Thursday, August 20, 2009
Starchitects II: The Wrath of Rogers?
UPDATE ON THE ARCHITECTS' SLIMING OF PRINCE CHARLES: Here's a link to a prime-time news report from the main Italian television station, RAI. If you don't speak Italian, watching the video might make you think the story is a positive one, but actually it repeats all the grumbling from the Poundbury story (and even repeats the Repubblica headline about "i suoi amici architetti"). Poundbury looks quite attractive in the report, I think, but the reporter calls it a "nightmare."
The RAI story and the Repubblica story came out on the same day, along with a story in the French paper of record, Le Monde. It said Jean Nouvel's new glass shopping mall next to St. Paul's is in perfect harmony with Sir Christopher's Wren Classical cathedral. In Superman's Bizarro world, perhaps, but French architects have long liked comic-book Futurism.
The Battle of the Styles continues – because of the architects. They only allow Modernism, which is why Modernism has caused so much damage to European cities. If they thought of the city first, instead of always emphasizing their personal styles and experimentation, they would make better buildings and better cities.
THERE SEEMS TO BE an Anglo-Italian witch hunt going on in the English and Italian press, aimed at Prince Charles. It apparently started when the Anglo-Italian architect Richard Rogers lost a large commission in London and accused Prince Charles of causing the loss (actually, Rogers paid little or no attention to the official planning brief that set the guidelines for what could be built on site, and that seems to be the real reason why he lost the job).
Since then stories have been written that would not be allowed to run as news stories in most American papers. The paper they're in, The Guardian, calls them news stories, but they read like ideologically-driven polemics against Charles and for Starchitects — so transparently polemical and personal that they come across as sophomoric attempts to masquerade as news stories.
The most sophomoric of the stories is about Poundbury, Charles's model new town in Dorset, which has had high ratings from the British public and been a major influence on British new town policy. Reading the complaints of Poundbury residents in the story reminded me of the experience of visiting houses designed by famous architects: invariably you find inhabitants of the house moaning about minor things that have little to do with the quality of the building. "Can you believe a famous architect would put a light switch in a place like that?" was the first, last and most important complaint I heard from the unhappy second owner of a house I once visited that was designed by Richard Meier. Yet in the Poundbury article a few disgruntled quotes are allowed to stand for the idea that the public doesn't like the development. (For an example, look here.*)
And let's not forget what country we're talking about. On the whole, the complaints could be part of a screenplay for Carry On, We're British. Only at the end of the article does Booth mention that 86% of the Brits who have moved to Poundbury are glad they did.
As for the Italians, on the same day La Repubblica published an unflattering summary of the attacks in the Guardian, an Italian tv crew was in Poundbury filming an unflattering story. It reminds me of the New Age saying that there's no such thing as a coincidence.
The Republican paper says that "solely on the basis of personal taste" ("sulla sola base del personale gusto estetico") Charles wants to influence decisions in which he should not be involved. Citing another Guardian story, they say that Charles threatened to resign as President of the National Trust if the Trust did not alter the plans for their new headquarters to "respond to his aesthetics" ("risposto ai suoi canoni estetici"). What actually happened that Charles commented on the energy use of the building and said he might resign if it were not made more sustainable.
This is typical of the attacks on Charles by the English architecture critics (which is what the Guardian reporter used to be): they simultaneously focus on style and try to make the argument about Charles rather than urbanism or architecture, dismissing him as an old fogey who hates Modernism. When Charles criticizes a building, the critic for the The Times, Hugh Pearman, frequently mentions the R-rated jokes Charles told his lover Camilla, caught on tape in 1993 by someone recording other people's cell calls.
When Charles complained about the architecture designs for Chelsea Barracks and One New Change, he was arguing for good urbanism, not for a different style. Richard Rogers and the British architecture critics confuse that with architectural style, because they live in a world in which the Starchitect's personal architecture style trumps the simple rules of urban design and contextualism.
