Noticias de Arquitectura

Prince Charles Tears Down Mr. Rogers’s Neighborhood
junio 20, 2009, 6:05 pm
Filed under: Arquitectura Inglesa, Rogers | Etiquetas: ,



In front of the Palace of Westminster, the so-called Mother of Parliaments that is the heart of the British democratic system, stands a well-tended bronze statue of broad-belted, big-booted Oliver Cromwell. He was the “Lord Protector” who ruled during the short-lived republic that followed the English Civil War and the execution of King Charles I. Cromwell might be excused a wry smile right now because another royal Charles is, some say, challenging the dearly held British principle of a constitutional monarchy. And all because of a row over architecture. Prince Charles, a vehement antimodernist, is up to his old tricks again.

The row has now escalated, with an English Baron — Lord Rogers of Riverside, better known as the architect Richard Rogers — calling for an official tribunal to examine the role of Prince Charles in state affairs. Mr. Rogers is incandescent with rage, and no wonder. It has emerged that the prince personally wrote to the Qatari prime minister (himself of royal blood) to ensure that a £6 billion ($9.85 billion) Rogers-designed housing development in the upmarket London enclave of Chelsea was withdrawn by its developer.

That developer, Qatari Diar, happens to be a company owned by the Qatari royal family. Prince has therefore spoken unto prince, ignoring the usual planning-approval process, the British government — everybody. Charles’s letter — the substance of which has been leaked, though not the actual text — decried the Rogers design. The neoclassical style of another architect, Quinlan Terry, was much more preferable, Prince Charles said. Last week Qatari Diar duly dropped Mr. Rogers like a hot potato, just as the architect’s design for the former Chelsea Barracks site was being recommended for approval by both local planners and the various national architecture and conservation agencies.

And the Qataris didn’t just ditch Mr. Rogers. They abandoned the whole plan and announced they were going back to the drawing board with the help of The Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment — which, despite its grand name, is effectively a fee-earning urbanism and architectural practice devoted to promulgating Charles’s views in real-life projects. It could be argued that Charles has usurped one architectural firm in order to hand a fat commission to another — his own. Whether Mr. Terry will be involved is unclear.

All of this means that the prince is sailing closer to the wind than he has done in years. The British system of constitutional monarchy, following the Restoration of 1660 after the republican interlude, is that the king or queen is head of state but effectively powerless. He or she rules by the consent of the people and Parliament. Heirs to the throne — indeed, all members of the royal family — are bound by the same rule. And this is what has brought Mr. Rogers out fighting.

In a no-holds-barred interview in the Guardian newspaper on June 16, Mr. Rogers said: “The prince always goes round the back to wield his influence, using phone calls or, in the case of the Chelsea Barracks, a private letter. It is an abuse of power because he is not willing to debate. He has made his representations two and a half years late and anyone else would have been shown the door. We should examine some of the ethics of this situation. Someone who is unelected, will not debate but will use the power bestowed by his birthright must be questioned.”

If Mr. Rogers was just another disappointed architect, this might be seen only as sour grapes. But he is both world-famous — winner of every architecture award going, including America’s Pritzker Prize — and a political animal. He was an adviser to Tony Blair’s Labour government, is still an adviser to the mayor of London and is an active member of the House of Lords, the upper chamber of Britain’s Parliament. He knows the ropes and I suspect he knows he has support.

Tellingly, Mr. Rogers remarks in the interview that “the Qataris never sorted out the difference between royalty and government.” It appears that they may have thought the British prince was like a Middle Eastern prince, a real wielder of executive power. Certainly no British-based development company would have attached so much importance to a petulant letter from Charles in the way that Qatari Diar did — especially not when it was on the verge of winning official planning permission, as was the case with the Rogers design.

Charles is known to be frustrated by his role — “He is actually an unemployed individual, which says something about the state of the royal family,” Mr. Rogers woundingly but accurately said. But this does not stop Charles from dashing off what are called “black spider letters,” after his scrawling handwriting, to prime ministers and ministers on all manner of topics. They are usually politely ignored. As a consequence, the presumed influence of Charles is rather greater overseas than it is at home, where — although his views on architecture attract strong conservative support — he is generally regarded as a well-meaning buffoon.

[Chelsea] Quinlan & Francis Terry, LLPQuinlan Terry’s neoclassical proposal — the preference of letter-writing royalty.

At times, Charles has suggested that he speaks for the common people. Given his immense wealth and privileged position, this is a hard point to argue. “The idea that he is a man of the people fascinates me,” said Mr. Rogers. “He’s a man of the rich people, that’s for sure.”

And this, in the end, is what the whole brouhaha comes down to: money and the power it brings. Qatari Diar, for instance, is not just intending to build a large housing development in Chelsea. It is also the major funder of what will be Europe’s tallest skyscraper close to London’s financial center. The “Shard” tower, by Mr. Rogers’s former partner Renzo Piano — with whom Mr. Rogers designed Paris’s Pompidou Center in the 1970s — will be the most prominent building in London by far. Its impact on the skyline will be colossal. In contrast, the visual impact of Mr. Rogers’s Chelsea plan will be zero on the skyline and negligible in its neighborhood. So why isn’t Charles writing letters to the Qataris about the Shard? Easy. The Shard is planned for an office quarter of a poor borough next to a commuter railway station. Chelsea, by contrast, is a rich residential district inhabited by some very conservative people with good contacts. (It also happens to be where the left-leaning Mr. Rogers lives.)

Will the architect get his way and persuade Parliament to re-examine the role of Prince Charles? I think it unlikely that anything will emerge publicly. But, just as Charles can write letters to the government, so the government can write letters to Charles. And it is not impossible that a sterner missive than usual may be drafted soon. Nobody will mention Cromwell. But his statue is there at the Palace of Westminster: a poignant warning to all uppity royals named Charles.

Mr. Pearman is architecture critic of the Sunday Times in London, and editor of the Journal of the Royal Institute of British Architects.

Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page D6

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