The Magazine

All the King's Architects

The surprising success of Prince Charles's anti-modernist crusade.

Jun 24, 2002, Vol. 7, No. 40 • By CATESBY LEIGH
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THE VILLAGE OF POUNDBURY in southwest England is a conventional real estate development, in financial terms. But its residences--ranging from spacious, detached homes to little rowhouses--are built in traditional regional styles with facades of brick, stone, or stucco. An interconnected network of winding streets and lanes--a departure from the cul-de-sac paradigm that took hold in both Britain and the United States after World War II--creates picturesque views, while the limited sight-lines force cars to slow down and make the streets more pedestrian-friendly. It would be hard to find a more beautiful community built in the last half century.

Poundbury has also worked in practical terms. Its houses sell at a generous premium, architecture critics have had to shelve their knee-jerk "theme park" cliches, and Tony Blair's New Labour government has directed local planning authorities to consider the village a pattern for environmentally sensible town planning. Developers see it as a model for marketing.

Poundbury is exceptional in another way: The man behind it is Charles, Prince of Wales. A few years ago, the prince's widely publicized campaign for humane architecture seemed in collapse. Labour's massive 1997 electoral victory was great news for Blair's pals Richard Rogers and Norman Foster, both leading exponents of flashy "high-tech" design, and the modernist architectural establishment. Three months later, Princess Diana's death in a car crash sent the prince's already battered public image into a tailspin--and it was his role in the architecture wars that suffered most.

The Institute of Architecture, whose establishment he had promoted, became a shambles (and is now defunct). A magazine sympathetic to his architectural philosophy folded. And his longtime advocacy of an ambitious classical scheme for Paternoster Square--the ancient London precinct adjacent to St. Paul's Cathedral that was rebuilt with stark, ugly towers under a 1956 master plan--simply evaporated, allowing developers to substitute a meretricious postmodern alternative.

Not surprisingly, the traditional architects in the prince's camp reaped almost no commissions in the millennial building patronage that soaked up $3 billion in lottery funds. Against the wishes of many Labourites, Blair followed through on the riskiest bet of them all, the Millennium Dome, originally embraced by Michael Heseltine, deputy prime minister in the preceding Tory government. Designed by Rogers's office, the dome is a gigantic, glass-fiber object--somewhat like an upside-down Chinese cooking wok--suspended from tilted steel masts. The dome and its multimedia extravaganza, which cost over a billion dollars, attracted half the people expected after opening on New Year's Eve 1999. A year later, the dome was shut down. (Last month, the Blair government struck a risky and controversial profit-sharing deal under which American telecommunications magnate Philip F. Anschutz will pay nothing for the structure, while assuming the cost of converting it into a 20,000-seat sports arena.)

DESPITE THE IGNOMINIOUS DEFEATS Charles has suffered, traditional architects are very busy, while the urban-planning ideas the prince has championed are starting to catch on. If classical architecture didn't become extinct in Britain in the aftermath of World War II, it came close, and what success it currently enjoys is largely attributable to the prince. As in the United States, the most fashionable architects, professors, and almost all of the critics are modernists. In Britain, elite opinion has more sway over cultural life than in the United States. Even Britain's formidable historic-preservation apparat is more or less wedded to the bogus Hegelian doctrine that modern times demand modernist architecture.

But Britain also has something the United States lacks: royal patronage, which continues--even after Prince Charles's retreat from controversy--to be a vitally important asset to the cause of traditional architecture. A reminder of the benefits of such patronage came last month with the opening of the expanded Queen's Gallery at Buckingham Palace. Designed by John Simpson, the prince's favorite architect, the gallery consists of two new structures erected at right angles and inserted into the already densely built Buckingham Palace complex. The smaller of the structures is an open, Doric-columned entrance pavilion resembling a miniature Greek temple.