The newly announced head of the DTLR's urban policy unit is currently Prince Charles' architectural right-hand man. Mark Leftly speaks to David Lunts about his struggle to bring traditionalism into the mainstream.
royalty finally has a voice in government. David Lunts, Prince Charles' architectural right-hand man since 1998, is to become director of the DTLR's urban policy unit.

After three-and-a-half years as chief executive of the Prince's Foundation – the Charles-sponsored urban regeneration body – Lunts has landed the opportunity to put traditionalist town-building into the heart of government policy. This will be seen by many as a victory for Charles' urban vision – Lunts describes the power to directly influence policy as a "one-off" opportunity.

Lunts told the Prince of his likely move at the end of last month. The appointment is a tribute to traditionalism, but a personal blow for Charles. The prince has been fairly quiet on architectural matters since his infamous "carbuncle" speech of 1984, but now he is back, and this is in no small measure due to Lunts' canny organisational and political skills.

In recent months Charles has been appointed the Department of Health's design tsar, has condemned the modernist architecture of tall buildings in the City, supported plans for a second Poundbury and advocated the listing of historic railway arches on the edge of the Square Mile – much to the annoyance of those trying to build a Tube line extension and a clutch of Foster offices at the site.

For his own part, Lunts has emerged as the best general the traditionalists have had for a decade. He has overseen the transformation of organisations sponsored by the Prince, such as the Prince of Wales Institute and the Urban Villages Forum, from a mishmash of poorly run, heavily criticised bodies into a single urban regeneration unit. Stephen King, CABE's head of public affairs, who has worked with Lunts on Charles' drive for better hospital design, says: "David's brought the variety of the Prince's interests into a body of focus and profile. One of the important aspects of the foundation is that it is focused on delivery and change on the ground."

Lunts himself is damning of several of the foundation's predecessors, reserving particular criticism for the Prince's traditional architecture school, the Prince of Wales's Institute. "The important thing about the Prince's Foundation is that it's not fundamentally about architecture – we don't pretend to be an architecture school," he explains. "The old institute sometimes pretended it was an alternative architecture school to the mainstream, but it wasn't well enough funded. And it wasn't, frankly, well enough managed to deliver that promise."

Traditionalism is coming in from the dark ages when it wasn’t mentioned in polite conversation

Lunts has been with the Prince for a long time. After winning his spurs with a 10 year stint at Manchester council, Lunts took up the role of chief executive of the Urban Villages Forum for three years before moving on to the foundation. This length of successful royal service is unusual. David Petter, who ran the Prince of Wales's Institute's architectural foundation course between 1992 and 1998, says it is Lunts' political abilities that have marked him out from the crowd. Petter says: "Inevitably there are political pressures from above. David has the political background to deal with that. He is more of a diplomat than some of us were."

And Lunts' political skills have now been recognised by the DTLR. The diplomat admits he is moving from a politically sensitive job to one that Niccolo Machiavelli might have thought twice about. Stephen Byers week in the stocks has given the DTLR a bad reputation for spin and politicking. Lunts, however, reckons he can handle that side of the job: "I've got fairly well-tuned antennae for politics," he says.

The 44-year-old is more politically aware than the heir to the throne, with the result that he has made fewer enemies in architectural circles. Take Richard Rogers, for example. He has close ties with Lunts, who worked on Rogers' urban taskforce report in the 1990s, but has been dismissive of Charles and his traditionalist vision. In an interview late last year, Rogers said: "Britain has suffered more than most European countries from the shock of the new. There is a national obsession with tradition, Victorian values, the royalty; this idea that things were better in the past."

But Lunts says the Prince's vision, as well as his own, does not exclude change, as modernists such as Rogers suggest. "The principle of traditionalism is this idea of organic change or development," he insists. "If you don't have a proper appreciation of the past, you can't understand the present. Now traditionalism is coming in from the dark ages when it wasn't even allowed to be mentioned in polite conversation."

Despite stressing that he does not like to preach, Lunts launches into a homily on the wrongs of modernism: "Why is it that most successful developers won't let creative architects do working drawings? It's because a lot of them struggle with working drawings. The basic training that allows you to work with building materials and understand how buildings are constructed doesn't exist. The point about the traditional approach to design is that it is an assault on the notion of the specialist. The idea of a specialist architect is a 20th-century notion."

Personal effects

What’s your favourite colour?
Blue, because I’m a summer person.
Where did you last go on holiday?
The same place I always go, a small town – a piece of traditional urbanism – nestling in the Pyrenees.
Who is your favourite musician?
In the old days I could answer questions like this. Miles Davis – is that ok?
What’s your favourite building?
Manchester town hall, because it’s a fantastic marriage of stunning engineering, good architecture and brilliant urbanism.