THE ARCHITECTURAL CONTRIBUTIONS OF H. R. H. CHARLES, THE PRINCE OF WALES.
A personal view by Dr. Nikos A. Salingaros.

© Nikos Salingaros, 1998, 2002, 2005.

 

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The Prince's role in architectural history.

In my opinion, the key figures that will influence the architecture of the twenty-first century include the architects Christopher Alexander and Léon Krier, and Charles, the Prince of Wales. The first two are universally regarded as architectural visionaries, even though mainstream architects so far have chosen not to apply their ideas and results. The third has been viciously attacked by the architectural profession for his ideas. Because of his delicate political position, Prince Charles has been extremely courageous in standing by what he believes in. His contribution is the more surprising, coming as it does from outside architecture altogether. Nevertheless, it is more profound than most architectural statements of our time.

Initiating the architectural debate.

Charles's involvement started with a speech given to the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) in 1984, on the 150th anniversary of the founding of the RIBA. The Prince dared to do the unthinkable: to criticize modernist and post-modernist architecture for the damage it has done to the built environment; and he did this in front of the RIBA. He was subsequently crucified by the architectural press, and the architectural establishment launched an all-out campaign to discredit him. Although somewhat toned-down in recent years, negative comments on the Prince's opinions continue to this day. Not one to back down, he followed this beginning with a series of speeches; one of the most memorable being the Mansion House Speech, delivered in 1987.

In an article appropriately entitled "God Save the Prince!" Léon Krier defended Prince Charles against the negative reactions of British architects. Krier talks about the restoration of the Paternoster neighborhood, next to Saint Paul's in the City of London and, backed by figures, demonstrates the accuracy of the Prince's assertions.

The Prince created a television documentary with the BBC entitled A Vision of Britain, which has received wide praise. He subsequently published his ideas in a book of the same title. His book A Vision of Britain offers a vision of a built environment that is once again connected to the human spirit, something that our age has lost completely. It opposes the twentieth century's nihilism, and its imposition of an inhuman environment on people. Our society has allowed this to happen in order to glorify the warped ideas of certain architects. The Prince's book, which should be an obligatory text in every architecture school, is ignored by the universities. Nevertheless, Christopher Alexander has praised it in the highest possible terms, calling it A Watershed in the History of Architecture.

The importance of the Prince's ideas.

Charles's conclusions regarding architecture and design are essential in understanding how far we have departed from a creative architecture in the last few decades. They are the product of a very sensitive observer of how the environment interacts and influences human beings. Everyone, and architecture students in particular, should read his speeches and study his book thoroughly.

  • Charles, Prince of Wales, "Speeches on Architecture", in: The Prince, the Architects, and New Wave Monarchy. Edited by Charles Jencks (New York: Rizzoli, 1988) pages 43-50.
  • The Prince of Wales Web page: Speeches and Articles on Architecture.
  • Charles, Prince of Wales, A Vision of Britain: A Personal View of Architecture (London: Doubleday, 1989).

To help architects who might wish to apply the Prince's architectural ideas, His Royal Highness has summarized the main points into Ten Principles:

  1. The Place
  2. Hierarchy
  3. Scale
  4. Harmony
  5. Enclosure
  6. Materials
  7. Decoration
  8. Art
  9. Signs & Lights
  10. Community

They are described in detail by Ecopolis Architects, an Australian organization. Many people instinctively recognize the timeless and universal validity of these principles, which is why Charles is fervently supported by non-architects.

The Prince of Wales's Foundation.

To put his ideas into practice, Charles founded an architecture school in London. The Prince of Wales's Institute of Architecture sought to offer, perhaps for the first time since before the Second World War, the pieces torn out of traditionally comprehensive architectural education. In the face of entrenched opposition from the architectural establishment, the only hope for a new architecture clearly lies in the future, so it is imperative to start training those architects today. An important feature is the adjoining of an Islamic design institute, in one of the few instances that the potential contributions of the Islamic civilizations to contemporary architecture has been acknowledged in the West.

