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 princeofwales.gov.uk. So are images of his model village, Poundbury, an idyllic neo-Georgian suburb in Dorset, which is a new-urbanist cousin of Kentlands in Montgomery County. Both are unabashedly backward at a sparklingly progressive moment in design. That's not all bad.
"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."
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.