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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Black

Planning fit for a King (part 1)

40 years ago, this week, our current monarch and then heir to the throne, made a speech that was to become the stuff of legends. Now, in the cold light of the 2020s, I am writing a series of articles to firstly look back on that speech, then to reflect on how it changed the world of planning and architecture for a generation and finally to look forward to what influence our current and future monarch might have over our sector in the years to come.


The warm evening of the at the end of May 1984 coincided with the 150th anniversary of the Royal Institute of British Architecture (RIBA) which took place at Hampton Court. The then Prince of Wales was invited to present Charles Correa with the Royal Gold Medal for Architecture. However, unlike the weather and the setting, the speech he gave was unseasonably cold and cutting.


This series of blog posts will explore what was said in that speech and what it meant for the relationship between the industry and Prince Charles in the decades to come. The words used in that immortal speech set the scene for the next 4 decades in which our ‘monarch in waiting’ played an extraordinary role in the shaping of the built environment in certain areas of his future realm. That speech, and those that followed, announced the aspirations of Charles in creating his own form of architecture and in establishing others. In the process he also managed to successfully block other forms of architecture and the projects of one architect in particular.  


Forty Years on, what does it mean for the built environment now that Charles is our monarch? As beauty becomes an integral part of the planning and architecture of our towns, cities and places, has anything really changed? Was our King in waiting right to direct his spare time waiting for his turn towards architecture? In venting his spleen in the direction of architects did he not miss the fact that architecture is just one element of a much broader set of disciplines involved in the creation of buildings and communities, not least those making the decisions?


These blog posts are not written as an architectural critique, nor as a history blog. It does not seek to suggest what should have been before nor what should come next. This is not some tone on the establishment nor does it set out to be anti-establishment or even an exercise in antidisestablishmentarianism (longest word in one of my blog posts ever). Instead it seeks to document and opine on an extraordinary period in the history of the built environment in this country and a relationship between a future sovereign and the built environment sector. Being critical of the monarchy comes easier to some, but to those who feel a deeply ingrained form of deferential reverence to the Royal Family, it is much less natural.

So – back to 1984. Full disclosure I was 3 years old back then. Madonna was number one with ‘Like a Virgin’. Margaret Thatcher was still just getting into her stride. Liverpool were about to win their third successful football league title (unlike this year eh?). Charles was a young 36 year old, just three years into his marriage with Princess Diana, with a young two year old William and Prince Harry still a couple of months away.


So let’s delve into what he had to say in that now infamous speech. Charles has always had a decent sense of humour and he was straight off the bat in the introduction to his speech that night.


Last year I was invited to become President of the British Medical Association for its 150th anniversary and greatly enjoyed holding that particular office. I am enormously relived, I must say, that you have not asked me to be President of the RIBA this year because while it is comparatively easy to be a practising hypochondriac it is probably much more difficult to become the architectural equivalent. 


He was quite right and from experience over the years, people find it much easier to criticise the state of the NHS in this country than the state of our architecture. As a built environment professional I have always found it hard to understand the agnostic position of many against the built environment in which they live. But certainly not Charles, this speech was to mark the start of a very public interest which Charles would harbour in architecture and the built environment which would last the entirety of his period of understudy to his mother as monarch.


But he was only just getting started on his criticism of architects and the architecture they create and things were about to get much, much harsher………


For far too long, it seems to me, some planners and architects have consistently ignored the feelings and wishes of the mass of ordinary people in this country…….. Consequently a large number of us have developed a feeling that architects tend to design houses for the approval of fellow architects and critics, not for the tenants.


Oooof. The question is, has anything changed? Certainly we have not seen significant changes to the way houses are designed to cope with the pressures of modern life.


But actually was Charles onto something else here? In saying ‘not for tenants’ if only Charles knew what was about to come many years later in the form of a return to Nationally Described Space Standards and deep rooted problems in our leashold system.


What I believe is important about community architecture is that it has shown 'ordinary' people that their views are worth having; that architects and planners do not necessarily have the monopoly of knowing best about taste, style and planning; that they need not be made to feel guilty or ignorant if their natural preference is for the more 'traditional' designs - for a small garden, for courtyards, arches and porches; and that there is a growing number of architects prepared to listen and to offer imaginative ideas.


