Architects have given a mixed reaction to the Prince of Wales’ ten ‘important geometric principles’ for urban design
Calling on architects to ‘reconnect with traditional approaches and techniques’, the royal acknowledged the role of modern technology but said he wanted to ‘mix the best of the old with the best of the new’.
He said: ‘I have lost count of the times I have been accused of wanting to turn the clock back to some Golden Age. Nothing could be further from my mind. My concern is the future.’
He continued: ‘We face the terrifying prospect by 2050 of another three billion people on this planet needing to be housed, and architects and urban designers have an enormous role to play in responding to this challenge.’
Charles argued that to meet this challenge architects must create ‘resilient, truly sustainable and human-scale urban environments that are land-efficient, use low-carbon materials and do not depend so completely upon the car’.
He said: ‘We have to reconnect with those traditional approaches and techniques honed over thousands of years which, only in the 20th century, were seen as “old-fashioned” and of no use in a progressive modern age.’
At the heart of his essay in the Architectural Review is a call to embrace ‘sacred’ geometry in urban design.
Features such as rose windows in Gothic cathedrals – inspired by nature’s ‘complex, deeply interconnected’ beauty – allow viewers an ‘immediate, intuitive resonance with its form and pattern.’
A geometric design approach is therefore beneficial to urban design, Prince Charles argued, because the end results ‘communicates directly to people by resonating with their true being’.
In conclusion, The Prince of Wales presented ten urban principles which called for more use of traditional materials, more mansion blocks instead of high-rise housing and for streets to be reclaimed from cars (see full text below).
Atmos director Alex Haw supported the focus on ‘abstract ecological-humanist principles’ but said he completely disagreed with the prince’s language and implementation.
He said: ‘Sure “the new alone is not enough”, but in a thriving age of rich information, networked interconnectivity and digital interactivity, neither is the traditional.’
ADP chair Roger FitzGerald questioned whether new buildings required local materials and traditional styles to belong to their context.
In the hands of a decent architect a contemporary building can be a sensitive
He said: ‘In the hands of a decent architect a contemporary building can be a sensitive and intelligent response to local context, and equally a poor designer – even if using local materials – can make a completely inappropriate addition.’
FitzGerald said quality in the built environment has been undermined because ‘too much of our physical environment is uncontrolled and not professionally designed’.
He said: ‘We have a huge task to accommodate the needs of three billion more people by 2050, and the greatest contribution that the Prince of Wales could make would be to help ensure that talented designers are central to the process, rather than prescribing the geometry of their solutions.’
HTA managing partner Benjamin Derbyshire commented: ‘An egalitarian city is a city of streets and to that extent I agree with the Prince of Wales. But I’d also say that well designed streets are incredibly forgiving of diversity of materials and architectural styles.’
Matt White of Matt Architecture said: ‘Architects have nothing to fear from the Prince’s pronouncements – quite the reverse, architects often produce their best work when presented with constraints – and of course despite him being head-of-state in waiting he has no constitutional power to get any of this stuff enshrined in law.’
Patrick Lynch, director, Lynch architects
I broadly agree with much if not most of what HRH says, and despite certain reservations, I have to say that I think that it is on balance a good thing for a public figure to engage directly with the principles of architecture. The poetics and praxis of architecture is the topic of my PhD, and I was encouraged to see that HRH takes our subject seriously an art form.
This is such a debased term today, when architects seem to want to be technologists or scientists or fine artists, or mostly just formalist sculptors. Yet the art of architecture has always concerned the role that geometry plays in mediating, as ornament and Spatiality, representations of nature and of civic pride. So I am probably one of the few modern architects who thinks that his engagement with the subject is welcome, and it is not, I think, a trivial or dilettante pursuit.
Architecture remains a subject with a history and a tradition, most of which we are almost totally ignorant of today. The question we face is how relevant this is to our society today, and how to translate this knowledge, perhaps knowledge that appears arcane or even occult, into praxis. Even le Corbusier, who is usually seen as the arch representation of a sort of 20th century technocrat (that was in fact Gropius), even Corb was seriously interested in alchemy, sacred mathematics, tradition, and his late written and built work is full of pantheistic images of nature.
Recent scholarship has revealed the profound depth of modernist architectural culture, and I wish that a better paradigm existed than trads vs mods, right wing vs left wing, low vs high, etc. Arguably, the English cultural situation tends towards these sorts of polar oppositions, or Mexican stand-offs: whereas the current initiative of HRH intimates a different sort of spatial dialogue, a circle rather than the antagonistic confrontation of a public school debating chamber or the Houses of Parliament. And so for these reasons I think that architects as individuals and as a corporate group of professionals should welcome this invitation to participate in a conversation about the nature and character of our shared built world.
