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Martin Laplante

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Sun, 23 Aug 2009

Criticizing Me Is Unconstitutional, Says Architect

Knowing the Guardian newspaper, it's not very surprising that they would jump on a story where an architect is angry at Prince Charles, but they have been at it now for over two months. Two months ago, Charles had a discussion with fellow royals from the Qatari royal family who own some land in a prime location in London, near one of Sir Christopher Wren's achitectural masterpieces. Unsurprisingly, his opinion, as always, was that in architectural heritage areas a more traditional style is appropriate. They decided he was right, and withdrew the design, much to the fury of architect Richard Rogers, who went to the newspapers demanding that the Prince be forbidden from speaking to other landowners.

In a small sample of this week's set of attacks. the Guardian again attacks Charles, this time for having spoken to another developer who wanted to build a different modernist building near a different one of Sir Christopher Wren's achitectural masterpieces. Again, they call upon constitutional arguments to silence him. Whereas the constitution guarantees the right of free expression for most people, arguably it limits this right for a few members of the royal family, and the Guardian is quite keen to use it to muzzle opposing points of view.

In this and previous cases (usually modernist high-rises adjacent to Wren buildings) Charles has never made use of his constitutional role, that is to say has not tried to intervene with the national government or its ministers. Charles himself is a landowner and property developer, and has dealt with a large number of architects. He does not dabble, he "puts his money where his mouth is" and develops properties that he owns using traditional architectural styles. These properties are quite profitable, as it turns out.

The Guardian criticizes him because Charles is in a position to wield his influence on a lot of land owned in part by the royal family. They are attacking him for his role as a landowner and developer who has undue influence on development of his own land. How socialist of them. I don't see them going after other developers for occasionally commenting in private to other developers. In this area, the prince has no actual influence. There is no penalty for ignoring him, in fact in latest case that the Guardian uncovered, the developer did exactly that and the architectural monstrosity was built.

On balance, the influence of Prince Charles has been positive. Precisely because he is not starstruck by the knighted and decorated superstars of the architectural upper class, he speaks his mind openly about those things he cares about and yet seems to studiously avoid using his constitutional role. What he uses is his occasional invitations to speak on the subject, his own land, and the charitable foundations that he has started and staffed with experts. He started talking about sustainability before it was mainstream. He looked for ways to improve density and walkability within a traditional context when everyone else thought this was old hat and before it became the rage. On the few occasions when he has come out against specific projects, they were truly dreadful and badly located. He used to do it publicly and was criticized for it. He now does it privately, and is criticized for it, or in public when he is invited to do so, and is criticized for that too. I think that starchitects just don't like to have their work questioned. And they particularly don't like losing business to upstart traditionalist architects that they have spent their student years and career belittling.

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