech are still affecting the planning process today. In his view, it has significantly coloured architecture during the past 20 years. 'As a practice, we are not obsessed with contemporary architecture but we are obsessed with good architecture and we are insulted with the automatic assumption [of local authorities] that, as architects, we are only interested in contemporary work, ' de Metz says. He cites Tate Modern as a fine example of good conservation brutally applied.

De Metz believes that there are a number of indicators of the enduring effect of the Prince's legacy, really fundamental issues, for instance, 'the ominous change of name from planning, which is inherently positive, to development control, which is inherently negative'. And on a more provocative note, he says: 'It would be interesting to carry out a survey of those involved in the decision making process of local authorities to find out how many are properly qualified as architects to make these kinds of decisions.'

Taking a wider perspective, Michael Manser, the RIBA president at the time of the speech, believes that 'some good did come from it'. The Prince's comments, he says, meant that architecture as part of British culture has gained a higher profile.

The issues were debated everywhere at the time, which brought architecture down to street level. 'This has had an enduring and, ultimately, positive effect.'

But how could one speech have so much impact? An extract from the transcript shows that the Prince had cleverly positioned himself as a 'Vox Populi', a champion for popular opinion. 'For far too long, it seems to me, some planners and architects have consistently ignored the feelings of, and wishes of, the mass of ordinary people in this country.'

The national press picked up on this angle and adopted it as their mantle and for some time, public support did actually rally behind this critical view of modern architecture.

Manser explains that for the press it had all the components of a great story. A prince in shining armour, bad guys - architects, even victims - the general public. Prince Charles had won the day and for a period, 'Modern had become nasty'.

What happened during the next few years was nothing short of chaos. The industry was riven in two. The Fundamentalist movement, in support of Classical architecture, conservation and 'retention of old buildings at any cost', was reborn, fuelled by the press and public opinion. It had effectively been given a Royal Charter.

The advocates of contemporary design, on the other hand, were lost in a wilderness and seemed to be thwarted at every corner.

Prince Charles was propelled overnight into a role of architectural Tsar and his opinion sought on everything. His approval almost became a prerequisite for a project's success. For the next decade, as Deyan Sudic in the Observer succinctly put it: 'The Prince ran riot over the UK architectural scene.'

He would carefully drip feed 'gems' of wisdom into the abyss. On viewing the Paternoster Square proposals, he asked: 'Do we still strive to be a stunted imitation of Manhattan?'

James Stirling's proposal for Number One Poultry was dismissed as a 1930s wireless. He also described the National Theatre as a nuclear power station and even suggested that the Luftwaffe had done more for London than British architects. His cleverly crafted sound bytes not only ensured that he received the requisite media attention for his new-found role but possibly provided one of the earliest examples of viral marketing. Cab drivers loved it.

Gradually, however, having ridden the media storm to full effect, a few chinks in the Prince's armour began to show through and were noticed by a few architects. He had no power. A loud bark but no teeth. At the same time, there was a growing realisation that rather than being a champion of public opinion, he had in reality hijacked it to impose his own views. Slowly, the press turned.

After a while, a few adventurous architects stuck to their guns and defended their proposals in the face of criticism from the Prince. To the surprise of many, a few got through. Parallel with this, most of the Prince's schemes started faltering and, one by one, they failed.

Under pressure from his advisors to adopt a more positive approach the Prince's views have gradually softened. 'You would have to say that the views of the Prince and the major figures in architecture have become much closer, ' says Paul Finch, CABE's deputy chairman.

The AJ asked the Prince ofWales whether he had any regrets about his comments and whether his views had changed. He would not be drawn on his original comments but confirmed that he remained passionate about architecture in the built environment and summed up his current viewpoint.

'I believe that successful communities are created when the views of local people are incorporated in the design and planning process and clear planning principles and codes are established; Putting people rather than cars at the centre of design and creating mixed rather than zoned developments'.

It would appear from this that the focus of the Prince's interest may well have moved on but, unfortunately, the damage caused to contemporary architecture in the UK is in many cases literally cast in stone.

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