Their point of view comes through loud and clear in the Italian newspaper. "The real aversion to architects such as Jean Nouvel and Richard Rogers is not based on their quality," La Repubblica says. "These are prestigious names, winners of awards such as the Royal Gold Medal and the Pritzker, the architectural equivalent of the Nobel Prize." But Charles thinks "in terms of architectural styles and does not accept interventions that break with tradition."
The Guardian stories it quotes are yellow journalism. They use innuendo to mount personal attacks against Charles to sugggest to the reader that the situation is far worse than it is. Most of the Poundbury story gives the impression that the majority of residents must be unhappy with the new town, when almost 9 out of 10 are happy they moved there. The National Trust story reports that the Trust "was warned that the Prince of Wales might withdraw his patronage of the organisation unless designs for its new headquarters were altered to suit his architectural taste," when as we have seen the truth is that he was arguing for a more sustainable design.
The headline of the article Prince Charles's architecture foundation could face investigation (Booth's eighth story about Charles in less than two weeks), would like to give the impression that the process has gone farther than a complaint about Charles from an anti-royal group called Republic, but in fact the last line of the story reports "A Charity Commission spokeswoman said the complaint was being scrutinised by its officers before a decision was made on whether to investigate."
Two stories about how Charles "tried to stop a modern 'masterpiece'" gloss over the fact that his letter was ignored and that the building is almost completed (and that few people even knew about the four year old letter until the Guardian dug it up). More seriously, although the story quoted a developer of the project saying that Charles "now has a similar status as a consultee as statutory bodies including English Heritage, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE)," the developer has since said, "I categorically do not believe that the Prince has a similar status as EH and CABE, who are the government's official advisers and must be consulted as part of the planning process."
Of course no one knows if Richard Rogers is behind this, but there are a few things we do know. The Guardian is the Labour party paper, and Rogers is the most powerful architect in the party, a Labour life peer who holds an official architectural consultant position. He is Anglo-Italian, and he has a long history of opposing Charles. He has spoken out in the papers ("I don't think he is evil per se, he is just misled.") and at the Royal Institute of British Architects, and organized a full page ad in which Starchitects support his work at Chelsea Barracks.
On June 16, Booth reported in the Guardian, "Rogers has decided to fight back against the prince's influence, and today demands a public inquiry into the constitutional validity of Charles's interventions on this project, in architecture more widely, as well as in his other areas of interest including medicine, farming and the environment." In the same piece, which read like a PR release, Mrs. Rogers was reported as saying, ""The prince's actions are akin to calling up a publisher and saying I want all books to have happy endings or saying to the Guardian, I don't like colour photography, let's go back to sepia."
If you believe in the egocentric model of Starchitecture and think that the only acceptable expression of architecture is an anti-traditional one, that might sound reasonable. But few people other than architects and architectural critics share those ideas. Polls show that a strong majority of Londoners don't want the development pictured below built on a prominent and important site in Chelsea. It ignored the guidelines of the planning brief, and was opposed by local residents for all the reasons given at ChelseaBarracksActionGroup.org. When it was defeated, the Deputy Mayor of London said,
What a relief! An act of large-scale vandalism has been averted. London should be grateful to the Qataris for their wisdom in turning away from yet another glass and steel disaster. It is my fervent hope that the developers will now work on a proposal that enhances and embraces Chelsea and the Royal Hospital.
This decision should mark a turning point in development in the capital. No more concrete, no more glass and steel. Brick and stone and slate must be the way forward, so that in 100 years time Londoners will still recognise their own city.
It is perfectly possible for modern architecture to embrace ancient materials and proportions without being pastiche. We hope that the developers will find a new architect who has the skills to produce something truly beautiful that will form part of London's third world heritage site in years to come.
Naughty Prince Charles Causing Trouble For Starchitects Again (actually not)
Something Rotten in the State of Architectural Criticism - Alas Poor Prince!
One Problem With Richard Rogers's Architecture Is That It Isn't Really "New"
Lord Rogers, Bully Boy
Then there's the gravel, a big bugbear. The Duchy was keen for gravel to be used for footpaths. It looks great but does not stay in place, and ends up being trodden into homes. And last winter it turned out to be impossible to clear the snow without clearing a lot of the gravel away with it.
