Prince Charles in the White House?

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Expressway toll booth of the future ©Paul Spreiregen

 

Recent news about a new U.S. government policy concerning the design of public buildings under President Trump bears a striking resemblance to the controversy surrounding that very issue in the U.K. in the second half of the 20thcentury. It was then that Prince Charles appeared on the scene to challenge the use of modern design in architecture. Prince Charles’ career as architecture critic on the public stage began in 1984 with his criticism of Mies van der Rohe’s design for a new tower on Mansion House Square in London. Unfortunately for Britain’s architects, the voice of the crown carries some weight in British society, and the Mies tower was scrapped, replaced by a post-modern structure by James Stirling—which the Prince also did not like. According to the Prince, those modernist buildings resembled “Frankenstein monsters.” According to U.K.-based architects who had to deal with Charles’ pushback on modern design during that period, he was the “worst thing that happened to architecture here.”

 

Since then, Prince Charles’ influence in blocking the evolution of modern design in the U.K. has diminished considerably with the ascendance of modern architecture as a common staple—led by architects such as Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, Amanda Levete, Zaha Hadid, John McAslan, Nicholas Grimshaw, Thomas Heatherwick, and others. Although not taken seriously by his European neighbors on the continent, Prince Charles’ ideas did find fertile ground in the U.S.—both in municipalities and even in academia, where classical architecture became a staple at such programs as Notre Dame and, to a lesser extent, Yale. At the latter, I learned from a former student there that Prince Charles even surfaced on a list of “architects” one could choose from as a topic in one seminar.

 

Instead of peer review, federal architecture under the auspices of the General Services Administration (GSA) now will apparently be at the mercy of a “beautification” panel, which will see to it that modern architecture recedes into the background, if at all. U.S. architects may see themselves placed in the uncomfortable position German, Italian and Russian architects experienced under their totalitarian regimes in the 1930s. By embracing the primacy of classical architecture as a blueprint for public buildings, the Trump regime certainly has helped the National Civic Art Society reach its ultimate goal, at least at the federal level—requiring American architects to turn to the replication of 17thand 18thcentury-style buildings as the preferred design model. Assuming that happens, Prince Charles would be a welcome visitor in the White House.

 

Addressing this issue, Paul Spreiregen FAIA, architect and professional adviser for the Vietnam Memorial competition states:

“Architectural history is not a copybook. Rather It is a textbook, to be read with a deep understanding of the many principles upon which architecture comes into being. The history of architecture is not served by aping it but by building on it, addressing the programmatic needs of each new building in its own time and place, its neighbored respected, thereby reflecting and honoring the culture it serves. 
To use the “styles” of the past as a cloak for the new is a lie, a subterfuge for respectability and supposed prestige. That is the work of authoritarian governments. Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini were its more recent and notorious promoters. They produced not architecture but laughable if not tragic cartoons of architecture.

All the great works of architecture of the past were, in their own times and places, masterpieces of ancient principles seen anew. That practice has been the glory of the best of American architecture.”**

*Letters to the Editor, The Washington Post, 17 February 2020

https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-glory-of-american-architecture-comes-from-building-on-its-history/2020/02/17/00296bd0-4f7d-11ea-967b-e074d302c7d4_story.html