The fall of Rogers’ Chelsea Barracks scheme was not so much the cause of an enjoyable public row as the effect of a fundamental change in the way we do design
Much of the fuss about Chelsea Barracks has died down. A Labour luvvie aristo is not going to get the heir to the throne’s wrist slapped in a make-believe constitutional court because he lost a big contract. Local residents will get a chance of a decent scheme that sticks to the planners’ brief and feels like Chelsea instead of anywhere in the world. They should by rights get a say in what happens.
But there’s much more to Chelsea Barracks than a stand-off between expensive computer pictures of a glass-and-steel scheme and a quick napkin sketch of monolithic classical blocks. Perhaps we can peer through the fire and brimstone and see if there’s a bigger message out there.
Memories of the prince’s first foray into the architects’ closed shop still live on with the oldies. They’ve never forgiven him for letting public opinion into their exclusive world. But this version of “The Prince of Wales vs the Modernist Establishment” is quite different from the last time. The world has changed, the Prince of Wales has an active and knowledgeable Foundation, lots of quite well known architects don’t remember all that Hampton Court stuff (and don’t care), modernism has had a good second run in the New Labour wonderland, politics is a mess and the economy is a disaster. All these things have to be connected. You never step in the same river twice.
There may be a certain schadenfreude in seeing a big beast brought down, but are we seeing something more than a mega firm losing one of its many contracts?
Paternoster Square, the great hope from the last spat, bit the dust because the last big recession came along at just the wrong time. The plan survived but the traditional buildings were replaced by dreary right-on modernism. This time, when the dust settles, we’re likely to be coming out of a recession. In the meantime, traditional urbanism has become the only new thing in architecture that can really be called a movement. In America it’s called “new urbanism”, in the UK it’s sometimes called “sustainable urbanism” (what isn’t called “sustainable” nowadays?) and sometimes just “urbanism” (as a contrary to “urban design”).
This movement goes way beyond the small group of surviving traditionalist architects but it does share with them the glaringly obvious idea that the past might actually have some pretty good lessons for the future. It looks like this is going to have a big part to play in the way this all shakes down.
While there may be a certain schadenfreude in seeing a big beast brought down, are we seeing something more than a starchitect’s mega firm lose one of its many contracts? Can this in any way be connected with the cancellation of Foster’s Moscow skyscraper? Is there some relationship between this and the scrapping of Hadid’s Dubai Opera House? Is the disaster of Viñoly’s Colchester banana or Alsop’s ironically named and empty arts centre – The Public – going to convince strapped-for-cash public funders that they can’t keep splashing out taxpayers’ money on overbudget architects’ ego-trips?
The way it’s going is that good places matter more than big names, and Chelsea Barracks, with all its publicity, could be the watershed
There may be life for starchitects for a few years yet as desert monarchs take time to catch up with the mood of the times, but the way it’s going is that good places matter more than big names, and Chelsea Barracks, with all its publicity, could be the watershed for the new era.
Is the humbling of Rogers going to signal a new dawn when just being famous is not going to be enough to allow you to drive over local people, and conspire with star-struck bureaucrats to flummox elected committees? One thing that hasn’t changed much since the eighties is public taste for architecture. There’s good research evidence for this and any cultural historian will tell you that fundamentals like this don’t change quickly.
Architects have been very clever at keeping the likes of Quinlan Terry out of the picture. The ancient lord even used his power and influence behind the scenes to try and do just this to Mr Terry (people in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones). At the same time they snuggle up to politicians and civil servants telling them that “what matters is quality not style”, which is really saying, “don’t tell us what style to use, we’ll do whatever we like and call it quality”. And in the New Labour wonderland, bureaucrats always win. Will the Conservative’s power-to-the-community agenda now stretch to design?
We don’t know how this will turn out. But even died-in-the-wool modernists aren’t coming out for Rogers’ design. Something’s in the air – and nothing will be the same again.
Robert Adam is director of Robert Adam Architects