The prince’s notorious speech was a missed opportunity for the profession to interest the public in what it does, writes Ben Flatman
If like me, the fourth season of The Crown provided you with a welcome diversion during the second lockdown, you may have been surprised at some of the media outrage it’s provoked. Simon Jenkins in the Guardian claimed it was “as corrosive as fake news,” while Penny Junor in the Daily Mail has slammed its “wild, cruel distortions”. I can’t help feeling that some of the critics are being a bit po-faced. Haven’t the lives of royalty always been on some level a glorified soap opera for public consumption? To quote Christopher Hitchens, “This is what you get when you found a political system on the family values of Henry VIII.”
Although I personally enjoyed the mix of potted political history and high-end costume drama, I’m still tempted to add my voice to the chorus of disapproval. This is because of season four’s unforgivable omission of Prince Charles’ mid-80s foray into architecture. From an architect’s perspective I can’t help but feel that this is where the season really dropped the ball.
Did we really need all those episodes devoted to Princess Margaret feeling sorry for herself on Mustique, and Mark Thatcher getting lost in the Sahel, when there was a far richer seam of symbolism to be mined from events much closer to home? This was a moment when, in a strange way, Charles’ views on architecture briefly put him in the vanguard of a cultural movement.
And yet apart from Diana’s Sloane Ranger wardrobe and the occasional glimpse of a Laura Ashley-influenced interior, we got little sense of what was going on in design terms and the reactionary wave of anti-modernism that was sweeping the country at this time. Where were the style wars? Where was Peter York?
This won’t stop me from speculating about what might have been. The dramatic core of this “missing episode” should surely have been the infamous 1984 “carbuncle speech” that Charles gave at the 150th anniversary of the RIBA. In architectural folklore it’s come to be seen as an unforgiveable act of treachery – he had, after all, been invited to celebrate the RIBA’s birthday.
But reading the speech today, the striking thing is how mainstream most of it sounds. In fact, by the end you’re left wondering whether rather than being the stunted dinosaur he’s depicted as in The Crown, Charles wasn’t in many respects ahead of his time when it comes to the built environment. Perhaps this is why Peter Morgan chose to ignore it – it just doesn’t fit the characterisation of fogeyishness and self-pity that the series has entertainingly but pitilessly fixed on for its Prince Charles.
The speech actually began by praising Charles Correa and, later on, Edward Cullinan – hardly a couple of dyed-in-the-wool traditionalists. Prince Charles then went on to tick off a list of what today might be described as the accepted principles of sustainable urbanism: decrying the destruction of historic townscapes; advocating reuse of existing structures; promoting accessibility; calling for community engagement; warning of skylines disfigured by “giant glass stumps”; arguing for rediscovery of ornamentation (now pretty much de rigueur among even the starchiest “modernists”) and, most un-controversially of all, making the case for respecting historic street plans and traditional-scale housing typologies. The 2019 Stirling Prize for Goldsmith Street shows the RIBA was only 35 years behind the curve on that last point.
To be fair, the actual heart of the controversy was Charles’ attack on Ahrends, Burton and Koralek’s proposed National Gallery extension – the notorious “monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend”. But was Charles really wrong? I’m a huge fan of ABK and the damage done to that practice by the speech was by all accounts devastating. But however much I love their JCR bar at Keble College, I can’t help but feel that the National Gallery extension was not ABK’s best work. It has that slightly lost and apologetic feel of tail-end high-modernism, when most architects frankly didn’t know which way to turn.
How much surer footed and determinedly “of its time” is Venturi Scott Brown’s complex, disorientating post-modernism? A building that addresses the fundamental confusion at the heart of architecture at that moment by just throwing in (knowingly, of course) a little bit of everything.
There are many architects, though, for whom Prince Charles remains an emotional trigger. The mere mention of his name can send temperatures soaring and cries of “pastiche” flying. This from architects often in denial about how modernism has itself become another historical style, which they have just chosen to return to and pilfer from. Why then does Charles remain such a hate figure for so many architects, when the potential for common ground with the profession appears so much greater than the actual differences?
>> From the archive: Government blocks publishing Prince Charles letters
>> From the archive: Architects grudgingly accept Prince Charles’s urban design manifesto
The real controversy was perhaps that he expressed a critical view at all, even though he was only articulating concerns that many members of the public (and perhaps a fair few architects) also shared. Don’t we all privately think that a lot of what’s collectively built by our profession is actually pretty awful? And what does it say about us as architects if we can’t handle criticism and debate?
At a time when few public figures and practically no one in front-line politics talks about architecture, I can’t help but feel that it’s a missed opportunity that we haven’t found a way to harness the future monarch’s passion for the built environment to our wider professional advantage. Rather than harbouring a grudge against comments made almost 40 years ago, perhaps it’s time to move on.
The producers of The Crown have announced that they’re reverting to their original plan of making six seasons of the show, so with another two to run, perhaps they have the opportunity to make good their shocking historical omission. As timelines and sequencing of events have been somewhat flexible so far, they could always shoehorn in the carbuncle speech at the start of season five. I’d watch it, although perhaps my revisionist take on Charles doesn’t fit the series’ wider narrative. And something tells me season five isn’t going to be kind to the prince.