Will RIBA regret inviting Prince Charles to speak at its 175th anniversary dinner next week? The last time he stood before the architecture profession’s elite was 25 years ago, when he infamously described the proposed Sainsbury Wing for the National Gallery as being “like a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend”. This time round, before he’s even utteredpublic word on the subject, the Prince kicked up a storm about modern architecture.
The controversy has centred around the Prince’s attempt to get the scheme by Rogers, Stirk + Harbour for Chelsea Barracks in London dropped in favour of a predictable classical proposal by his architect Quinlan Terry. Many were outraged by his almost comically high-handed method of wielding influence: writing a personal letter to head of the Qatari royal family, whichowns the site. 10 high-profile architects, including Zaha Hadid, Norman Foster and David Adjaye, responded swiftly in a signed a letter to The Times: “Rather than use his privileged position to intervene in one of the most significant residential projects likely to be built in London in the next five years, he should engage in an open and transparent debate,” they argued.
Just as in 1984, the Prince has deftly managed to make the top brass at RIBA look like fools. On announcing the prestigious lecture, RIBA president Sunand Prasad told The Telegraph: “Both the Prince of Wales and the RIBA play a powerful role in raising awareness about sustainability and the design of places and we hope this lecture will engage an even greater audience with these globally important issues.” Given that many at the dinner will already be aggravated by the Prince’s secretive string-pulling, such a love-in now seems unlikely. And even if it did happen, why should RIBA want cosy endorsement from a man who has issued ill-informed statements on a whole range of subjects from medicine to GM farming? To his credit, Prasad did later denounce the Prince’s meddling, but the damage has to a large extent,already been done.
Unsurprisingly the Prince has provided a rallying point for anti-modern opinion. A leader in The Times of conservative populism: “Faced by greedy developers and an arrogant architectural establishment that despises classical design, it requires the occasional influential voice to stand up to them. Let us hope that on this occasion hisvoice prevails and London ends up with a development to rival that of Wren.” The right-wing historian of British politics, Andrew Roberts made almost identical points in an article for The Telegraph.
Less understandably, some of the architecture press has been shockingly craven. Building Design’s editor Amanda Baileau meekly argued that “anything or anyone that starts the debate over this important London site is to be welcomed — royal or otherwise.” Yet the problem is that the Prince has set the lines of debate along well-worn, regressive and uninformed lines. Rowan Moore correctly gauged the depths of Charles’ ignorance in : “The Prince has forgotten nothing and learned nothing… He has not learned, in all this time, that good architecture is not about classical dress. He has not noticed the many and beautiful forms contemporary buildings can take.”
Hopefully RIBA will provide a more robust defense at next week’s dinner than it did 25 years ago. But even if it does – or even if the Prince deigns to offer a more conciliatory line to modern architects – one has to wonder why his opinions are thought to matter in the first place.