Prince Charles’ speech on new buildings in old places last week was not the bombshell lobbed by his “monstrous carbuncle” diatribe of 1984, which precipitated a nationwide reaction by planning authorities against modern architecture.
This time round it’s unlikely that any council or developer is going to be bounced into drastic action.
His obsession with all things “traditional” (a word mentioned in every second paragraph of his speech) doesn’t win him many friends among architects. And it makes it easy to dismiss his tirade against tall buildings breaking out like a “rash of carbuncles” as the rambling of a man whose aesthetic sense is stuck in the Georgian period. Many of the world’s greatest and most revered buildings outraged tradition. St Paul’s Cathedral, which introduced European classicism to the gothic world of 17th-century England, is a good example.
If we can put the talk of traditionalism aside for a moment, Charles’ intervention could be seen as timely, if only because it stokes up the debate on tall buildings. What’s unwelcome is that it has made the discussion even more polarised: you’re either on the side of the traditionalists or the modernists. Interestingly, last year, when Viñoly’s Walkie-Talkie tower in the City was called in, many modernists were happy to back it in public even though they privately regarded it as the contorted monstrosity it is.
Meanwhile, guidance on whether towers should get planning permission is on the basis of how they affect views of World Heritage sites; nobody takes a holistic view on how they work together or how the public realm is catered for at the street level. This means we’re in danger of creating a free-for-all, with consequences we’ll live with for decades to come. If Charles’ speech were to make local authorities come up with clearer guidance on tall buildings, that would be a result. And if his speech persuaded Land Securities to rethink the Walkie-Talkie (sorry Mr Viñoly, we’re a fan of your other work, as you’ll see from our cover) then that’s a bonus.
At last, a bit of good news to do with the £45bn Building Schools for the Future programme. A report by Pricewaterhouse Coopers (page 11) has put forward measures to make the process of procuring schools quicker, shorter and cheaper. If the proposals are taken up by Ed Balls then the number of bidders going to the wire is to be cut to two and the selection can involve an element of partnering. But having struggled to win this battle for so long, you can’t blame the sector for giving it a cautious welcome. The document is bereft of detail and we’re left wondering how it’s going to work in practice. So, B for effort – but as for attainment, it’s still too woolly to be properly graded.
Denise Chevin, editor