Earlier this week I was surprised to open the door and find a royal messenger holding a letter from Prince Charles. Of course I assumed it was my invitation to be knighted as “Best American Blogger in Britain,” but alas it was for my flatmate, who is head of the resident’s association in my building. That position probably doesn’t do much to account for why he gets letters from Prince Charles, but allow me to explain.
I live across from the Chelsea Barracks, a moderately-sized British army barracks that was sold and vacated last year. It now stands empty, with only two garish dormitory towers and a military chapel left as a reminder of its former use. The towers haven’t been torn down yet because of an ongoing conflict between the buyers - the Qatari royal family - and the neighborhood residents. Qatari Diar bought the property from the Ministry of Defence for £959 million, making it Britain’s most expensive residential development site in history at £70.3m per acre.
The Qataris have hired famed architect Richard Rogers to develop a modernist residential community that would be 50% affordable housing. The proposed projects would include tall buildings that would block the sunlight of neighboring buildings like mine (apparently the courtyard would be put permanently in shadow).
Earlier this year it was reported that Prince Charles wrote to Qatar Emir Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani asking for Rogers’ design to be scrapped in favour of a more traditional scheme devised by classicist Quinlan Terry. Prominent London architects were outraged and called on the Prince to but out. But given that the site is right next to the Royal Chelsea Hospital and Sloane Square, many in this posh traditionally conservative area have been horrified by the though of a modern development towering over the venerable Chelsea.
The prince was then invited to speak at the to speak to the Royal Institute of British Architects last night, exactly 25 years after a highly controversial speech he made there 25 years ago blasting modern architecture and shooting down an idea to build an extension to the National Gallery at Trafalgar Square that resembled Paris’s Pompidou Centre. He famously likened the idea to seeing a “monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend". That plan was scrapped quickly after those comments, and London modernist architects have never forgiven him for it. That’s why many were surprised that the Prince, who is often described as being inappropriately activist for a British royal, was invited back this year, and several architects boycotted the speech. You can judge for yourself in hindsight how a Pompidou Centre would have looked in Trafalgar Square.
This is where my flatmate entered the scuffle. Suspecting the Prince would make for a welcome ally in the residents' quest to stop the skyscraper development, so he sent him a letter. Surprisingly the prince wrote back quite fast, and the response came on Monday, one day before he was slated to speak to the institute. Though many thought he might take the opportunity of his speech to lambast the Chelsea Barracks development plan, we could tell from his letter on Monday that he had no such intention. The letter said that the prince's letter to the Qatar royal family was leaked to the press and was not meant to be public, and essentially that the prince was going to stay out of the controversy. Sure enough, last night saw a contrite, milder prince who even apologized for his remarks 25 years ago.
So, it looks like no prince ally for the Chelsea residents, at least not for now. And it remains to be seen whether the prince's contrition will heal his rift with the architects. But the war between classicists and modernists is far from over The modernists insist the classicists are trying to build fairy tale villages, and the classicists say modern architecture is cold and quickly outdated. Personally, I like them both.
As for the prince, he spent most of his speech actually railing about how new buildings should be eco-friendly. When it comes to pet issues, it's clear this "activist prince" moved on from architecture to climate change long ago.