Why I heckled the Prince of Wales
She’s been branded a ‘naughty girl’ for shouting ‘Abolish the monarchy!’ during Charles’s RIBA lecture. But Vicky Richardson has no regrets.
The whole event already had the nature of stand-up comedy. Even Prince Charles attempted a few feeble jokes. So my heckle of ‘Abolish the monarchy!’ as he left the hall seemed an appropriate contribution to the evening.
The Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) had invited Charles to give the annual lecture on 13 May, on the occasion of its 175th anniversary. As The Times architecture critic Tom Dyckhoff pointed out, it was a bit like inviting Silvio Berlusconi to address an audience of feminists.
The speech itself was an anti-climax – meandering and badly informed. When he addressed the RIBA 25 years ago, Charles came up with a catchy (albeit reactionary) line to describe the proposed extension to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square: ‘A monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved friend.’ This time round, the best insult he could muster for contemporary architecture was that it is ‘genetically modified’.
Perhaps that’s why – much to my amusement and surprise – my heckle became the focus of so much media attention: it made the first line of the Guardian’s report; got a mention on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme; was recounted in The Times; and made two gossip columns in the trade press. Even the Daily Mail picked up on it with Quentin Letts launching a personal attack on me in his column, describing me as a prematurely dowdy former polytechnic student.
Being attacked by someone like Letts is a badge of pride. But I was taken aback by the sneering nature of comments in the trade press. These are colleagues who had, after all, devoted much space to criticising Prince Charles for being undemocratic in the run-up to the lecture. In a piece titled ‘Off with her head’, the gossip column of Building Design remarked that I had once (‘15 years ago’) been spotted rattling a tin for Living Marxism; the Architects’ Journal patronisingly called me a ‘naughty girl’ and suggested I had only heckled the prince to get publicity for my magazine, Blueprint.
I hadn’t even planned the heckle, but the deferential silence when 400 architects stood as a mark of respect for the prince was too much to bear. My shout was pure gut instinct, an expression of rage at the injustice of the system. It was also a reaction against the defensiveness of the architecture profession, who will not stand up for their own ideas because, deep down, they think that the public shares the prince’s taste for traditional buildings.
My fellow journalists actually seemed a bit repulsed by such a direct and passionate expression. It’s just not cool to do things like that: Twitter is the medium of the moment, where the tone of voice is a snide little ‘tweet’ to a group of known ‘followers’.
But also, the profession and its press have been floored by the widespread sentiment that, as an ignorant amateur, Prince Charles is closer to the public than architects.
The recent controversy over Charles’ intervention in the row about plans for the Chelsea Barracks site perfectly illustrates this. Objecting to the style of the design by Richard Rogers’ firm for a new development commissioned by the Qatari royal family, Charles recently wrote to the Emir asking him to drop the scheme in favour of one by his favourite neo-Classicist architect, Quinlan Terry.
In this latest battle, Charles has adopted the position of defender of the people, sticking up for the locals, and talking about the gulf that divides architects from the public, who he says feel that they are the victim of a huge Modernist experiment. Architects are vulnerable on this territory because they have already conceded that it’s much better for architecture to be judged by amateurs than by experts. Even the UK’s most important architecture award, the RIBA Stirling Prize, is decided by a panel including TV celebrities (in previous years this has included the gravel-voiced broadcaster Mariella Frostrup and the gardener Diarmuid Gavin). It says a lot about the profession’s dim view of the public that they think their level is best represented by someone who has appeared on Strictly Come Dancing.
Charles’ latest intervention was a shock for architects who thought that he had mellowed in his views of architecture since the ‘carbuncle’ days. With his organic food products, protection for endangered plants, and recent award for services to the environment at the Chelsea Flower Show, he has come to be seen as a radical, free spirit.
It’s not just the dogma of sustainability that architects and Charles agree on. Aside from the question of style, few will challenge the principles of ‘New Urbanism’, Charles’s planning approach, which is based on residents signing up to a code of behavioural conduct.
Even more worrying is the fact that very few architects (and certainly not their professional body) will now stick up for the importance of experimentation and large-scale development. The credit crunch has triggered an out-pouring of revulsion about iconic architecture. In an article published recently in Blueprint, Israeli architect Zvi Hecker made a direct parallel between the fall of global finance and architecture: ‘The more obscure and environmentally irresponsible were the financial investments, the more excessive became the architectural form. In its most extreme version, architecture’s mere existence became its function, just as the inflated growth of the financial market became its only raison d’être.’
In a similar vein, Charles compared architecture to banking in his speech: ‘At a time when, believe it or not, we are hearing calls for a return to old-fashioned, traditional banking virtues, might these calls not apply equally to the manner in which our built environment gives physical expression to the way we do business and live our lives, as essentially social beings?’
RIBA president Sunand Prasad could only respond by refuting the idea that architects still subscribe to the experiment of Modernism. He even made a play on the carbuncle speech: the ‘car-bungle’, he said, was architects’ mistake in postwar planning that had led to the growth of car use.
So who is it that has changed sides in this discussion? Is it true that Prince Charles has mellowed – or is it more the case that architects have given up on their attempts to experiment with new ideas for the future? With hindsight, ‘Abolish the monarchy!’ really was the best comment I could have made.
Vicky Richardson is editor of Blueprint.
Vicky Richardson thought the ‘Freedom Tower’ was a monument to victimhood. Alastair Donald interviewed David Fisher creator of Burj Dubai. Anna Travis discussed the backlash against modernism. Josie Appleton argued that New York should rebuild to the skies after 9/11. James Woudhuysen wondered why construction is so backward. Or read more at spiked issue: Architecture and planning.
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