Prince Charles and Popular Criticism in Architecture

An analysis of Prince Charles' controversial TV series, A Vision of Britain.

In 1984, Prince Charles fronted a TV series called A Vision of Britain. This was a celebration of Britain's architectural histroy, but also an aggressive polemic against what Charles saw as the excesses of modern architecure.  This was one of the first instances in which television made a major contribution to architectural discussion.

An architectural aficionado, Prince Charles was hosting the 150th anniversary of the Royal Institute of British Architects. During this occasion he described the proposed extension to the National Gallery by Ahrends Burton Koralek as “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend.” Because of his influence the design was abandoned and a historicising design was built instead. By intervening, Prince Charles spawned a new, derisory language of popular architectural criticism. Discussions of new buildings published in newspapers are now full of words like “carbuncle”, “monstrosity” and “eyesore”.  For example, Denys Lasdun's brutalist-style National Theatre was described as looking like a nuclear power station.

Denys Lasdun's National Theatre, London

Prince Charles is not an architect and has not studied architectural history. However, he has privileged access to the media, more so than any architect or architectural body. With A Vision of Britain and a spin-off book of the same name he was able to sway public opinion. His tastes are very conservative and he seems to habitually value buildings in historic styles. In particular he spoke out against 60s Brutalism.

This is a quote from the series:

For far too long it seems to me, some planners and architects have consistently ignored the feelings and wishes of the mass of ordinary people in this country … To be concerned about the way people live, about the environment they inhabit and the kind of community that is created by that environment, should surely be one of the prime requirements of a really good architect.

Through these channels, Prince Charles was able to promote a neo-Georgian style by architects like Quinlan Terry. These buildings were acutely Thatcherite, most of them being country houses or city office buildings. They were designed in the 1980s, but it could be two hundred years earlier. They have been perceived as aesthetically and politically reactionary, but they are inoffensive to the public, who often conflate old buildings and old styles with good architecture.

Quinlan Terry, Downing College Library, Cambridge

Prince Charles’s opinions were ridiculed by RIBA, but found favour with the public. Whatever you think of him, he did highlight the conflict between those prescribing architecture (specialist architects and critics) and those who generally have to live with it, the public. After all, shouldn’t architects give the public what they want?

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