Saturday 2 August 2014

In praise of ... Prince Charles

When I was in fourth grade, our arts teacher asked us to paint the city of the future. I took a very broad brush and painted plenty of blocks of flats, square or rectangular, and clearly aligned them along a symmetrical grid. I don't think I bothered with putting windows into the buildings. It would have required some dexterous painting abilities, something certainly beyond my artistic grasp back then (or now). The outcome was as expected: square, ordered and hideously boring to look at, without a thought for the human beings who presumably would have to live in this city of the future very soon.

When I came to Birmingham for the first time in 1991, I was shocked. The city had ruthlessly copied my painting and rebuilt its centre exactly as I had pictured it only a few years earlier! In record time and with the same cavalier neglect for the need of humane habitation. Everywhere there were blocks of flats without windows and concrete subways. I was incensed. There was my picture of a future city that I had envisioned as a fourth grader and I had not received a single pence in royalties!

Not suitable for living - Owen Luder's Tricorn Centre in Portsmouth -
or as Prince Charles called it: a 'mildewed lump of elephant droppings' 

Of course, Birmingham is not the only British city that struggles with the legacy of post-war architecture. There are few urban centres in England or Wales that have been spared the attention of an unimaginative fourth grader with an architecture degree. This is often blamed on the large scale second world war bombing that ruined Coventry and others. But this is not quite the whole picture. Whilst the 1950s saw a significant increase in housebuilding, it was the expansive use of concrete in the 1960s that produced the brutalist city-scape scarring Britain.

The BBC recently ran a feature of several British cities that are coming to terms with this legacy. The preferred way of dealing with Birmingham, Hull or Coventry city centre appears to be dynamite, or rather: controlled destruction.

Should we regret the disappearance of these concrete blobs disfiguring the city landscape? There are those (mainly the architects who were responsible for these aberrations in human habitation) who argue that they represent a significant part of architectural history and should be preserved. I am unconvinced. What they forget to mention is that many of these concrete buildings required the destruction of Victorian or Georgian buildings that were still extant. The architecture of the 1960s did not arise on a blank sheet. Town planners and architects engaged in a near criminal tabula rasa which tried to eliminate the very architectural history that they now want to be part of.

There is of course one person who consistently warned of these architectural follies. The heir to the British throne. Prince Charles is widely ridiculed by some in the press but I think he has always been sharp, witty and sophisticated in his criticism of modern architecture, qualities that were mostly absent from the work of British architects or my own foray into architectural paintings as a fourth grader.

So, here is it: Three cheers for the common sense, and the heir of the throne!

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