It may have been the rail enthusiasts’ version of an urban myth: that Prince Charles, at the opening of Croydon Tramlink, approached the driver, took one hand out of its pocket, pointed characteristically, and asked “So what is it that you do, then?”
The heir to the throne gets his fair share of stick. But his speeches and comments provoke controversy, and more importantly, he forces others to think. And on one subject – architecture - he exercises others’ grey matter significantly. Charles has notable previous on architectural matters: significantly, his 1984 speech to the Royal Institute of British Architects (Riba), when he described a proposed extension to the National Gallery as “like a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved friend”. The scheme was later rejected, which hardly endeared Charles to the profession.
Now, he’s at it again, as the Guardian has noted. Charles has intervened over a scheme to redevelop the site of the former Chelsea barracks. Further, he’s giving a speech to – guess who – Riba, tomorrow. Some of the architectural snobberati have called for a boycott of the speech, but as the event has already sold out, they may not be missed. One wonders why, if they’re so certain of their ground, they can’t take what may be a measure of sincerely held criticism.
Like Charles, I find some modern architecture quite dreadful: a look across the skyline of Manchester nowadays reveals the hideous Beetham Tower, and there are more high rises to come. Similarly in London, where there are a number of towers set to redefine the view across the City. But the approach is different in some mainland European countries.
Paris features modern architecture, but much of it is concentrated in its own areas, such as La Défense – well away from the historic centre. There is also the clever extension to the Louvre, with the strikingly modern “glass pyramid” working because it does not stop the viewer seeing through to the original building.
Having an area of modern architecture has also been a success in Valencia, where the City of Arts and Sciences, with the Palau de les Arts Reina Sofia as the centrepiece, is one of the city’s best known, and most visited, sights. Madrid, too, has some modern, but out of the centre: visible from many miles away are the four Chamartín towers.
Of course, London also has its modern area out of the centre – Docklands. But this, for some, is not enough: modern has to come to the City. On this, I predict there will be continuing controversy. And Prince Charles, love or hate him, will be in the thick of it. The architects may not like it, but someone has to make them think through what is being proposed.
And consider this: all of us, not just the architects, have to live with the result.