Architects Get a Royal Scolding

At American Institute of Architects dinner, Prince Charles decries lack of beauty in today's buildings

H.R.H. the Prince of Wales - polo player and architecture critic - swung his royal mallet at modern architecture with a resounding thwack before a black-tie gala of nearly 1,200 VIPs and members of the American Institute of Architects (AIA). The chukker took place in the vast six-story ballroom of the National Building Museum, where the Prince strode through Ionic, Doric, and gilded Corinthian columns to bash contemporary architecture as being devoid of beauty or taste.

The Prince is a champion of classic revival architecture, with its emphasis on harmony, ornament, and proportion. Speaking in the mellow, elegantly enunciated tones of a future king, he said, ``I understand all the arguments about being contemporary and about the need to reflect the Spirit of the Age, but what alarms me is that the age has no spirit. It is all matter and, therefore, unable to endure. Our built environment seems to reflect the underlying misconception that we are the only generation on this Earth and that we are here to do with it as we please.''

The Prince gave the architects before him a witty chiding at this AIA ``celebration of design excellence'' dinner: ``Much of the commercial building of today bears as much relation to architecture as advertising slogans bear to literature. The architects of `signature buildings' ransack history as if it were a wardrobe full of old clothes. Their buildings seldom bear any meaningful relationship to the areas in which they are placed.''

Before delivering his seven-page speech, Prince Charles reigned at the head table, covered like the other tables in crimson velvet, with gold flatware and bouquets of pink tulips, roses, red poppies, and lilacs. The guests at this $250-a-head, black-tie gala dined on mignonettes of beef tenderloin with pink peppercorn glaze and mousse trio bombe.

The Prince at first chatted with the other guests, at one point breaking into laughter and hiding his face in his hands. Then he listened to the program, chin in hand. Before he spoke, he could be seen at his table by candlelight, reading his speech over and apparently revising it.

Before the Prince's gig, the evening's master of ceremonies, ABC anchorman Peter Jennings, introduced stars Tom Selleck (black tie and wide smile), Brooke Shields (gold lam'e), and Joan Rivers (black lace). Selleck and Shields appeared briefly as advocates for homeless organizations to support the ``Search for Shelter'' funded in part by AIA for the homeless. A portion of the proceeds from the AIA gala go to that cause.

If security had been sand, the benefit would have been Miami Beach, with so many bomb-sniffing police dogs it looked like best-of-the-breed finals at the American Kennel Club. Guests were checked and double-checked through electric magnometers. The press were corralled, doubly credentialed, and kept half a football field away from the Prince at all times. A special area was cordoned off for entrance of the Prince and VIPs, far from the few dozen demonstrating outside to get English troops out of Northern Ireland. Among the signs: ``Charles, Design a Way out of Ireland.''

Earlier that day, there had been some pro-Prince demonstrators at AIA headquarters (``Our Champion of Humane Architecture'') and the Octagon House. There the Prince inspected an exhibition of work by Christopher Wren, the 17th-century architect who designed historic St. Paul's Cathedral in London [see article at left].

Prince Charles first threw down the gauntlet in front of modern architects in 1984, when he told the Royal Institute of British Architects: ``You have, ladies and gentlemen, to give this much to the Luftwaffe: When it knocked down our buildings it didn't replace them with anything more than rubble. We did that.''

And his book, ``A Vision of Britain,'' followed a 1988 television program by the same name seen both in the Britain and the US. In the book, subtitled ``A Personal View of Architecture,'' the Prince doesn't mince words: ``The fashionable architectural theories of the '50s and '60s, so slavishly followed by those who wanted to be considered `with it,' have spawned deformed monsters which have come to haunt our towns and cities, our villages and countryside.... We have ended up with Frankenstein monsters, devoid of character, alien and largely unloved'' except by their creators.

He levels a royal wrecking ball at ``the National Theatre, [which] seems like a clever way of building a nuclear power station in the middle of London without anyone objecting.'' And he describes a Thames riverside building as resembling a word processor: ``How amazing to think that this excresence, Mondial House, passed through any kind of planning process. Do humans work in there?''

The Prince's book, filled with handsome photos of buildings he either loathes or loves, also contains his now famous ``Ten Principles We Can Build On,'' known in architectural circles as ``the Ten Commandments.'' They include a sense of respect for place; reasonable scale; harmony (``Sing with the choir and not against it''); materials (``let where it is be what it's made of''); art (artists and architects ``betrothed'' early on each project); community (``let the people who will have to live with what you build help guide your hand'').

The Prince's views have raised architectural design to the level of a six-year Parliamentary debate in England; he says 99 percent of his mail supports him. But he has received considerable flak from British architects and last week more flak from a panel of American architects discussing ``Dilemmas in Design'' at the post-modern Hirshhorn Museum.

Moderator Stanley Tigerman of Chicago asked why they needed ``validation from Europe'' by a non-architect and amateur historian who has caused their colleagues to loose jobs and promotes his views under a canopy of royalty. Architect Eric Owen Moss of Los Angeles said, ``The language of royalty now masquerades as the language of social welfare,'' and charged that ``the only buildings [the Prince] likes are the ones built for the church and royalty.''

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