Prince Charles's Spat With Architect Stokes Public Debate Over Monarchy's Role

By Karla Adam
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, June 25, 2009

LONDON -- In modern Britain, where the monarchy's role has been trimmed and hacked back to largely ceremonial duties, the job of prince is not supposed to come with power. But in a recent public spat with an eminent architect, Prince Charles proved that royal opinion can still carry startling -- and controversial -- weight.

The battle between the outspoken heir to the British throne and Richard Rogers, the Pritzker Prize-winning architect of such iconic buildings as the Pompidou Center in Paris and the Millennium Dome in London, centered on an ultra-modernist design by Rogers's firm for the redevelopment of a former army barracks in West London.

Qatari Diar, the investment arm of Qatar's royal family, which owns the site, had plans for a multibillion-dollar housing project and favored Rogers as the architect. But at some point, according to British news reports, Prince Charles sent the Qatari ruler a letter suggesting -- royal to royal -- that the family consider a more traditional design.

On June 12, Rogers was dropped. A statement issued on behalf of Qatari Diar said, "There are differing views from various other quarters." In a possible hint as to the source of those views, it added, "We are already in discussion with The Prince's Foundation for the Built Environment."

The scuttling of the project led Rogers to call for an official inquiry into the powers of the prince, whose behavior he has called "unacceptable" and "totally unconstitutional." It has also sparked a broader public debate between royalists and republicans on the role of the monarchy, and of the prince of Wales in particular, in the 21st century.

Prince Charles is different from his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, whose quiet, stoic manner ensures that if she has opinions, it is not clear what they are. The prince has well-known, frequently expressed views on many issues -- not just architecture, but also genetically modified foods, the teaching of Shakespeare in schools, organic gardening, long-term unemployment, deforestation, salmon fishing and homeopathic medicine.

In the months since he is thought to have written to the Qatari emir, the prince has rallied to the defense of Britain's dwindling red squirrel population, launched a video denouncing deforestation alongside an array of celebrities and an animated frog, and hosted a summit in London for Nobel laureates and climate change experts.

But this latest intervention has sparked more outrage than most.

Ten prominent architects, including Norman Foster and Frank Gehry, signed a public letter in April accusing Prince Charles of abusing his royal position in the matter.

"Private comments and behind the scenes lobbying by the prince should not be used to skew the course of an open and democratic planning process," they wrote.

In an editorial last week, the Times likened the prince to "Charles Bronson in 'Death Wish,' a self-appointed vigilante wreaking revenge on any proposal to build a column of glass and steel." The paper lamented the loss for London -- where Rogers is known for landmark structures such as the Lloyd's building, with its exterior pipes and fittings -- and questioned the unelected prince's authority: "It takes courage for an architect to stand up to the monarch-in-waiting. But in an enlightened modern democracy, should one be put into a position to have to do so?"

Not everyone thinks Prince Charles was out of line. "As so often, it is the Prince who is articulating the concerns of the general public, so he should feel free to carry on speaking his mind," opined the Daily Express, a populist tabloid.

In an editorial Friday, the Financial Times said that although Prince Charles should have voiced his objections sooner, "instead of using the royal pigeon post," he "should certainly not be asked to shut up."

The BBC News Web site jumped into the fray with the question, "Should the power of the Royals be re-examined?" Within two days, 1,605 people had responded. Some argued that Prince Charles's role should be essentially that of a mannequin, wheeled in and out for official events only. Others said that the prince has the same rights to free speech as anyone else.

As the debate rumbles on, it seems unlikely that anyone, even exasperated architects, will muzzle the prince anytime soon.

Last month, Prince Charles told a group of architects, "In another 25 years, I shall very likely have shuffled off this mortal coil, and so those of you who do worry about my inconvenient interferences won't have to do so anymore."

Then, with a little smile, he added: "Unless, of course, they prove to be hereditary."

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