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Art and inspiration: From Constable to Kandinsky

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Fresh minds, not princely interference, are needed to build a new ‘classic architecture’, says Ian Ritchie

As John Constable, the quintessential English painter put it: ‘A new gothic building… is in reality little less absurd than a new ruin… it is to be lamented that the tendency of taste is at present too much toward this kind of imitation, which, as long as it lasts, can only act as blight on art, by engaging talents that might have stamped the Age with a character of its own, in the vain endeavour to re-animate deceased Art, in which the utmost which can be accomplished will be to reproduce a body without a soul.’

Chelsea Barracks (site pictured) is not only the culmination of royal patriotism; sadly it is part of a pattern where some are allowed to speak louder than others. It is also the reality of foreign investors wishing to do what is best in their own interests.

Clearly, there is little doubt that this ‘royal patterning’ sets out in a naive way to maintain ‘a neo-classical England.’ Poundbury, in spite of its well-intentioned mannerism is a misguided and escapist reproduction.

To create a ‘classic architecture’ requires fresh minds. The Georgians and Victorians evolved new forms and new technologies. However, this evolution in design has progressed little since the high-tech era. This is the underlying issue with the Chelsea Barracks scheme; there is simply no evidence of evolution in a climate so heavily protected aesthetically and fiscally; a climate consequently permitting ‘retro thinking’ to have more space and validity than it deserves.

Though many of us openly express frustration at this ‘royal view’ of architecture, the paradox becomes clearer each time there is an intervention: no one can deny that Prince Charles believes he has the British interest at heart. Yet in that ‘heart’ lies a paradox. The Qatar royal family’s strategy of employing Richard Rogers, one of England’s most high-profile architects, would seem to have been a shrewd move.

However, there seems an intrinsic problem now with Rogers’ generation. By handing over responsibility to ‘entrusted partners’ who have unparalleled levels of talent at their disposal, it is possible that many of these once committed architects no longer dedicate their heart and soul to their projects.

What has happened to the days when young and budding architects – such as Rogers and Renzo Piano – were given the opportunity to create?

The undemocratic behaviour and privileged interference with regard to the planning process was clearly distasteful in relation to the Chelsea Barracks scheme.

Let us end, then, on a more balanced note: ‘Every work of art is the child of its age and, in many cases, the mother of our emotions,’ Kandinsky wrote. ‘It follows that each period of culture produces an art of its own which can never be repeated. Efforts to revive the art-principles of the past will at best produce an art that is still-born. It is impossible for us to live and feel, as did the ancient Greeks.’

  • Ian Ritchie is director of Ian Ritchie Architects
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