How Prince Charles Changed Our Skyline

You might wander through London’s bustling streets, unaware that His Royal Highness Prince Charles has changed the face of the city around you. You dash across Trafalgar Square to catch the 24 bus, hardly noticing the discrete Sainsbury Wing next to the grandness of The National Gallery’s colonnaded façade. The Prince had a hand in this.

This is just a small snippet of London that has been moulded by the Prince. His involvement has stretched much farther; there’s his famous ‘monstrous carbuncle’ speech to the Royal Institute of British Architects on their 150th anniversary, his 2000-word essay for The Architectural Review on the ‘ten key principles for sustainable urban growth’, and his exposed letter to Qatari Royalty. However, His Royal Highness has no specific education in Architecture. His expertise is in Anthropology, Archaeology and History. Perhaps it is his study within these fields that has informed the judicious views he maintains. He hasn’t been quiet over the years about his disdain for modern and postmodern architecture. ‘London before the last war must have had one of the most beautiful skylines of any great city.’ This standalone line gives us valuable insight into his views.

It is for you to make your mind up whether he was entitled to interfere or not as we delve into two projects that didn’t end so well for their Architects. Mies van der Rohe’s ‘One Poultry’ and Richard Rogers’ ‘Chelsea Barracks’. Their proposals were scrapped because the Prince stepped in – one could call these two structures, ‘ghost buildings’.

One Poultry, Mies van der Rohe, 1962

Mies van der Rohe, the German-American modernist architect, was approached by an avid architectural enthusiast and wealth property mogul, Peter Palumbo, to design a proposal for a London site. Palumbo was a fan of Mies and went on to buy one of his most famous architectural creations, Farnsworth House in 1972. So Architect-Client relations are on cloud nine. It seemed potentially fortunate for Mr van der Rohe that his client, Lord Palumbo, was a polo-playing friend of the Prince. Perhaps this project could reach construction unscathed…

Aesthetically, the building developed into a smaller, but similar version of van der Rohe’s ‘Seagram Building’ in New York City. The structure was functionalist with 20 stories of bronzed-toned glazing. The building would occupy a corner plot at the junction of Poultry and Queen Victoria Street providing a subterranean shopping arcade and pedestrian link to Bank underground station.

In 1968, at 83 years old, van der Rohe submitted detailed plans and the proposal was met with a positive response. The planners agreed, and London’s first Mies van der Rohe structure was on its way into existence. However issues renegotiating the lease delayed Lord Palumbo for 11 years, by which time the architect had passed away. He had to seek planning permission again (by this time it’s 1981) and is denied.

Enter Prince Charles. It is not known what was said by the Prince to the local planning authority at the time, but he made his feeling abundantly clear in his 1984 speech; ‘It would be a tragedy if the character and skyline of our capital city were to be further ruined and St Paul’s dwarfed by yet another giant glass stump, better suited to downtown Chicago than the City of London.’

Many architects supported the Mies’ entry onto British turf, but not the Prince. He didn’t want it next to Mansion House’s Palladian style architecture. Despite pleas from Lord Palumbo to the Secretary of State for the Environment, His Royal Highness’ influence stood firm. In 1985, the Secretary of State for the Environment finally rejected the plans using the reason that they were no longer in keeping with the city.

Chelsea Barracks, Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners

In the well-heeled neighbourhood of SW1W a short stroll to the fashionable King’s Road, there is definitely a desire for luxury accommodation and a hotel. The Rogers Stirk Harbour&Partners proposal for Chelsea Barracks began in 2008, their previous prominent projects include Centre Pompidou. The Barracks accounts to 638 luxurious flats, health clinic, sports centre, youth centre and a 120- bed boutique style hotel and spa. And of course the developer funding the proposal has a history of wealth and extravagance. It just so happens to be a Candy and Candy enterprise (British luxury property developers, definitely worth a quick Google) and Qatari Diar, the Qatari Royal Family. So we already have one Royal family involved…

Considering it is the largest and most expensive plot of land in London, bought for a staggering £959 million, it attracted some attention from the start. The planning body approved the initial designs and praised the inclusion of community facilities. Excellent news.

Enter Prince Charles. HRH writes a letter to the Prime Minister of Qatar in a personal attempt to alter the project. In fact, the very letter that the Prince wrote has now been made public, due to the subsequent court case between the Candy’s and Qatari Diar. This came as a consequence of the project being later dropped by Qatari’s and the Candy brothers wishing to recoup losses….about £81 million of losses to be exact.

Back to the very publicly exposed letter…the Prince says ‘…quite frankly, my heart sank when I saw the plans that have been produced…In this regard, I wonder whether you might be interested to the attached alternative plans for the site which have been put together by the architect, Quinlan Terry?… I can only urge you to reconsider the plans for the Chelsea site before it is too late. Many would be eternally grateful to Your Excellency…’ Actually, your Royal Highness, I think our hearts go out to Rogers Stirk Harbour&Partners for your meddling! Consequently, plans for Rogers’ Chelsea Barracks were scrapped.

HRH has typically traditionalist inclinations when considering our city’s urban development. But surely, the Prince ought to consider that there needs to be more complexity to a design other than the conditions he sets out. Architects should see Prince Charles’ influence as a reminder of the considerations they’re expected to negotiate. Where architects may wish to yield to newer trends and their imaginations, they must be careful to propose interventions that are considerate, while pushing limitations and progressing the view of the profession, without destroying history. However, the Prince should also see Architects as mediators, considering all aspects of scale, materiality and creating a harmony in design. That design sometimes just so happens to be in the postmodern style.

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