The school became embroiled in the British architectural debate, and was identified as a backward-looking stronghold of conservatism. I believe this criticism to be incorrect; however, as a result the school did not become the magnet for new students that it originally promised. It was regarded with condescension by other architecture schools because it refused to support modernist dogma. This assessment is a sad reflection on society (and not on the Institute), because people apparently need a flashy cult buildings to focus on.

I recently attended the first reunion of graduates from the Prince of Wales's Institute. All the people I talked to knew what is happening in contemporary architecture, and most are active in architectural firms. The difference from other young architects, however, was striking. I was able to talk about a wide range of great buildings and towns, and there was communication without condescension. The majority of these people took only one course at the Institute, finishing their architecture degree in an approved program elsewhere. Yet I sensed an enormous difference in their outlook, for they are actively seeking to make their present work responsive to human beings.

Poundbury.

The Prince has made available some of his inherited land in the South of England, near Dorchester, for an innovative urban development. A group of about 150 houses has been built to a master plan by Léon Krier. Each building is designed by a different architect. There is no prevailing style, but rather strict guidelines to make sure of cohesion. All units are occupied, and, according to British law, 25% of the residences are set aside for subsidized housing. The beauty of Poundbury from the social point of view is that one cannot distinguish the house of an unemployed family from that of a wealthy homeowner.

Léon Krier has provided a masterful example of urban design. The village looks and feels friendly. It is small scale, accommodates both pedestrians and cars, and connects to two existing factories on the site. While I found fault with the path structure, that is due to not building commercial nodes quickly enough. Mathematically, one needs to create the paths linking complementary nodes such as stores to houses, while the village is growing. For commercial reasons, however, the house clusters are only now becoming numerous enough to support stores. This is a delicate balance of priorities that will eventually be solved when the project evolves beyond a certain critical size.

Writing for the American Planning Association, Carolyn Torma describes Poundbury, and details what makes it so attractive as a model for urban development in the New Millennium.

In building Poundbury, which is a commercial success on its own, the Prince of Wales has demonstrated to the world that it is possible to create a human environment today, using contemporary materials. This should provide an example of human-scale urbanism to be followed the world over. I have read numerous criticisms in the architectural press; I also have been told (not by the Prince's supporters, but by persons in the architectural community) that its fiercest critics have changed their minds after they visited the site itself. This is another way the Prince is applying his ideas quietly, and may yet make a significant impact on the built environment of the new millennium.

Speech on tall buildings.

On December 11, 2001, Prince Charles gave a speech at the Invensys Conference, London, on the future of skyscrapers. The events of September 11 opened up a serious debate about the future of tall buildings. Two items published soon after the World Trade Center disaster: "The End of Tall Buildings", followed by "The Future of Cities: The Absurdity of Modernism" questioned the very survival of the tall utilitarian skyscraper as a building typology. Now Charles expresses his own very strong opinions on the matter, throwing his considerable weight behind those who call for a re-examination of the skyscraper. While not referring directly to the previous articles, the Prince of Wales clearly sides with the New Urbanist opinions of what constitutes healthy urban form.

Obstacles to changing the current architectural environment.

It is difficult for the Prince's architectural ideas to have an impact in today's polarized climate. The reason is that architectural theory as taught today forbids a critical comparison between what works and what doesn't work. It also turns its back on what has worked in the past, condemning it as "non-innovative".

The Prince's critics accuse him of being a romantic and of having conservative tastes. That is false. They protest that his ideas favor a Classical style, which misrepresents the Prince's views. He has noticed the features that connect traditional buildings of all ages and cultures to human beings, and has codified them. Furthermore, he sees that contemporary buildings lack those features, sometimes as an oversight, but most often by design. The fact that his Ten Principles are satisfied by many traditional buildings does not preclude them from being used to help design totally new buildings. It is just that very few buildings have been built in our times that give the same pleasure as traditional buildings. Contemporary architecture works against psychological pleasure and comfort.