Alister Scott, professor of environment and spatial planning, Birmingham City University
Looking at the examples Prince Charles uses to illustrate his principles there is clear evidence of elitism and his lack of empathy with the problems facing his peasantry. These socially regressive outcomes mirror some of the more negative aspects of the operation of the current planning system with provisions to opt out of affordable housing quotas and not deliver much needed community infrastructure if they are deemed too expensive.
As Prince Charles suggests the language of planning and architecture does need to be more inclusive but it does need to be understood; basically we need to build better places but for more people but the examples all point towards design credentials for a well-heeled Poundbury settlement than a major town or city with its attendant problems of deprivation, town centre decay and stagnation and lack of investment. The lack of affordable housing and basic community infrastructure poses major planning problems. Incorporating ‘door cases, balconies, cornices and railings’ in modern housing estates would not be top of my design guidance. Furthermore, the problem of using local building materials and styles is appropriate in some protected areas but adds greatly to the average price for property (eg Cotswolds £411,358 detached Rightmove: November 2014), putting such property out of reach for most people. When he considers the “charm and beauty of a place like Kensington and Chelsea in London” he forgets that the average price of property is £2,085,950; well outside the reach of even university professors! We need principles for the real world.
Planning is about building quality places for us all. I remain concerned that the present planning agenda is neglecting issues of affordability, environmental and social justice and we urgently need to have planning principles that are inclusive and egalitarian. I do welcome some of the points Prince Charles suggests about working with nature rather than trying to dominate it. This will bring significant benefits in terms of design and cost as in flood and drought management strategies.
Prince Charles’ ten urban design principles with comment (in italics) by Nick Willson of Nick Willson Architects
Developments must respect the land. They should not be intrusive; they should be designed to fit within the landscape they occupy.
This applies to all buildings regardless of style, a poorly thought through scheme will be intrusive even if it is in a more traditional style.
Architecture is a language. We have to abide by the grammatical ground rules, otherwise dissonance and confusion abound. This is why a building code can be so valuable.
This is correct, but does not mean that everything has to look like the Victorian era. Architectural language can be diverse, different and interesting. The design quality and detailing is what is important, places like Copenhagen and other Nordic cities manage to have beautiful contemporary buildings sitting next to old traditional buildings. I believe that we should build to the year that we are in, the same that cars, medicine, planes, clothes and technology has moved on, so should building processes and materials etc. Sustainability is also key, Prince Charles doesn’t mention this with much conviction.
Scale is also key. Not only should buildings relate to human proportions, they should correspond to the scale of the other buildings and elements around them. Too many of our towns have been spoiled by casually placed, oversized buildings of little distinction that carry no civic meaning.
This is applicable to all buildings and just because a building is modern, it doesn’t mean that it can’t have scale and proportion. Lots of casually placed oversized buildings are pastiche of older styles.
Harmony − the playing together of all parts. The look of each building should be in tune with its neighbours, which does not mean creating uniformity. Richness comes from diversity, as Nature demonstrates, but there must be coherence, which is often achieved by attention to details like the style of door cases, balconies, cornices and railings.
Again, a beautiful contemporary building can achieve this, scale, rhythm, proportion and quality materials can provide a beautiful link between old and new. Design quality and detail will bring about the harmony.
The creation of well-designed enclosures. Rather than clusters of separate houses set at jagged angles, spaces that are bounded and enclosed by buildings are not only more visually satisfying, they encourage walking and feel safer.
Of course, this is a strategy that will offer safer and more welcoming spaces. Perhaps the spaces Prince Charles refers to are more developer led with tight spaces and spaces at a premium? Not all sites are green open fields, inner London has a different issue than Poundbury for example.
Materials also matter. In the UK, as elsewhere, we have become dependent upon bland, standardized building materials. There is much too much concrete, plastic cladding, aluminium, glass and steel employed, which lends a place no distinctive character. For buildings to look as if they belong, we need to draw on local building materials and regional traditional styles.
This is an interesting one, modern materials can be used in a beautiful way, also concrete and glass etc have been used for a long time, it’s the quality of design and attention to detail that sets the building apart. I would much prefer a beautifully detailed glass, metal and concrete building than an ugly poorly designed rendered, brick building that was more traditional but poorly designed.
In addition, using local materials is fine, a house using local timber, brick and stone for example can still be ultra-contemporary in design but equally beautiful and contextual. The style is irrelevant.
Signs, lights and utilities. They can be easily overused. We should also bury as many wires as possible and limit signage. A lesson learned from Poundbury is that it is possible to rid the street of nearly all road signs by using ‘events’ like a bend, square or tree every 60-80 metres, which cause drivers to slow down naturally.
This is more than just architecture, and often involves local authorities etc, but again is based upon good design and a level of thought.
The pedestrian must be at the centre of the design process. Streets must be reclaimed from the car.
This is fine in certain parts of the country, but not all sites are so rural, I agree if possible cars should eb dealt with in a clever way and streets pedestrianised as much as possible, cycling and public transport can be utilised.