Teresa Chapman was working hard to heave her pushchair carrying two-year-old Lily May through the gravel. "It's hard and wearing flip-flops is not a good idea in it – very painful," she says.
Kellie Shapley says in her back yard, the gravel is used by cats as a toilet. "It's a bit smelly out there."
If the Guardian is interested in post-occupancy user surveys, it should consider making one for Richard Rogers's Lloyd's Tower. A notoriously difficult place to work, the tower required expensive repairs not long after it was built, as did Rogers's similar Pompidou Center. In both cases, putting a lot of the mechanical and structural elements of the building out in the weather caused major problems.
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BARON ROGERS OF RIVERSIDE WAS OUTRAGED when Prince Charles wrote to a Qatari sheik about property he was developing in London, Rogers and his Starchitect friends took out a full-page ad in the London Times in which Rogers wrote, “If the prince wants to... [Read More]
Tracked on Mar 24, 2010 10:08:16 AM
God Bless you, Sir. Hard to imagine a more intelligent summary and critique of the latest nonsense.
Posted by: Brian Hanson at Aug 23, 2009 5:04:51 AM
Well said, sir. The attacks on HRH Price Charles are very childish (well, then, so is much of the architecture built today!). The Guardian should know better!
Posted by: Kathleen at Aug 23, 2009 6:49:48 PM
Well done. If I could add:
The main reason I beleive European architects are so knee jerk opposed to traditional architecture stems from WWII. Prior to that, modernism was just the latest style produced by the avant guard with its pluses and minuses, manifestos aside. After WWII, traditionalism became associated with the right wing fascists that destroyed that continent. From then on it became be anathema/professional suicide to align oneself with traditonalism. But that is all childish baloney. If it where so, all the intellectuals would be living in modernist apartment blocks etc. They don't though, because they're inhuman pieces of crap that they stuff their poor people in. Until they stop being hypocritical and actually put their money where their mouth is, they ought to be ignored, except, if you care for beauty, it's impossible to do, and that is why Prince Charles comments. He like few others is an intellectual who isn't afraid of calling out the phonies for they're criticism, and it burns the style obsessed Italians and British sooo much because he's a fancy boy, and they love their fancy boys there.
Posted by: Thayer-D at Aug 24, 2009 2:57:52 PM
Hello Sir, I'm italian and the RAI say in the video that poundbury its negative project, the sidewalks its dangerous when rain, ecc..
Posted by: Spot On A. at Aug 25, 2009 3:19:43 AM
I'm a bit new to new urbanism, and this is the first I heard of Chelsea Barracks, but that shot of Roger's work doesn't look half bad.
I do agree starchitecture is nihilism (I live in a city that celebrates it - Singapore), but it doesn't look like it is your typical starchitecture project.
Or in other words, it doesn't seem like a case where form trumps function.
From the picture, it seem those buildings have spaced columns - a function that seemed to transcend different, more "traditional", styles of architecture. The difference here it is minimalist and uses glass and steel extensively.
It seems this is a knee-jerk reaction towards minimalist, modern design. The "traditional styles" have a wide variety too - from neocolonial Mughal to Victorian. Both a Italianate mansion and a modernist one would be equally out of place in a neighbourhood of Gothic buildings.
To me, I'll say be damn with it. A lot of the styles we see today would not exist if society did not allow experimentation and challenges to the popular style of the day. Style is subjective, value judgement is based completely on taste. While Rogers design of Chelsea Barracks seem cold and inhuman to you, it does seem calm and clean to me.
The thing that attracted me to new urbanism is the focus on function in design - compact, walkable neighbourhoods that fosters community life. And I can see how modern starchitecture for the most part is incompatible with that. But don't throw out modern architecture along with the bath water - even if this metaphorical baby repulses you.
Posted by: Rajan R at Oct 21, 2009 4:45:31 PM