In a couple of weeks, traditional architects in Britain will at last form their own interest group within the 168-year-old RIBA. In January, the International Network for Traditional Building Arts and Urbanism, or INTBAU for short, was launched in London, claiming members from four continents. And traditional projects are starting to pop up all over the country. Plans for a neoVictorian Poundbury in St Austell, Cornwall, were unveiled last month. And two of the first public buildings to be designed in the classical style since the 1950s, Oxford University's Sackler Library and Buckingham Palace's Queen's Gallery, have recently been, or are about to be, completed.
It will come as no surprise that the Prince of Wales has been intimately involved in several of the above projects. He has also started making rabble-rousing comments about architecture again – most by notably by branding skyscrapers "turds in every plaza" at last December's conference on high-rise buildings.
So, has war been declared in a new battle of the styles? Although traditional and classical architecture have by definition always been with us, the last general call to arms was in 1984, when Prince Charles made his notorious "carbuncle" speech at the RIBA's 150th anniversary celebration. The speech unleashed a decade of sub-classical and postmodernist buildings, which fizzled out with embarrassment after the style was appropriated by commercial architects as a quick route to planning permission. A colonnaded Holiday Inn in Cambridge, designed by a junior design-and-build architect, was perhaps the nadir of the movement.
So what, if anything, is different this time around? For a start, the traditionalists can no longer count on widespread public acceptance. For the first time since the early 1960s, popular taste largely coincides with the modernist orthodoxy in the architectural profession – as is evident in the popularity of lottery-funded arts buildings and the advertising world's fondness for minimalist urban loft imagery.
On the other hand, the village of Poundbury outside Dorchester, developed by Prince Charles' Duchy of Cornwall, has been accepted by the government as a model for sustainable, relatively high-density housing development and enshrined in last year's edition of PPG3.
The instigator of both the RIBA group and its international cousin INTBAU is Robert Adam, whose self-titled Winchester-based practice designed the Sackler Library in Oxford and has been commissioned with the second phase of Poundbury. Adam rejects the notion that popular taste has swung to modernism, at least outside yuppified city centres. "Most ordinary people relate to traditional architecture," he says. "At present, we have 25 traditional country houses in our order book."
The backers of the St Austell urban village are even more gung-ho. "We see this flagship scheme as a pilot for good practice in the development of brownfield sites in the borough and Cornwall," says a spokesperson for Restormel council, which forms part of the development consortium with the Prince's Foundation, the regional development agency, and a local housing association and housebuilder.
Ironically, the strongest revival of European classicism is taking place in the New World. The Institute of Classical Architecture was set up in New York in 1991 and boasts 700 members. Its course director, Christine Franck, claims that there has been "an incredible rebirth" of classical architecture in the USA, with some 400 traditionally inspired new towns under development across the country.
We are fed up with being ignored within the RIBA … we have always viewed them as the enemy
Jan Maciag, Traditional Architects Group
Even cultures that are trying to liberate themselves from Western domination are undergoing revivals of their own species of traditional architecture. Significantly, Islamic design is the only remaining teaching course at the Prince's Foundation, a body that started life a decade ago as the Prince of Wales Institute of Architecture with a syllabus of classical Western architecture.
In contrast with the RIBA as a whole, the institution's Traditional Architects Group and INTBAU feel little need to evangelise to the public at large. They have set themselves a more modest, but uphill, task – to gain recognition within their own profession. "The Traditional Architects Group is not about promoting a style or trying to impose an ideology," says Adam. "It is a way of allowing a minority interest to contribute positively to their professional institution."
TAG's organiser, architect Jan Maciag of Peterborough, says traditional architects tend to be thought of as politically incorrect pariahs by their project teams. "We are fed up with being completely ignored within the RIBA. Nowadays, architects can do nearly anything, such as inflatable structures, and call it architecture. But one thing you cannot be is traditional. The style is not even taught in schools of architecture. We have always viewed the RIBA as the enemy."
Maciag argues that traditional architecture encompasses a spectrum of interests, from strict copies of regional domestic architecture and Georgian classical buildings to more imaginative reinterpretations using modern materials and techniques. However, he does not include conservation architects in the movement, as he thinks modern interventions in historic buildings should match the style of the original.
One of the principal aims of TAG will be to gain recognition for traditionalism in some schools of architecture that Adam castigates as "Stalinist deserts" of modernist indoctrination. A basic technical understanding of traditional architecture does not have to fight with modernist architecture, he argues. The defunct foundation course at the Prince of Wales Institute was, he claims, accepted by overtly modernist schools – such as the Bartlett at University College London – as providing a sound architectural grounding.
Adam is also aiming his sights at another bugbear – local authority planners. He argues that, whereas development control officers have been castigated for decades by modernist for wanting new buildings to mimic their older neighbours, the boot is now on the other foot.
"Modernism is infiltrating the planning system, and planners are now demanding contemporary design," he says. "Modernism, being the architecture of experts, fits in with socialism, and there is a danger of leftwing governments adopting it as the official taste. This could carry through to official organisations like CABE, which tend towards the establishment. There are even clauses in the recent PPG3 that call for contemporary architecture. I find this all very, very worrying."