There is a serious obstacle in communicating this to those who are in the best position to change it. Contemporary architectural thought is very narrowly focused on images, archetypal forms, intellectual games at the cost of user accommodation, and an irrational insistence on "high-tech" materials. All of these concepts are largely superficial. The training of architects does not include learning any analytical methods, although this was never so until late in this century. That is the reason why architects today have such a hard time conceptualizing structures in terms of their underlying organizational principles. At present, trying to discuss architectural laws with architects inevitably leads to controversy.

An unfortunate set-back.

Charles suffered a temporary setback because architecture is still in a prescientific stage. In that context, all architectural theories are a matter of personal preference, and in Orwellian fashion, the one with the strongest political support suppresses all the others. But this is totalitarian: the laws of architecture are universal, and cannot be made up arbitrarily. They permit an infinite variety of different styles that establish a human connection, though there is also an infinity of styles that thwart it. Charles calls for a human architecture; in no particular style.

Charles enjoys enormous public support, and his ideas resonate with ordinary people's assessment of what's good and bad in the built environment. He expresses what every sensitive human being feels is wrong with twentieth-century architecture. If architectural patronage were a truly democratic system, then there would be no debate at all: the Prince's ideas would now be in use all over the world to create a human environment. Unfortunately, the power to make architectural choices is still entangled with vested interests and proximity to legislators. These are influenced by famous architects who are pushing their own agenda.

The debate took a turn for the worse -- at least in England -- because it instantly became politicized. Richard Rogers led the attack from the left, unfairly claiming that the Prince was against all progressive architecture. Worst of all was Rogers's claim that Charles was constitutionally forbidden from expressing his opinions. Somewhat damaging was that people on the Prince's side included political conservatives who indeed were against architectural innovation; but then the Prince also received wide support from all ranges of the political spectrum. In a country with a centuries-old split between conservatives and progressives, however, all of this obscured the architectural content of the debate. It also reversed the alliances: Charles is actually the progressive thinker moving against a dreary and totalitarian Modernism.

Several factors added to the confusion; and also to the nastiness of the battle. First of all, some of the Neoclassical buildings that are identified with the Prince's architectural vision (incorrectly, in my opinion) are indeed very dull. Their architects have unwittingly inherited something of the cold and impersonal from the Modernists whom they dislike so much. Second, the really exciting buildings in Britain have been built by non-traditionalist architects, who erroneously call themselves "modernist". This is a misleading label; modernism has a well-defined vocabulary of building types. What the world needs in the next millennium is an application of exciting new concepts and techniques to achieve the same human qualities as the best of the old buildings.

What should have happened -- but didn't -- was to contrast two incompatible world-views. The one underlying modernism ignores human beings, and creates an alien built world. Its principles are essentially anti-life; they work to replace nature by a sterile concrete and asphalt hell. (This is due not so much to the materials, but to the geometry, since alien forms can also be created using traditional materials). Charles leads the opposite movement, in which human values and feelings are paramount. This is totally consistent with his dedication to environmental causes. He has established a bond with people who feel marginalized and displaced by modernist architecture and urbanism, and this is indeed one of the strongest points in favor of his succession to the throne.

Scientific support for the Prince.

I believe that science is finally going to vindicate the Prince of Wales. Although Charles has not spoken of the scientific basis for architectural design, it in fact supports his ideas. We cannot pretend (as do academic architects today) that architecture has no scientific basis -- it has. Most architects just don't know it. Nor can we ignore the effects of architecture on human beings. Past societies that embraced anti-scientific principles were committing an act of self-destruction.

The Prince of Wales sounded a clear warning, but, as is the case with every prophet in history, he has been ridiculed. Architects do not have the power to alter the environment: their clients do, from individuals, to corporations, to governments. Unfortunately, business leaders and politicians are seduced by flashy images and high-sounding statements from popular architectural gurus. The media are in large part responsible for propping these people up. The world has been influenced by architectural propaganda, and has been made to believe that what is currently fashionable represents modernity and the "Spirit of the Age". Is contemporary architecture a mirror of our rapidly deteriorating social values, or is it rather the other way around?

