Last week’s ruling in the long-running Chelsea Barracks saga has reignited the debate about Prince Charles’s influence on architecture. After the judge claimed that the prince’s intervention was “unwelcome” the architectural establishment has predictably picked up the baton. RIBA President Ruth Reed lambasted the prince by claiming that he had “derailed” a project that was proceeding through a “democratic planning process”. Earlier, Richard Rogers had grimly stated his desire not to live in a “feudal society”.
It is difficult not to feel sympathy for an architect who has wholly complied with his client’s wishes and yet finds himself unceremoniously dumped from his role. Rogers’ forlorn claim last week that he “wishes he had come second” will be echoed by every architect who has ever been molested by political machinations beyond their control. It also exposes just how vulnerable and devalued the position of today’s architect now is within the hierarchy of modern development.
However, it was Qatari Diar and their paymasters in the Qatari royal family who were entirely responsible for the decision to withdraw the planning application, not the Prince of Wales. Prince Charles regularly bombards legions of developers with his opinions and they are entirely at liberty to ignore him, as they usually do. He has no more power to influence their final decision than you or I, as his inability to halt Land Securities’ One New Change development in the City of London proves. This is not the symptom of a feudal society.
What is is our planning system and the architectural establishment itself. To label our planning system democratic carries about as much intellectual credibility as claiming that trial verdicts are delivered by public opinion simply because courtrooms happen to have public galleries in them. There is no democracy in a process that does nothing to encourage public debate, where voting power is restricted to a cabal of councillors, where unelected quangos wield statutory power, where Secretaries of State repeatedly ignore the advice of their Planning Inspectors and where minority self-interest is often prioritised over strategic welfare.
Equally, it is somewhat hypocritical of the architectural establishment to accuse Prince Charles of subverting democracy when many of them seem so unwilling to entertain the wider public debate that might be sparked by a view contrary to their own.
Several prominent architects called for a boycott of the prince’s speech to the RIBA Trust Annual Lecture last year. Since when did intellectual censorship promote democracy? Could such ingrained institutional intolerance possibly stem from the fact the prince is not an architect but an ‘outsider’? True or not such actions reek of egotism, arrogance and hypocrisy, none of which helps counter the perception amongst much of the general public that the architecture profession is aloof, elitist and remote.
Yes, the Prince of Wales could have been more tactful and diplomatic in his intervention. Although there are no grounds for Richard Rogers’ assertion that his actions were unconstitutional, the prince’s outspoken tendencies may make it difficult for him to attract the universal affection enjoyed by his mother when he eventually becomes king – at least from certain sections of the architectural, science and pharmaceutical industries.
However, it is regrettable though perhaps unsurprising that once again many within the architectural elite choose to demonise Prince Charles rather than acknowledge the failings in the Rogers scheme, the planning system and their own profession. Especially as it is highly likely that even the sternest critics would have been silenced had the prince’s “private” comments been supportive. Perhaps the most potent lesson of the Chelsea Barracks saga will be to remind us all that common enemies are always easier to face than inner demons.