The Madness of King Charles (Monstruous Carbuncles, Green Cities, Inkpots and other Royal Concerns)

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The disappearance of Elizabeth II certainly marked the end of an era. Ascending the throne just past last century’s equator of, she has been not only one of the longest-reigning monarchs -Elizabeth was also Second in the overall ranking, only surpassed by Louis XIV of France-, but also an exceptional witness to events and characters who, since the interwar period, have shaped the world as we know it. Her death and the chronicle of her long life have made rivers of ink flow in recent months -just to use an increasingly metaphorical expression- only partially eclipsed by the fact that her passings also meant, at the same time the unexpected ascension to the throne of the hitherto Prince Charles, a coronation taking place today that many -probably starting with Chuck himself- had many serious doubts he would live to see. Regardless of their political color, all media agreed to point out a main -and real- change, other than the monarch’s gender, in this succession; that is: the very drastic contrast posed by the discretion of the deceased (God save the Queen!) and her septuagenarian offspring. And let’s not enter that episode some of us will surely remember where he dreamed of transmuting into a female intimate hygiene item. In recent weeks, the media have gleefully portrayed Charles as a slightly grumpy older gentleman who accedes to the throne a little worn out, and with a somewhat difficult relationship with stationery — quills and inkpots specifically. All of this only delves into his longtime reputation as a not particularly sympathetic and opinionated character -a trait surely inherited from his father, a Duke of Edinburgh with a certain tendency to slip inconvenient comments (always on the verge of becoming a diplomatic incident which, as it could not be otherwise, earned him my lifelong, unconditional sympathy.

That is why, now that everything important has already been said much better and way more knowledgeably than I could even dream of, I would like to focus on the anecdotal, aware, that I’m doing nothing more than second a whole rosary of varied reflections on the subject that will find a myriad of new and juicy entries today: barely a few hours after the death of the Queen, The Architects’ Journal published an article [“King Charles, monarch with keen interest in architecture, succeeds Queen”] recounting some ‘greatest hits’ regarding the former Prince of Wales’s keen interest in architecture. Similar articles would succeed in the following days, glossing his preferences, as well as the always controversial nature of his statements, in Dezeen, Domus, Architectural Digest, The New York Times, The Guardian, House and Garden, Dwell, Arquitectura Viva… and any media remotely linked to architecture, or not even.

I have to admit that my first contact with Charlie’s architectural opinions happened quite late, through Luis Fernández-Galiano’s 1999 article ‘La Rebelión de los Floreros’ (‘The Flower Vase Revolt’). Making echoes of the Portuguese revolution of 1974 rhyme with Charlie’s rebellious distancing from the controversy-free attitude a member of the royal family is supposed to adopt as his modus operandi, the article glossed over the architectural crusade of an heir to the crown who refused to comply with his discreet role as deadwood. Subsequently, Galiano took note of Charley’s contributions as an ‘architectural critic’, who, “after five years of harassing modern architecture in statements and speeches’, finally brought out ‘the heavy artillery’, publishing ‘ten alternative principles’ for architecture [he would later add yet five more] … and the proposal for the construction of a model city shaped by them”. The year was 1989, and good ol’ Chuck had fleshed out his Mosaic Ten Commandments (which, in turn,  stemmed from some “few sensible rules” enunciated in a 1987 speech) into the otherwise rather lightweight A Vision of Britain: A Personal View of Architecture (Doubleday, 1989), this time a written version of the documentary HRH Prince Of Wales: A Vision Of Britain, directed by Nicholas Rossiter and broadcast by the BBC on October 28, 1988, also paired by an homonymous exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum [take that, H de C. Hastings and your Townscape Campaign!]. Furthermore, donning his developer cap, he would begin construction of the ideal community of Poundbury -a sort of urban Portmeirion, only more boring- on his own Duchy land in Cornwall.

Of course, all this had started earlier, when, in 1984 Charley delivered his (in?)famous ‘monstrous carbuncle’ speech at the RIBA, wherein he used this expression to qualify Peter Ahrends’ winning proposal for the National Gallery extension: a move that would spawn the celebration of a subsequent restricted competition, eventually leading to the construction of Venturi and Scott Brown’s Sainsbury Wing. It should surprise no one that the successor to Queen Victoria’s great-great-granddaughter has conservative tastes, and more specifically nineteenth-century tastes (Charles is not Mustafa Kemal), or that he professes admiration for the architecture of Christopher Wren, Iñigo Jones or Nicholas Hawksmoor. It even falls within the expectable that he criticized the John Burgee and Phillip Johnson’s 80s proposal for the London Bridge City Phase 2 competition, an uninhibited neo-Jacobean copy of the Palace of Westminster by the Thames, because of its ‘superficial Gothic revival’. More disconcerting is that he combines this moment of clarity with the defense of Terry Farrell’s bland PoMo, or the strident, excessive, pop postmodernism of John Outram -that genius never sufficiently vindicated- and his ironic revision of the historical styles that he longs for so much. Maybe he’s being ironic, too. A fine sample of English humour, most probably.

As The Architects’ Journal recalls, these thirty years of outrage (on the architects’ side) have been moderately mitigated by the now King’s more nuanced stance of recent years. In 2009, in his speech on the occasion of the 175th anniversary of the RIBA, he qualified his words of the 150th, and assured that he was sorry if he “somehow left the faintest impression that I wished to kick-start some kind of ‘style war’ between Classicists and Modernists; or that I somehow wanted to drag the world back to the eighteenth century. All I asked for was room to be given to traditional approaches to architecture and urbanism.” A decade earlier, Galiano concluded, also conciliatory, that, in the face of the exaggeratedly angry reaction of architects, “some of us who have felt a certain annoyance at the triviality of these princely judgements… today look at them with a mixture of tenderness and respect.” However (Sorry, Charles, Luis), writing from my ivory (paper) tower of connoisseur and fan of urbanism-fiction, I can’t but regret this cowardly tepidness. Although perhaps not as much as American visual fiction, British fiction has granted us, prospectivism-buffs with some very interesting examples of historicist fantasies: who wouldn’t be in awe at the vision of a London designed entirely by Christopher Wren, as in Charles Cockerel’s 1841 tribute, magnficently and hyperbolically portrayed in Gerald McMorrow’s unjustly forgotten film Franklyn (2008) -not to mention  Cockerel’s megalomaniac ‘The Professor’s Dream’ (1848). Or even, a step below, who would deny the low-key steampunk charm of W. J. Wintle’s visions in ‘Life In Our New Century’ (Harmsworth Magazine, 1901) or Montague B. Black’s in ‘London 2026 AD -this is all in the ir’ (1926), with its pseudo-beaux art blocks and flying vehicles brought to the big screen by Maurice Elvey in High Treason (1929)?

For many years, the only redeeming element of ex-Queen (as John Cleese would put it) Elizabeth’s scion has been his surprising green agenda, which he would develop, again, in a book sponsored by Architectural Design: Architecture & the Environment: Hrh the Prince of Wales and the Earth in Balance (1993) and, more recently, in Highgrove: An English Country Garden (2015). This is important for other reasons, I know, and I agree. But, if you ask me, I’ll admit that the first thing that comes to my mind are excitingly out of date images of a retrofuturistic London drawn by the Schuiten brothers –more Luc than François- turned into a vertical garden of neo-Gothic and Beaux-Artian skyscrapers taken over by vegetation.

—Luis Miguel Lus Arana: “La Locura del Rey Carlos”.

Arquine #103: Gardens, Spring 2023.


Published by klaustoon

Klaus is a frustrated cartoonist that lives in an old castle in Europe. In his other life he is also a frustrated architect and scholar who...

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