TABLE OF CONTENTS

PRINT May 1988

GROUND UP

Architecture

THE NUMEROUS WORDS OF PRINCE CHARLES on the subject of contemporary architecture reverberate with vast existential allure. The content of his messages—the calls for populism, for contextualism, for resistance to Modernism and to Brutalism—may strike us as welcome or irritating, on target or beside the point; whatever our response, they have a resonance, which lies less in their content than in the emergence of their urgent, angry shapes from one of the symbolic centers in which architecture once received its validation—the British throne. The shapes remind us that this center was once not only symbolic. Once, the messages from within took the shape of real walls: Tudor architecture, Georgian architecture, Regency architecture, Victorian architecture, Edwardian architecture. And then the messages stopped. The center no longer had the power to validate anything but the cutting of ribbons, the opening of bazaars, the breeding of heirs, and the ritual holding up of scepters. “Elizabeth II” is a name to put on the stern of a ship at sea, wheezing its way around the ports of a vanished empire beneath the shadow of the jets. The mind stops at the thought of imagining Charlian architecture.

Yet here to help us imagine it is Charles himself, a figure born into that now-void center, trained to hold the orb on appropriate occasions as a symbol of wholeness and continuity in a world that has little room for them. Charles speaks from a place that no longer radiates its old centrifugal force; and he speaks about a medium that once imposed that force physically upon the globe. We are jolted to attention by this voice from a void that for years has taken no form but the swirl of pearls and diadems, polo mallets and waves of the hand from horse-drawn carriages. Suppose that on a tourist jaunt to Greece we have spread a picnic cloth on the rocks at Delphi, and suddenly feel the ground shake and hear loud noises issuing from some nearby crevice. Can it be the oracle? We don’t want to spoil our picnic, but we have to listen; we have to know whether the sound is spelling out the Truth or merely asking for a bite of deviled egg.

Charles has been trained to speak of the weather, the hunt, the breeding of prize animals. Instead, his voice has become the critic’s voice, sharing in the very discipline that, among others, helped to terminate the authority of the center, any center. The irony lends melancholy to his criticism. Calling for contextualism, for populism, Charles’ voice resembles many others today, but differs in its leveling glumness: he wants new buildings indistinguishable from old buildings, buildings that don’t confound the habits and expectations of their users, essentially an absence of architecture, a voiding of the authority of those architects who have gone around promoting barbarisms like Modernism and Brutalism instead of civilized things like Georgianism and Edwardianism. If we answer this call, if we drive out the barbarians, says Charles, “we shall have made our cities centers of civilization once again.”

By law, anything the voice chooses to say amounts to a discourse on powerlessness, at most on the pathos of being legally bound to ineffectuality while disposed by temperament, whim, boredom, or conviction to be useful. And yet, as community activists throughout the English-speaking world quote the prince in efforts to reverse plans for new buildings in their neighborhoods, there is already evidence that Charles’ version of architectural criticism has allowed him to regain a semblance of historical force, through his lawful access to the very mechanisms that inherited the power his ancestors failed to confine to him. No one is better placed than Charles to know the degree to which the lens and the microphone have replaced the orb and the scepter. From birth he has been required to perform for these instruments a carefully crafted script, to enact a walking-and-talking rendition of the wax dummy of him in Madame Tussaud’s. He has been saying “cheese” for forty years, rehearsing his impersonation of a sovereign-monarch-to-be while England has settled down into its postwar role as a kind of Monaco North with edible chips.

The performance has been a smash; in all this time, the royal uselessness has been one of the few things in England not to break down. Those who want a center today can turn on the telly and watch a prince or princess cut a ribbon; they know they’re looking at the biggest industry they’ve got in the postindustrial age. So why should they pretend, at this point, that England stands to benefit from the charade of an architecture that celebrates “modern” industrialism? Why should they pretend that there is “progress” in the ancient Mies van der Rohe design, for a site near Saint Paul’s, that Charles so noticeably opposed? England had its industrial revolution more than 200 years ago, when the reigning architectural style was the mock Classical Revival of Robert Adam. The English put up, and took down, the Crystal Palace in 1851. The architect was Joseph Paxton and the patron was Prince Albert. Neither knew that they had given birth to a future style of architecture known as Modernism, a style whose embodiment of industrial progress would one day enmesh postindustrial England within the glittering reflections of its own decline.

Herbert Muschamp directs the Graduate Program in Criticism at the Parsons School of Design, New York. His column appears regularly in Artforum.