Density. Space is at a premium, but we do not have to resort to high-rise tower blocks which alienate and isolate. I believe there are far more communal benefits from terraces and the mansion block. You only have to consider the charm and beauty of a place like Kensington and Chelsea in London to see what I mean. It is often forgotten that this borough is the most densely populated one in London.
This is again a tricky one, we are facing a massive housing shortage and sites are limited, especially in cites, so we have to go higher to provide the amount of accommodation that we require. Rural sites can have a more mansion block feel perhaps. But high rise can be designed well and offer a different way of living. The Barbican is a good example of a mix of heights and types of accommodation, with a highly social and community aspect at ground level. A mix of units is probably best.
Flexibility. Rigid, conventional planning and rules of road engineering render all the above instantly null and void, but I have found it is possible to build flexibility into schemes and I am pleased to say that many of the innovations we have tried out in the past 20 years are now reflected in national engineering guidance, such as The Manual For Streets.
This is possible with more contemporary architecture too.
Robert Adam, director at ADAM Architecture
I am sure that many architects will have a knee-jerk negative response to the Prince of Wales’s comments but I would ask them just to look at the first word or sentence in each of the ten principles and see if they would agree with them. After that, there may be some debate but this is a matter of interpretation of fundamental issues. I hope that the architectural profession is, indeed, mature enough to accept that there might be something in all this and avoid hysterical protest. The Prince of Wales’s genuine concern for the built environment should be respected as a contribution to the debate on how to make our towns, cities and countryside better places and not rejected out of hand. It should be the start of a debate not an occasion for airing prejudices.
Dominic J Eaton, director Stride Treglown
I struggle with ‘principles’ which are seen as a panacea to our current architectural and urban design problems.The whole process, and system through which schemes are produced is too complicated to be condensed into 10 ‘commandments’!
I’m sorry for the obvious inevitable biblical reference. There are too many examples of poor architecture and urban design and the need to recognise this essential and ongoing. Most of the principles raised such as site context, scale, massing, place making, mixed used schemes, are all qualities that are incorporated in our current thinking and approach to urban design.
However, there are often site constraints, planning issues, or financial issues which can compromise the original ‘vision’. Principle 6 does stand out for me as the one most difficult to accommodate.Materials also matter. In the UK, as elsewhere, we have become dependent upon bland, standardized building materials. There is much too much concrete, plastic cladding, aluminium, glass and steel employed, which lends a place no distinctive character. For buildings to look as if they belong, we need to draw on local building materials and regional traditional styles.
I believe that this is too general and limiting, and has the potential to inhibit innovative thinking and produce a pastiche. I believe that an exemplar scheme can reference and acknowledge local materials and regional traditional styles and in fact can produce contemporary schemes ‘of their time’.
Alireza Sagharchi, principal at Stanhope Gate Architecture
I think Prince Charles is right on. Architecture and urban design today is a global practice. Architects operate in different cultural, building and urban contexts. We need to take account of local identity, cultural differences as well as shared values and experience, all to the benefit of providing a sense of belonging to the places we create. .
The appeal to the positivist sentiments and idea of technology oriented, ‘scientific planning’ as the only guide when working in different cultures! is easy and the path of least resident, in short the lowest common denominator.Understanding local context and local traditions, materials is much more complex and therefore often sacrificed in speedy, architectural disposable solutions. This approach is of a single agenda, and replicates a single stylistic agenda using glass steel and aluminium with a mono cultural aesthetic regardless of the context.
In urban design this approach, relies on fragmentation of experience and the shock of the new and the redemptive nature of technology is paramount to its outlook. Repetitive nature of its urban design and architectural solution defies the context and destroys the typology. Culture, localism, identity, all disappear into an abstract framework.
Today the human condition is about fragmentation of experience, and architects resort to shocking the senses to make an ‘impact’. We are gradually conditioned to such an extent that we can easily walk into a shopping mall where the outside is at 50ºC and don ski clothes and enter a make believe alpine slope. We are conditioned to think that all that we can resolve every possible problem with technology. But what has happened is that technology has become the panacea, the post rationalized solution to every problem.
The language of the architecture of function urban design of the high way engineer, and the contingency and technological utility has taken over at the expense of all other considerations, such as tradition culture and human scale. Technology and its architectural language even claim to represent or replace culture.
This has been the modus operandi for the past 50 years from the start of the digital age of high tech, many societies are already paying the consequences of submission to technology and illusion of progress through environmental catastrophe.
Many years ago the ides of promoting sensitivity to context and respect of urban fabric championed by the likes of Leon Krier and was sacrilegious to the profession which was running havoc with our cities through unsympathetic developments, now it is the lingua franca.
I think as a profession we must un shackle ourselves of the prejudice that were forced on us through a myopic architectural education and give credit to good ideas where it is due, wether it comes from Prince or professional.