Of course nowadays, community consultation is a huge part of what we do as an industry but it wasn’t the way in the 1980s. There had been a number of high profile projects where buildings, projects, towns even had been implemented without much community consultation.


On that note, I can't help thinking how much more worthwhile it would be if a community approach could have been used in the Mansion House Square project. It would be a tragedy if the character and skyline of our capital city were to be further ruined and St Paul's dwarfed by yet another giant glass stump, better suited to downtown Chicago than the City of London


The Mansion House Square Project was a reference to the proposals for a 19 storey amber-glass office tower designed by Mies van der Rohe years earlier on the junction of Queen Victoria and Poultry next to the Bank of England. 40 years later, 19 storeys is largely inconsequential when measured against the current cluster of skyscapers dominating the City of London skyline which is set to grow at a rate of knots in the coming year.

Mies Van der Rohe - Mansion House Project (image courtesy of RIBA Journal)


At the public inquiry for the Mansion House Project which happened later on in 1984, the Russian architect Berthold Lubetkin said: “It is inconceivable that such a generous and unique gift to the City should be discarded in the name of a vague antiquarian pedantic prejudice” Well reader, discarded it most certainly was. To what extent HRH’s speech was instrumental in the refusal of that scheme, we will never know, but it surely cant have been nothing. Mies van der Rohe never lived to see the outcome of that public inquiry and sadly the opportunity for the UK’s only piece of modernist architecture by that great architect never happened. Over a decade later, towards the late 1990s, Number 1 Poultry by James Striling was built upon the site. Most certainly a post modernist masterpiece and now listed and set to be preserved for generations to come. But a better outcome for that site? I’m not sure. Maybe neither were.

1 Poultry by James Stirling (image courtesy of RIBA)


The reference to St Pauls was also interesting. Perhaps Charles didn’t realise, but Wren himself faced his own difficulties in building St Pauls and his original design was rejected on account of being ‘too radical’. The ‘Great Model’ of Wren’s original design is on display in the crypt of the Cathedral as a monument to remind us that nimbies and red tape are certainly nothing new.


What, then, are we doing to our capital city now? What have we done to it since the bombing during the war? What are we shortly to do to one of its most famous areas - Trafalgar Square? Instead of designing an extension to the elegant facade of the National Gallery which complements it and continues the concept of columns and domes, it looks as if we may be presented with a kind of municipal fire station, complete with the sort of tower that contains the siren.


I would understand better this type of high-tech approach if you demolished the whole of Trafalgar Square and started again with a single architect responsible for the entire layout, but what is proposed is like a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend.


In 1981, the government acquired the vacant site next to the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square and the then Secretary of State, Michael Heseltine, launched a national competition for a the design of a new extension.  Seven entries were shortlisted:

  • Ahrends, Burton and Koralek (ABK)

  • Richard Sheppard, Robson and Partners

  • Covell Matthews Wheatley

  • Skidmore, Owings and Merrill

  • Raymond Spratley Partnership

  • Arup Associates

  • Richard Rogers

The winning architects were ABK. Charles' speech was made shortly after a planning inspector had found the extension by Ahrends Burton and Koralek acceptable but just a few months later in September 1984, that decision was overturned by then Secretary of State Patrick Jenkin. It was once again a nail in the coffin for a daring scheme following intervention by our future monarch.


ABK Design for National Gallery (image courtesy of RIBA)

The Richard Rogers submission, whilst modern was much more logical and thought out and included much better wayfinding between Trafalgar Square and nearby Leicester Square and was very much thought of as the better scheme. But instead of going to Rogers as the next scheme, the National Gallery threw the baby out with the bath water and started the whole process again.

It was only when the three Sainsbury Brothers announced they would fund a new competition and subsequent build of the extension several years later that a new shortlist emerged of:


  • Harry Cobb

  • Colquhoun and Miller

  • Jeremy Dixon

  • Piers Gough

  • James Stirling

  • Robert Venturi

Robert Venuri was selected in 1986 to develop the new wing which was opened by Charles mother in 1990 and which we see today.


National Gallery extension by Robert Venuri (image courtesy of RIBA)

And so it had begun, a series of speeches and interventions that set off a chain of events which would reverberate through the built environment sector for the next 4 decades.

Just 3 years later, Charles would strike again with another speech which I will look at in the next blog.




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