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Wednesday30 July 2014

Architectural jewels in the crown

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As her jubilee approaches, how does The Queen’s built legacy compare with that of her forebears

Which royal has done the most for architecture? Maybe William I, for introducing the Norman style of architecture still so visible 950 years later? Or perhaps an influential royal patron such as the flamboyant George IV, an enthusiastic client of John Nash?

Historians and critics are championing their nominees at the Great Royal Patron Debate, held by the RIBA this month to mark the Diamond Jubilee. Each will present a case for their monarch, with the audience then voting on the winning patron.

Surprisingly, some of the more obvious candidates are not being put forward at the debate. There is no room for Charles II, patron to Christopher Wren during the rebuilding of London after the Great Fire, or Prince Albert, the instigator of the Great Exhibition and “Albertopolis” in South Kensington. Instead, the five contenders are Queen Elizabeth II, Queen Mary, William I, Henry III and George IV.

Perhaps prompted by the Queen’s role as RIBA patron, RIBA president Angela Brady is loyally championing Queen Elizabeth II, not so much for any personal patronage but more as a reflection of the huge amount of building undertaken during her era, including the boom of the lottery projects and the current Olympic/Queen Elizabeth II Park.

Nominators for the other contenders can argue a more direct architectural patronage for their choices. Charles Hind, RIBA Heinz curator of drawings, is proposing George IV (1762-1830), whose love of the exotic resulted in the Royal Pavilion at Brighton, while historian Dan Cruickshank is championing Queen Mary (1662-1694), wife of William III, as a little appreciated creative force who played an important role in the development of Greenwich Park. This involved her control of the considerable ambitions of Christopher Wren and Nicholas Hawksmoor for the site as she found an alternative to plans that would have adversely affected Inigo Jones’ Queen’s House.

“She insisted that the Queen’s House was retained and should enjoy its view of the river,” says Cruickshank. “It was her brilliant solution for the new palace to be in two parts flanking the Queen’s House.”

Architectural historian and broadcaster Jonathan Foyle has nominated Henry III (1207-1272) as the first monarch to bring his building work under the control of a personally appointed mason and carpenter.

“That elevated our royal buildings from a series of local constructions to a programme of courtly architecture under the king’s control.

None has proved a finer investment than Westminster Abbey, which Henry developed from a coronation seat into the national royal mausoleum, and the pinnacle of poetic craftsmanship in Britain,” he says.

Going back even further, critic Jonathan Glancey is making a strong case for William I (1028-1087), proponent of the biggest building programme since the Romans as part of his plan to dominate the country.

“William stamped the Norman mark on Britain through military means and also through architecture, building castles, cathedrals and rebuilding towns,” he says.

This distinct style was a radical approach and a dramatic departure from Saxon culture, adds Glancey, achieved through highly visible, large, white set pieces such as the Tower of London and Durham Cathedral but also with more modest local churches that utilised local craft skills.

In an associated RIBA event, George VI Style and the New Elizabethans, architectural historian and Twentieth Century Society chair Alan Powers argues for the existence of a George VI (1936-52) style that is orderly, restrained, linear and two dimensional, taking selectively from classicism but with room for the softer aspects of modernism.

Things may have been quite different — rather less cosy and maybe more American and jazzy — if Edward VIII hadn’t abdicated, he adds,
“We never took on streamlining. There was a feeling that neither streamlining or Wallis Simpson was a good thing,” says Powers.

The span of the current queen’s reign and the huge changes it’s encompassed make it impossible to ascribe a particular style to her era, says Glancey, adding that the days of a particular monarch being associated with a particular style may well be over.

“By the time of King William and Queen Kate, it might just be anything goes,” he says.

Royal engagements

The Great Royal Patron Debate
RIBA, May 29, 6.30-8pm. Tickets £8.50 and £5.50 (concs members).

Coronation City — pop-up exhibition
12-10pm and talk 7 & 8pm, May 29. Free.

Talk by Alan Powers on George VI Style and the New Elizabethans
May 29, 7-7.45pm. Free.

For booking details see www.architecture.com

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