June 28, 2010
Something happened to British architects after the Second World War. Rugged Howard Roarke-like geniuses and obscure mediocrities alike shared an aesthetic that, for some reason, no one outside the profession understood. Perhaps the architecture schools gave them sets of glasses that made them to see the world in a way the rest of us cannot. I have yet to meet a British architect who does not believe that the Trellick Tower, a 31-storey socialist-realist monstrosity that dominates the northern reaches of Notting Hill, is beautiful. I have never met anyone else who would not prefer to see it erased from the skyline that it disfigures. I curse the Irish Republican Army for accepting a ceasefire before it brought the damn thing down. Blowing up pubs in Birmingham and churches in the City of London (London’s centro storico, not to be confused with Greater London) rather than Trellick must have been Ireland’s punishment for seven centuries of British colonial rule. Ian Fleming hated the Trellick Tower so much when it was commissioned in 1966 that he named his most famous villain for its designer, Erno Goldfinger.
Goldfinger lived in an old brick mansion in leafy Hampstead, even as he confined the proles to concrete prisons that resembled nothing so much as multi-storey car parks. (Trellick became a magnet for criminals, who dealt drugs and raped women in its darkened stairways. It cost millions in “security improvements” to make it marginally safer for the residents who were forced out of their old neighborhoods and made to live there.) I don”t know a British architect who actually lives in a house built in his lifetime. Richard Rogers’s domicile is in a Georgian terrace in Chelsea, and my old friend Tchaik Chassay inhabits a large flat in a Victorian building in Notting Hill. Yet they are creating a world for the rest of us that ruptures our ties to the type of houses in which they choose to live. If I try to see the world as they do, and I have out of consideration for our friendship, I fail. It is hard to contemplate the sublime attributes of the tower blocks south of the River Thames, the indecipherable cement maze that is the Barbican Arts Center and commercial developments like Canary Wharf.
In this, I find myself in the company of the great mass of Britons, with whom I disagree at least 99.9 per cent of the time, and the Prince of Wales. I don”t really like siding with the majority, who are invariably wrong. Finding myself allied to a crown prince sits uneasily with my lifelong republican (not to be confused with Republican) sentiments. Yet I must thank Prince Charles for blocking a project to replace the old Chelsea Barracks along the River Thames with modern steel and glass apartments for billionaires that would have made the north side of the river as unappealing as the south. (The only good thing about living on the south side of the Thames is that your view is of the north’s Georgian and Victorian masterpieces. People who live in the Trellick Tower say its only compensation is that it is one of the few vantages in west London from which you cannot see the Trellick Tower.) The prince has saved a stretch of the Thames from the fate of much of the rest of this city, and nobody is thanking him.
For those of you who do not spend much time in England, a little background. A recent trial in the High Court involved Prince Charles, the architect Richard (now Lord) Rogers, property developers Christian and Nick Candy and the royal family of Qatar. The lawsuit was brought by the Candy brothers” company, CPC, against a company called Qatari Diar. The Candy brothers, whose love of Britain obliges them to avoid paying tax in the country that provided their wealth by taking up residence in the Principality of Monaco, sued Qatari Diar. Qatari Diar is the investment company of the royal family of Qatar, said to hold the most valuable property portfolio in the world. Qatar’s prime minister, Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr al-Thani , somehow finds time while governing his country to act as chairman of the family property empire. Qatari Diar, to the annoyance of its partners in CPC, withdrew its application for permission to build a complex of luxury apartments at the Chelsea Barracks site that it had purchased for £969 million. The whole project was said to be worth £3 billion. CPC filed a lawsuit that alleged the withdrawal had cost it £81 million. The architect was, as he had been on another Candy-Qatar project in Knightsbridge beside the Hyde Park Hotel, Lord Rogers. The plans were, in common with the rest of Rogers’s oeuvre, modern in the extreme. The buildings on the site would have resembled nothing in the neighborhood and would have contrasted sharply with one of the capital’s masterpieces, Sir Christopher Wren’s Royal Hospital, nearby. Chelsea residents were opposed, but their views (based on past experience) did not count.
