TOM ACTON reviews Prince Charles' A Vision of Britain
"Above all it seems to me that we have suffered too long from the imposition of a kind of non-descript, mediocre, synthetic, international style of architecture which is found everywhere – from Riyadh to Rangoon. Our own heritage of regional styles and individual characteristics has been eaten away by this creeping cancer, and I would suggest that the time is ripe to rediscover the extraordinary richness of our architectural past, as well as the basic principles which allowed our much loved-towns and villages to develop as they did.”
HRH The Prince of Wales 'A Vision of Britain'
AT THE MENTION of the name Prince Charles the hackles of the average Nationalist start to rise, I suspect. Is he not the wimpy face of ethno-masochistic liberal internationalism? A 'Prince of Wales' who might be better termed the 'Prince of the West Indies', as he appears to take a greater interest in the dusky denizens of our Inner Cities, than he does of the people of the Principality?
Such was the opinion of this reviewer: thus when A Vision for Britain, Prince Charles' personal view of the state of contemporary architecture, first hit the bookstands I didn't exactly rush to buy my copy. Only later, when it was collecting dust on the remaindered shelves, did I see what he had to say.
To my amazement it's really rather good; thought-provoking not only on the subject of architecture, but also regarding the curious character of HRH, the Prince of Wales, our future Head of State.
So what is A Vision of Britain about? What does it have to say? Briefly it falls into three sections: firstly a lamentation of the destruction done to so many British cities, by so-called 'modernist' architecture; destruction done not only in the Fifties and Sixties, but continuing today. Even though the architectural profession may coyly hide behind euphemisms such as 'post-modernist' the same attitudes and principles still prevail, as Prince Charles rightly points out.
Secondly ten principles are suggested, which if implemented, would radically alter the quality of our built environment, thus, HRH cogently argues, enhancing the quality of life of all of us.
Lastly examples are given of the sort of architecture that HRH would like to see – architecture that would give us homes, rather than dwelling units, communities, rather than grim housing estates. Overall the book is impressively illustrated – the many drawings, photographs and paintings in it are well selected, and greatly enhance the text.
WRITTEN FROM THE HEART
Whether you like or loathe Prince Charles, whether you agree or disagree with his views on architecture one thing must be granted about A Vision of Britain – it is written from the heart, and clearly represents what Prince Charles genuinely feels.
And what Prince Charles feels about architecture is, clearly, remarkably akin to the feelings of many a Nationalist on the subject. As the above quote indicates HRH inveighs against the internationalism of 'modernist' architecture, which denies each people their own unique, vernacular architectural heritage, and instead imposes the same bland uniformity on all.
Prince Charles description of the destruction of London by an amalgam of architects, planners and developers sums up his feelings: "The London that slowly evolved after the great fire took more than three hundred years to build. It took about fifteen years to destroy." "There is no need for London to ape Manhattan. We already possessed a skyline. They had to create one." Some of the worst atrocities come in for a right Royal drubbing: "The National Theatre seems like a clever way of building a nuclear power station in the middle of London without anyone objecting" and "How amazing to think this excresence, Mondial House, passed through any kind of planning process. Do humans work in there?"
London, of course, has not been the only disaster area in British(sic) architecture. The planning disaster of Birmingham's Bull Ring is also deftly described: "Birmingham's city centre became a monstrous concrete maze where only cars felt at home. People were bound to feel lost. Cars were placed above people and people were placed one above another on concrete shelves".
But it is not just Prince Charles's specifically architectural criticisms and suggestions that many Nationalists will find themselves in harmony with. Consider also Prince Charles' views on the role of tradition within society: as he puts it in his introduction "I believe that when a man loses contact with the past he loses his soul. Likewise, if we deny the architectural past – and the lessons to be learnt from our ancestors – then our buildings also lose their souls. If we abandon the traditional principles upon which architecture was based for 2,500 years or more, then our civilisation suffers. Our lives may be dominated by contemporary forms of sophisticated technology, but we are also the heirs of something far greater. Deep down in our subconscious an uneasy feeling persists that there is something missing if we sacrifice ourselves on the altar of progress, and live and work in buildings which only reflect the technology of the moment." As he rightly concludes "Tradition need not rule out progress" – a principle that has applications beyond the field of architecture.
Although Royalty customarily tries to keep itself out of political controversy, it is difficult on a subject such as architecture, which affects all our everyday lives, not to let politics creep in.
Thus on the one hand, Prince Charles writes "the vast, fortress-like Quarry Hill flats in Leeds, opened in 1938, were inspired by the heroic associations of the Karl Marx Hof . . in Vienna". Do I detect a note of satisfaction when HRH notes that these flats were "demolished in 1978"?
