The Prince of Wales and Other Radicals

Some thoughts on who are the real radicals in architecture.
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Some thoughts on who are the real radicals in architecture.

Some years ago a British author named David Lorimer published a remarkable book called Radical Prince. Its intriguing thesis was that the Prince of Wales, contrary to the facile caricatures of his critics, is a complex thinker, a forward-looking innovator, and a well-informed philosopher on long-term issues of culture and tradition. While one may or may not agree with him in every particular, the prince does raise urgent questions about the performance of our modern technology and its humanist qualities, or lack of them, down to its very roots—so he is indeed, in that sense of the word, “radical.”

Of course, a very different kind of radicalism dominates the architecture world today, and many of its proponents are fierce critics of the prince. This kind of architecture is politically progressive in its public posture, but as a practical matter, has proven itself more than ready to market questionable commodities wrapped in alluring art packages.

Prominent “starchitects” themselves bemoan this state of affairs. Rem Koolhaas, one of the most articulate, has said that “we, of course, work enthusiastically for clients we readily describe as tyrants and occupiers... there are many reasons to question our sincerity and motives.”

In this environment, the starchitecture itself seems to take on an ever more desperate character—with ever wilder swoops, jags, startling abstractions, and obscure coded art narratives for the cognoscenti. Koolhaas also lamented, “the work we do is no longer mutually reinforcing....any accumulation is counterproductive, to the point that each new addition reduces the sum’s value.”

Indeed. But while the work itself grows more chaotic, the narrative becomes increasingly dogmatic and aggressive—and critics like the prince are targeted. A representative attack came last year from Douglas Murphy, the architecture critic for Icon magazine. In a remarkable piece in The Guardian newspaper, Murphy hurled the architectural equivalent of curse words at the prince, and the traditional architecture he represents: “twee,” “Noddy house,” “reactionary” and worse.

But in David Lorimer’s account and elsewhere, an intriguing picture is emerging. Perhaps surprisingly, it is architectural modernists like Murphy who come off as reactionary defenders, mired in the past–a century-old, industrial-era system of design. Their product is clad in imaginative postmodern art packaging, but actually structured according to the dictates of a mechanically inclined era, long before the dawn of biological complexity and systems thinking. By contrast, it is the prince who comes off as more genuinely radical, because he is more genuinely concerned with the long-term effects of design on the real world of human life.

It is telling that in these attacks on the prince, the same tired fallacies can be seen again and again— the same unquestioned old shibboleths, the same professional “kool-aid.” I have sought to pick out a “top five list” of these canards, together with a brief heretical evaluation of each.

1. The building and neighborhood forms that existed prior to the modernist era (1920-) occurred under very different social, political and technological conditions, ergo people cannot live authentic lives within such forms today. This curious idea is belied by the ready observation that many diverse people, in fact, now live very happy modern lives within such buildings and neighborhoods.

2. Modernism is necessary because it is cheaper, more practical, and/or and technically more feasible. This argument once may have seemed plausible, but today it is common to see stratospheric prices for modernist buildings, and at the same time, new technologies that lower the price of traditional ones. There is little basis for making such a claim today.

3. To prefer historic forms is to prefer the oppression that was historically associated with them. This facile idea amounts to architectural guilt by association. The trouble is, whose guilt must we share? In the case of traditional European architecture, perhaps it was Romans who had slaves? Or is it Nazis, or Communists, or American colonists—or indeed, British Arts and Crafts, reviving the oppressions of a medieval past? Contrary to the facile modernist narrative of a neatly linear historical semiotics, most historians today recognize that history is a fugue, and architectural forms cannot be precisely correlated to political ideas or historic conditions.

4. Because new technologies made possible new forms of architecture, we must now accept a radically new architecture, and reject all previous forms. This “tectonic determinism” is a faith-based doctrine with no foundation in evidence. On the contrary, arches, domes and glass were radical new technologies in their day, but they did not dictate that all previous forms of architecture (and architectural ornament) must be banished. On the contrary, some of the greatest architecture of history was enriched by—and not replaced by—these new technologies.

5. It is simply wrong to “copy the past.” Nonsense. Modernists are fond of copying the masters of their own past, and then attacking others for copying what they frame as a politically incorrect past. More broadly, the argument neglects a more basic issue of evolution. Natural systems, for example, freely copy and refine what works, thereby creating more highly evolved, adaptive and successful designs. Similarly, human history is full of examples of evolutionary recapitulations of “revival” architecture and urbanism, creating many of the most successful and cherished urban places on the planet today.

By his own account, the Prince of Wales long ago decided to apply his ceremonial position to raise overlooked issues of long-term human well-being: degradations of soils, foods, climate, technology–and human habitat. He, like others, has recognized that traditional architecture has been with us for thousands of years, and it evidently meets real human needs. In fields like neuroscience and environmental psychology, we are beginning to understand these needs–qualities like coherence, familiarity, aesthetic intricacy, symmetry, harmony, and the ordinary experience of beauty.

Perhaps it is time for our architect colleagues to get out of their artistic marketing silos, and take much more seriously their larger responsibility to human well-being. For all their talk about creativity and imagination, perhaps it is the architects who are guilty of a failure of imagination. Perhaps they fail to see the only remaining genuinely radical alternative: to open themselves once again to the rich and unbounded universe of traditional forms and expressions.