May 29: Charles & the Carbuncle

2016/05/29 § 1 Comment

On this day in 1984 HRH The Prince of Wales presented a brief speech at the 150th anniversary of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA).

Considering what the R in RIBA stands for, it’s not surprising that they’d invite the Prince to address their Gala Evening in celebration of the institute’s sesquicentennial.  What is surprising is What Happened Next.  No doubt they expected a nice fluffy chin wag, something like this (which is exactly how British people talk):

Rightio.  Scrummy architecture!  Cracking stonking skyscrapers.  Just Luvvly-jubbly.  Smashing!  Oy, the bleeding blinkered public.  Barmy engineers; beastly codes!   Architects take the biscuit.  Lorry, wellies, brolly, knickers, loo.  Bob’s your uncle.

Instead of being told their practice was all spiffy cricket, they got a dressing down.  Even in his easy introduction, the Prince’s speech was pretty pointed.  References to  a recently honored architect as well as his own great, great, great grandfather (the Albert who built the Crystal Palace) set up his argument to skewer a profession that had lost its way by ignoring the interests of “ordinary people” to seek the “approval of fellow architects and critics.”  This suggestion may have raised a few eyebrows, but no doubt his charge that architects and planners were deluded by the idea that only they had a “monopoly of knowing best about taste, style and planning” no doubt prompted many a monocle to be vigorously polished and repositioned and more than a few “harumphs” and “I say!s” to erupt around the room.

Bluster turned to blister as the Prince narrowed the laser of his ire on one specific project.  The proposed addition to the National Gallery by a modernist firm had already met public disdain (amidst professional approval); it inspired the PRince to turn the most marvelous and memorable phrase of the evening, one that echoed from the RIBA event in London throughout the architectural community in Europe, America and beyond:

Instead of designing an extension to the elegant facade of the National Gallery which complements it and continues the concept of columns and domes, it looks as if we may be presented with a kind of municipal fire station, complete with the sort of tower that contains the siren. . . . What is proposed is like a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend.

We need more architectural criticism like that: sharp and to the point, shockingly descriptive, in an effectively grotesque manner (if you don’t know what a carbuncle is, well, Google Images will help you out there–but the Muse warns you to avoid doing so until after you’ve eaten).  The Prince’s now (in)famous Carbuncle speech served an important purpose, putting a big pin in the map at the height of enthusiasm for Post Modernism–the fact that Robert Venturi would be chosen to complete this prominent British monument still leaves us gobsmacked.  But we know the Prince was not calling for that kind of winking, ironic historicizing architecture, but rather a return to the real deal: Neo-Traditionalism, which (with a significant preservation effort) he has championed with great vigor.

Although Prince Charles is no friend to Modernists, and has even offended some traditionalists in the Ruskinian vein (click to read about the kerfuffle with SPAB), the Muse delights in public figures who use their podia for the sake of architecture.  Even when they might not quite get it right, they oftentimes succeeded in at least getting people talking.  At best, they get people building better.

Text of the whole speech on the Prince’s website

Image: HRH the Prince of Wales at Poundbury, the New Urbanist city he helped to found (from this source)

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