Charles in Charge
Saturday, October 29, 2005
There has been nothing like modern architecture to throw Prince Charles into a royal fit of pique.
His first major critique, in 1984, lambasted a proposed extension to London's National Gallery as a "monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend." The designer was fired, the project beheaded and "carbuncle" became the "doomsday" of design.
The prince, who will receive the Vincent Scully Prize for architecture and urban design Thursday at the National Building Museum, has advocated a return to finer traditions --chiefly the 18th and 19th centuries -- ever since.
In lectures and writings, he has railed against "the sheer unadulterated ugliness" of contemporary buildings and challenged the architectural establishment's right to inflict its taste -- largely Bauhaus-inspired brutalism -- on the populace. He defeated a skyscraper project designed by Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, the modernist master, by calling it a "giant glass stump." More controversial was his suggestion that the Luftwaffe did less damage to London during the Blitz than the postwar builders who followed.
The prince's campaign for better buildings, as he defines them, is preserved at http:/
"It's conservative," says Robert A.M. Stern, dean of the Yale School of Architecture and a member of the Scully prize jury, "but I don't believe 'conservative' is being old, deliberately reactionary or even nostalgic. The words 'conservative' and 'conservation' are very close to each other."
Conserving the best practices of the past and adapting them to new conditions "is one of the highest responsibilities of architects and planners," Stern added.
The prince's nostalgic yearnings have been lampooned in the British press. But his barbs put architecture's elite on notice: Mediocrity is not good enough.
Stern describes the 1960s and '70s as architecture's "teenage tantrum" phase. He says the prince was right to react:
"Every new building had to be at the expense of its surroundings. He called all that into question."
The carbuncle attack resulted in a new competition for the National Gallery wing. Americans Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown, who are also Scully Prize winners, emerged victorious with a mannerist design that infuses history with attitude. The facade is limestone, like the 1830s original, and decorated with identical pilasters. But the new columns are arranged in an ersatz rhythm, like a burst of jazz at the end of a minuet. (Venturi says he used a mannerist approach for a new library at Dumbarton Oaks.)
"It is important that harmony can derive from contrast and analogy," he says by phone this week. "You can wear a gray suit with a gray necktie, or a gray suit with a red necktie. The wing is a gray necktie with red stripes."