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Charles in Charge

Prince Charles with Leon Krier, left, and Andrew Hamilton in 1999 as they considered plans for the new-urbanist village Poundbury. Below, London's National Gallery sports a wing in keeping with Charles's values -- after he lambasted an earlier, modernist design.
Prince Charles with Leon Krier, left, and Andrew Hamilton in 1999 as they considered plans for the new-urbanist village Poundbury. Below, London's National Gallery sports a wing in keeping with Charles's values -- after he lambasted an earlier, modernist design. (Tim Graham Picture Library Via Associated Press)

Whatever tie Charles chooses to wear on Thursday, architecture has passed through the ungainly years. The new urbanists, a growing band of traditionalists with which Charles and the Scully awardees are in sympathy, have looked backward for gentler inspiration, with success.

Others, notably Londoners Norman Foster, Richard Rogers and Zaha Hadid, are flourishing at the cutting edge. Their often stunning vocabulary comes from modern materials and new technologies. Foster's innovative new office tower, 30 St Mary Axe, is radial in form and environmentally attuned at every level. The building's form is already as iconic as the dome of Christopher Wren's St. Paul's Cathedral. (Foster's more modest glass canopy for the Old Patent Office Building won't compete with the Capitol, but it promises to give Washington a lift.)

The prince could not stop progress. But his acid critiques, reprinted around the world, deserve credit for focusing attention and raising expectations. There hasn't been another charge of carbuncle in 21 years.

In June, the prince took a softer tone at an Urban Land Institute conference on cities. By video, he urged designers to create "coherent, vital and humane places." Poundbury is his own experiment in humane design.

The village was laid out by Leon Krier, the European theorist who inspired Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, the Kentlands designers and previous Scully prize winners. So far, a thousand residents occupy neat, densely packed houses with regulation white trim, balustrades and chimney pots. There are no unsightly signs, wires or yellow traffic lines to betray the chaos and electricity of modern life. There is a pub, the Poet Laureate, and a store selling Aga cast-iron cookers. Recently, graffiti splashed the quaint environment with contemporary angst. Residents have balked at adding affordable housing. And at Easter, the vicar had to call for a truce between residents of the adjoining city of Dorchester and tony Poundbury to quell a burgeoning class war.

The prescription for neo-traditional town planning is one to which Vincent Scully, the prize's namesake, also subscribes. It is the only antidote on the horizon to America's dubious design export: urban sprawl. Cul-de-sacs, strip malls and office parks designed for automobile traffic have turned outlying areas into emotional voids. New urbanism has approached the problem with old-fashioned street grids and mandated design details. The prince, who issued "10 commandments" of design, is firmly in that camp.

Venturi is not. He plans to be in the audience when the prince receives his award, and declined to comment on Poundbury. He has no alternative concept, but like many, he worries that old-fashioned town planning "doesn't really accommodate the automobile. . . . I'm not sympathetic with that."

On the 20th anniversary of the prince's carbuncle speech, Jonathan Glancey of the Guardian expressed concern about the evils of sprawl. He suggested the prince embark on a new campaign to stop Britain "from being smothered in cornball American business parks, the New Jersey-style developments that rip along the Thames estuary, the banal new housing estates."

The prince has yet to take up that transatlantic cause. But Americans consigned to such environments would benefit from some highly placed outrage.


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