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Prince of Wales Gets Bashed by 'Of Our Time' Zealots

Is using Modernist design to restore Ancient buildings an oxymoron?
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Add Prince Charles to the list of those who’ve been bushwhacked by “of our time” ideologues. The Prince has resigned from Britain’s venerable Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings after a blowup involving restoration of historic architecture.

Trouble began when the Society, which was founded by William Morris in 1877, decided to publish a handbook on restoration of old houses. The Society asked its longtime royal patron, the Prince of Wales, to write a foreword. And so he did.

However, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings – despite its title – is committed to employing Modernist design in restoration projects. Consequently, its new handbook advocates using “modern” design and materials – especially in additions. But the Prince of Wales, true to his beliefs, turned in a foreword that contained a paragraph with his view that it’s preferable to restore and add onto old buildings in the original style.

The Society’s leadership had a royal cow when they read what the Prince had written! They asked for the offending paragraph to be changed, but Charles said they could use the piece as written, or refuse it entirely. The Society chose to reject the piece – an unprecedented insult to a royal patron. The Prince, in response to being censored, terminated his connection to the society.

Three cheers for Prince Charles! He believes the injunction to use “modern” design and materials is all too often used to justify totally insensitive additions to old buildings. A lot of us in the U.S. believe the same.

Many architects across the pond are of a similar mind

Many American architects have had additions to historic buildings rejected by preservation commissions if the addition too closely resembles the style of the original structure. That’s because many commissions narrowly apply the Secretary of Interior’s Standards for Rehabilitation, which urges that new additions be “clearly differentiated” from the original building. To be safe, many commissions insist that additions be Modernist in style to make sure the new work is “clearly differentiated” and “of our time.”

The philosophical fallacy behind the “of our time” standard was exposed most recently by Steven Semes in Traditional Building, Feb. 2009. Semes – and others – have shown that the prejudice for Modernist additions has its intellectual roots in the Venice Charter of 1964 – which was written by Modernist-trained architects. The Charter declared that additions to historic monuments “must be distinct from the architectural composition and must bear a contemporary stamp.” And, of course, Modernist-trained architects interpret “contemporary” to mean “Modernist.”

Most design review boards and preservation commissions have adopted this fallacious assumption as holy writ. The unfortunate result has been many ludicrous additions to old buildings across the country – a triumph of ideology over aesthetics.

Sentiment is growing to revise the Secretary of Interior’s Standards with respect to additions to old buildings. In the meantime, The Prince Of Wales Foundation should sponsor a Steve Semes lecture on the “of our time” fallacy at the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings!

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