On the other hand Prince Charles recalls a speech he made, at Mansion House in 1987, when he asked of the assembled leaders of Capitalism in Britain that "Surely here ... was the time and place to sacrifice some profit, if need be, for generosity of vision, for elegance, for dignity; for buildings which would raise our spirits and our faith in commercial enterprise, and prove that capitalism can have a human face". Their negative response to this request is euphemistically described as an "interesting row".
Fascinatingly there are hints that the Prince leans towards both Distributist and decentralist, ruralist concepts. The quote "We are the people of England, that have never spoken yet" from G.K. Chesterton perhaps indicates where some of Prince Charles's influences have come from.
One of the principles suggested for improving architectural standards is that buildings should be made, where possible, from local materials: “Let where it is be what it is made of.” The use of concrete, plastic cladding, machine made bricks, etc from centralised production sources has brought a bland uniformity to our buildings - "We can no longer tell where we are".
Instead, argues Prince Charles, "Britain has to revive and nurture its rural and individual urban characteristics, based upon local materials. Perhaps there is even a case for re-opening some of our great stone quarries. This will in time engender an economic revival which is not dependent on centralised industries, but which is locally based".
In short, Prince Charles argues much the same case, on an architectural level, as Nationalists would argue on a political and economic level. His analysis of the causes for the domination by the modernist school of the contemporary architectural scene is also of interest, and has some obvious parallels in other fields.
Firstly 'modernist' architects have a self-perpetuating stranglehold over the profession; they dominate RIBA and other bodies, they are the focus of much uncritical attention from the media, and they control the curriculum for the training of new architects. Thus the self-righteous and know-all architectural establishment can indoctrinate each new generation with the idea that there is only one correct way of doing things – their way!
Secondly there is the economic imperative – the pressures from vested financial interests towards bland, cosmopolitan uniformity – the culture of the lowest common denominator that will make the quickest buck. To quote Prince Charles "The further I delve into the shadowy world of architecture, planning and property the more I become aware of the powerful influence of various interest groups".
One doesn't have to be a genius to spot the political parallel – a self-righteous know-all Establishment, which demands unquestioning obedience to 'liberal consensus' ideology and the financial clout of international capitalism hungry for global profit maximisation combine to make internationalism, multiracialism and materialism the dominant creeds of our time.
There has, of course, to be a catch to Prince Charles' vision – and there is. Outside his beloved field of architecture, where Prince Charles has thought out his own opinions and has had the courage to express them, HRH lapses back into an unthinking liberal orthodoxy. Thus we have the obligatory picture of the Prince of Wales symbolically building a wall with a smiling West Indian bricklayer. ("No really, this isn't a staged photo – I always wear a smart shirt and tie when I'm bricklaying...")
More significant are his closing platitudes on "Western arrogance" and the need to "in all humility learn from our Third World neighbours". This is surely just another variant on the familiar liberal whine 'Whitey is always to blame' and it is wholly at variance with the rest of his book, which stressed the threat to our European architectural heritage from a cultural cosmopolitan blandness. The 'Western World', far from being to blame, is surely the first victim of the phenomena he rightly complains of.
Prince Charles no doubt has good intentions when he promotes multi-racialism, just as he has good intentions in the architectural field. But good intentions without wisdom are not enough – they may, or may not, pave the way to Hell, but they certainly cause confusion.
Can Prince Charles explain how he can, so eloquently, argue against the imposition of bland, sterile international conformity in architecture, while accepting the political processes leading to the reduction of humanity to a deracinated, standardised mass?
Would HRH please explain why he is so keen to preserve the local character of our towns and villages by using local materials – "stone in Northamptonshire, timber in Hertfordshire, cob in Devon, flint in the Sussex Downs, brick in Nottinghamshire." – if the people in these towns come from every corner of the globe?
Are we to believe, Your Highness, that a town in Nottinghamshire will have preserved its character, built on its folk traditions, even if it be largely inhabited by Pakistanis, if it is built from the local brick?
What, Prince Charles, is the point in having A Vision for Britain if there are no British left anyway? I only ask because I'd like to know.
Perhaps we shouldn't be too hard on HRH. The last thing the Establishment needs is someone who – because of accidents of history and birth beyond their control – will become our Head of State, actually thinking for himself. Who knows what harm to the status quo some maverick Royal utterances might do?
Thus Prince Charles, from an early age, has been taught not to rock the boat; rather to 'do good' according to the accepted canons of right and wrong – and as a well-intentioned person this is exactly what he has done.
To conclude: when the Prince of Wales doesn't think for himself, when he simply follows the line of political orthodoxy, he is capable of expressing opinions and beliefs as inane, at best, and as destructive of nationhood, at worst, as any Establishment politician.
Yet when he thinks for himself, when he escapes from the shackles, as it were, on a subject close to his heart, he is fundamentally sound – building on Britain's traditions to create a land to be proud of. A deep-rooted sense of pride in identity, local and national, shines through.
Perhaps our future King is all too like his future subjects. Would that they thought more for themselves too...