As the project was coming up for approval or rejection by the planning committee of Westminster council, Prince Charles wrote a letter to Sheikh Hamad. Dated 9 March 2010, the letter asked the sheikh “to reconsider the plans for the Chelsea site before it is too late.” The prince wrote, “I only mention this because, quite frankly, my heart sank when I saw the plans that had been proposed for the old Chelsea Barracks site, opposite the Royal Hospital, by Qatari Diar Real Estate Investment.” Nine weeks later, Sheikh Hamad found time between cabinet meetings to respond to Britain’s heir to the throne. His letter defended Rogers’s design and said the project would go ahead. Soon after, Prince Charles invited the Emir of Qatar (confusingly called Hamad as well), Sheikh Hamad’s cousin and sovereign, to tea at Clarence House. After that tete a tete, Qatari Diar withdrew the plans.
When it emerged at the trial that Prince Charles had intervened, the architectural establishment and the press put on their self-righteous hats and complained of interference in the democratic process. Ruth Reed of the Royal Institute of British Architects said, “No individual should use their [sic] influence in public life to influence a democratic process such as planning.” Anyone who has ever applied for planning permission to enlarge a bathroom in London knows the process is about as democratic as awarding oil contracts in Saudi Arabia. Architects, developers, estate agents and landlords all weigh in with whatever influence they can muster to make sure the bureaucrats come to the decision that will make them the most money. (You need only look at what the developers did to the sites graciously cleared for them by the Luftwaffe in 1940 to understand that democracy “ which was manifested in most people’s desire to live in terrace houses with gardens among the neighbors they knew “ has not played a major role where property and money are concerned.)
The Guardian‘s Robert Booth intoned in terms shared by most of his colleagues, “The case has raised serious questions over whether the prince overstepped his constitutional role by becoming involved in a democratic planning process…” Yet Prince Charles did not overstep his constitutional role (whatever that may be, given that he is a crown prince and not a king) by attempting to influence politicians. He dealt with two businessmen, the Emir of Qatar and Sheikh Hamad, in their capacity as financial backers of scheme the prince believed would blight an area of London whose architectural majesty he did not want to see diminished. He did not lean on Westminster’s local council or its planners (although he appears to have considered doing so). There was nothing improper about a man who happens to be a prince lobbying businessmen to drop a project he did not like. The businessmen were free to deny his request, as Sheikh Hamad intitially did. It would have been odd of the prince, if he felt so strongly about the Chelsea Barracks site, to have remained out of the fray.
The Prince of Wales spoke for everyone in London who has wearied of modernist architecture and its grip over local planning departments. No one likes to see architects, with their peculiar aesthetic, bulldozing of whole neighborhoods to erect temples of vanity to themselves, their patrons and Mammon. One thing is certain. If Prince Charles had not spoken to the Emir, ground would be broken for a scheme that would have disgraced the Royal Hospital and its gardens. Take a look at One Hyde Park, the Candy brothers glass block that obstructs the view of Hyde Park from Knightsbridge and will soon be complete. When its predecessor building, Bowater House, came down, I silently rejoiced. It was a space age (remember the space age?) brute whose only redeeming features were a wonderful Jacob Epstein sculpture of Pan with the family of man and a passage that permitted a sight of the park from the south. Then I saw the drawings for its replacement. As the months went by, I watched it go up, pane by pane. This is where architecture differs from the other arts. If I don”t like a painting, I don”t buy it or hang it on my wall. If I dislike a composer, I don”t go to his concerts. But a building cannot be avoided. It is what you see every day. It fashions your environment. You have a right to be heard if you don”t want your world altered beyond recognition.
Rowan Moore wrote recently in the Observer about the Sussex farmhouse, Hancox, in which he grew up (and where I was a sometimes guest): “A house shelters a family, but it also represents it… The rambling corridors and stairs were perfect for shoot-outs with visiting cousins.” The modernist block houses for thenouveau riche might be perfect for shoot-outs, but more likely between the private security firms who guard them and the mobs clamoring to tear them down.
When the monarchy is abolished, as I hope it will be, Westminster Council must offer Prince Charles a place on its planning committee. There, I am sure, he will do his best to spare us the excess of architectural fantasy. He could do more good there than sitting in Buckingham Palace, keeping his mouth shut and obeying politicians.