A British-American bluestocking living in the UK writes about politics, pop culture, and emerging new paradigms as they unfold on both sides of the Atlantic. (New content.)

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Traditional Prince Battling Modernists....Still

I make no bones about the fact that I abhorred the treatment that the Princess of Wales received when she was married to the Prince of Wales. His clandestine affair not only scarred the Princess, but its consequences ripped the House of Windsor wide open. The secrets and lies told to a young woman who had been raised on Barbara Cartland novels and expected her own happy ending was ever so orchestrated. Why he did not have the fortitude to simply get off his duff and ask Camilla Rosemary Shand to marry him at the outset was a bit cavalier and some say, cowardly. Unfortunately, a lot of British men (and most Australian men) are stuck in adolescence when it comes to relationships and treating women with respect. British women deserve better. No wonder they are trawling the internet to find American men. But that is for a different blog entry entirely. On to the subject at hand...

I am absolutely in the Prince's corner when it comes to the way he supports and champions British-made goods, his quest for buying locally and his love for organic farming. He has tirelessly worked for these causes. He has also stood firm in his desire to preserve, protect and restore the architecture of this big island. His address to the RIBA (Royal Institute of British Architects) many years ago sparked controversy as he lambasted them for not respecting the traditional buildings calling the modernist addition to the National Gallery a "monstrous carbuncle". This candid, impassioned speech rattled many a Corbusier chair. It was so upsetting to the RIBA that they did not ask him back to speak...well, until this year, that is. And he was still adamant about his views on architecture. I applaud his unyielding stance.

Today, I received my 1913 catalogue of American arts and crafts homes. The catalogue is a reprint of home design in 1913. They don't make them like that anymore. I am an ardent fan of early 20th century American architecture and residential homes in particular. The arts and crafts movement was based on honoring the hand-made rather than the mass-produced. On a visit to my hometown a few months ago, I was appalled to see the condition of old homes that had been left to deteriorate in favor of the sprawling suburbs of "McMansions" that are dotting the landscape and blighting the countryside. Meanwhile, the rich architecture of the old flourishing neighborhoods are being cut up into flats or simply bulldozed for the "new" and not always attractive. History is being lost in America thorough its quest for the bigger, the better, the sleeker. And so it is here in Britain.

So, in today's newspaper, I thought it was serendipitous that one of the lead stories was about Prince Charles' opposition to the massive glass and chrome Chelsea Barracks project that Lord Rogers is keen to add to his portfolio of sleek, modern buildings. The proposed 3 billion dollar project was going to be put smack in the center in a neighborhood of traditional houses. Understandably, the Prince was not pleased.

The Prince of Wales penned a letter expressing his opposition to Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabr al Thani, a notable in the Qatari royal family who is bankrolling the project. Apparently, the Prince's plea was heard as the Qataris pulled the plug, sacked Lord Rogers and decided to go with another plan. To say that Rogers was incensed is an understatement.
Lord Rogers has now come forward and demanded a public inquiry into the constitutional rights of the Prince of Wales to interfere in the project. He went on to say that the Prince was not a "man of the people" but only a man of the "rich people."

Rogers seemed to have forgotten that he, too, had done something similar in writing an e-mail to then Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott to coax him into denying the addition to the Royal Infirmary in Chelsea that had been designed by his rival, Quinlan Terry. Rogers wanted "modern" saying that Quinlan's designs were plagiarizing Wren's. (Is it plagiarizing when one wants to integrate a new addition seamlessly into the original? I think not.)

It's basically an amusing argument as Lord Rogers is a multi-millionaire whose Chelsea Barracks project would contain flats that would be priced at £10 million pounds and up. His "affordable housing" was to be separated by parkland from his large carbuncle of glass and steel. Council flats for the "people" he was not designing.His building was to go right up next to the timeless design of Sir Christopher Wren's lovely Royal Hospital. This would compromise the aesthetics of the neighborhood entirely.

Rogers has little use for traditional building and the preservation of the old. In his own home, he apparently gutted two Georgian homes of all their hand-crafted interiors, cut through the ceilings and opened up the space to serve his stainless steel and minimalist taste.

Britain is dotted with "modernist" buildings that are supposed to indicate "progress". You see these in the hundreds of council estates made up of little boxes side by side by side. They are ugly and tend to want to homogenize people so that they are crammed like sardines into small spaces. One wonders if this is what has contributed to the sense of apathy and crime in these areas. They are absolutely soulless enclosures. They are reminiscent of the towerblocks of the Eastern bloc socialists. But they are found everywhere in Britain. Cheap to construct, they are just boxes on boxes with windows looking out on more concrete. Rudolf Steiner , a metaphysician in the early 20th century talked about how nothing in nature is angular. All of nature is curved and that when we surround ourselves with to many rigid angles, our very essence is not able to function to its highest intent. If we think of Chartres or any cathedral built so that its ceilings could help us to aspire heavenward, then we can understand the true meaning of glorious, soul-nourishing architecture.

More than that, all the modernists have had their way in most towns and planning commissions in Britain. Square glass and steel blocks have been erected in even the smallest towns with no respect for the local architecture or landscape. It is quite jarring to see a big glass curved monster next to a 12th century cathedral. Granted, it is cheaper to build a block with glass than to build something that is more imaginative and integral to the landscape. But not always. Many times, these glass and steel enclosures are just as, if not more expensive. Unfortunately, sometimes the clueless councils are swayed by their own lack of knowledge and desire to "keep up appearances" . Some architect who has been trained at the Fa-fa-fa School of the Lofty La-la-la brings his even loftier and strange concept to show to a town council. The well-meaning council (who is too intimidated to show that it is clueless about architecture) is bowled over and the next thing you know...some horrid structure that is supposed to be "art" is now looming over the 16th century coaching inn in the town square. "But it is so....incredibly expensive and Mr Ba-Ba-Ba of the Fa-Fa-Fa School said it was exactly what a town like ours needed...." Oh, rah-rah-rah to the Fa-Fa-Fa...and their Le-Le-Lemming followers! And another blight of a building is left to fester in a once lovely town.

The Prince, alas, seems to be one of the only voices in Britain who is speaking out against the bastardization of the city via "modernist" architecture. He is called "loony" and "crazy" and every name in the book for his outspoken views. But, honestly, he is speaking for a lot of people who do care about the historical importance of the neighborhood where neighbors were indeed neighborly and not packed into huge square boxes. He is speaking for the design of buildings that do not take away from the rich architecture of our ancient cities. He is speaking for the British people who still take pride in their heritage. And most of all, he is speaking for the future of Great Britain.

The idea that he has no right to voice his opinion and more than that, champion his opinions, especially when they are clearly for the betterment of the country is absurd and the attacks on him are really mean-spirited. Is he supposed to be silent? Now that would be unconstitutional and more than that, unconscionable. He is, quite possibly, going to be the next King of England. Wouldn't a good king care about the welfare of his subjects and the future of his country?
Our recent Prime Ministers haven't given a whit about preserving the nation's gifts and heritage. If not Prince Charles, then who?

His personal life has certainly not been sterling, but his quest for the preservation and protection of this great land is to be commended. He is up against some vociferous idiots. He deserves our full support on this one.