Scientific results from the last decade have immediate implications for architecture, and they support the Prince's vision. We are now beginning to understand how both organic and inanimate matter organizes itself into higher-level complex wholes. Results from physics, complexity theory, hierarchy theory, systems analysis, computer science, artificial intelligence, and fractals are converging to give a new, profoundly intricate picture of the universe. This picture is the opposite of what we see in most of twentieth century architecture. Natural structures have a remarkable parallel in the way the great historical buildings put materials together to generate a connected, coherent whole.

The misuse of science by modernist and post-modernist architects needs to be clarified. One reads in architecture textbooks how Modernism is based on logic and the scientific method, but that is a deliberate falsehood. In fact, Modernism eschews scientific inquiry, and imposes ideas from above: it is an arbitrary, totalitarian style based on images and intolerant personal opinions. The founders of Modernism had a very sketchy grasp of nineteenth century scientific ideas, which they misused to prop up their theories. They did not even understand the science of that time -- relativity and quantum mechanics -- although they and their propagandists imagined and exploited non-existent connections to relativity theory.

Modernism's logical foundations can be traced instead to certain pseudo-scientific concepts that were popular around the turn of the century with politicians of both the extreme right and the extreme left. These provided the specious logic that "proves" the superiority of pure forms over more complex ones with a hierarchical structure; that demands the segregation of interdependent components and functions; and that justifies the destruction of what is not deemed to be pure enough. The continuing misuse of the epithet "rationalist" for this kind of architecture -- which is totally irrational -- is tremendously misleading. Those ideas disdain humanity and human complexity. They call for the elimination of complex elements of society, as justified by a narrow, simplistic logic, and were later to give birth to the horrors of the Second World War.

Post-modernism opposes Modernism without correcting its faults. The post-modernist vocabulary of images is not joined to any conception of structure. Post-modernism is a stylistic play, carried out in a deliberately perverse manner so as to avoid generating organized complexity. Going even further, deconstructivist architects actively seek to create disorganized complexity, or chaos, and think that this is scientifically fashionable. They misunderstand the goal of Chaos theory, which is to discover ordered patterns in apparently chaotic situations. It is known that the human mind fails to grasp disorganized complexity, so that such constructions generate anxiety and a strongly negative physiological response.

Architecture is an extension of the human mind to the hierarchical ordering of artificial structures. For several millennia, mankind has generated organized complexity to a degree proportional to its level of intellectual development. The twentieth century has denied this process, and we have started to reverse it. Just as we shape our environment, however, our environment shapes us. A society that coexists with both chaos and oversimplified alien forms loses its ability to establish connections; to organize disorder into understandable patterns; and to interpret complex phenomena by their essentials; in short, its ability to reason. Therefore, one might argue that current architectural fashions represent a retrograde in the evolution of the human species.

Vindication: The Vincent Scully Prize.

On November 3, 2005, the Prince of Wales was awarded the Vincent Scully Prize for Architecture and Urbanism, an Award organized and given by The National Building Museum in Washington, DC. The Prince was handed the trophy by Vincent Scully, the senior architectural historian and educator in the US, and Professor Emeritus at Yale University. Before giving his acceptance speech (available HERE), the Prince was introduced by Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, Dean of the Architecture School of the University of Miami. To the long-term supporters and friends of the Prince of Wales, this is surely a major victory and extraordinary validation of his ideas and efforts. The seriousness and intellectual weight of architects who support this prize, and who comprise its jury, effectively counters all those who have casually dismissed the ground-breaking work of the Prince all these years.

Perhaps it is worth noting that another sort of validation has already occurred in urbanist circles. Although no-one likes to talk about it (being afraid of lawsuits, and for very good reason), the Prince's original ideas on shaping the built environment are now presented by his critics as their own. Surely the sincerest form of validation is when someone applies your ideas, although it would be good to give credit to their initiator. Still, much of the new thrust of urbanism, supported by traditional as well as post-modernist architects alike, incorporates proposals made by the Prince of Wales several years ago. It is good for the world that they are assuming a central role in mainstream urbanism. The Prince of Wales's urbanist ideas are no longer considered to be peripheral, but have moved to center stage.

This page is maintained by Nikos A. Salingaros.

Salingaros's contributions to architecture.