Britain's Built Legacy: From "Carbuncles" to the Cutting-Edge

Britain's Built Legacy: From "Carbuncles" to the Cutting-Edge
Photo of Queen Elizabeth II's Jubilee Celebrations. Photo © LEON NEAL/AFP/GettyImages

‘What is proposed is like a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much loved and elegant friend.”

It’s easy to see why British Architects get their hackles raised when it comes to Prince Charles. The oft-quoted gem above, said in reference to a proposed extension to the National Gallery in 1984, is one of hundreds of such Architectural criticisms Prince Charles has made over the years. Which wouldn’t matter of course, if, like any average Architectural layman’s opinions, his words didn’t have much weight.

His do. They’ve resulted in the intervention, squelching, and/or redesign of at least 5 major plans over the last twenty years. But let’s not write off Charles just yet.

With the Queen’s Jubilee ceremoniously having finished yesterday, the conversation analyzing her legacy has begun. And while London’s towering, cutting-edge high rises (a la Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, and Zaha Hadid), will be the shining examples of Elizabeth’s reign – I’d like to suggest something, and raise a few hackles, myself…

Curious for more? Keep reading about Prince Charles’ unlikely influence on Architecture, after the break…

“Coherent, Vital, Humane Places”

The Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery was designed by Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown after original plans (which Prince Charles described as a "monstrous carbuncle") were scrapped. Photo via e-architect, © Nick Weall

Many dismiss Prince Charles as an outspoken meddler in Architectural “Progress,” but let’s go back to the source, that infamous 1984 ‘carbuncle’ speech, and take a look at what Charles really had to say:

“To be concerned about the way people live; about the environment they inhabit and the kind of community that is created by that environment should surely be one of the prime requirements of a really good architect  I would understand better this type of high-tech approach if you demolished the whole of Trafalgar Square and started again with a single architect responsible for the entire layout, but what is proposed is like a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend.”

Charles’ opinion here is a valid architectural critique. Rejecting what Robert A. Stern describes as the theory of architecture where “Every new building had to be at the expense of its surroundings,” Prince Charles prioritized integration into place, community-building, and human experience as the primary aims of “good” architecture.[1]

This passion in fact led him to establish the Prince’s Foundation for Building Communities, which supports built environments that better the quality of human life. It also led him to construct a sustainable village in south England, Poundbury, which (although, according to ArchDaily photographer Andy Spain appears like a “sad simulacra“) put into practice then largely-theoretical ideas. As Hank Dittmar, Chief Executive of The Prince’s Foundation, has said:

Poundbury, a sustainable town planned specifically according to Prince Charles' beliefs in livability and tradition. Photo © Andy Spain.

“One of the legacies of the Prince has been the consideration not just of buildings themselves but also communities and places. At Poundbury he set out a vision of affordable housing and creating streets that were designed for people rather than cars. At the time the conventional wisdom was that these were radical and impossible ideas and yet they are now a part of mainstream planning policy.”

What Prince Charles’ Architectural Interventionism comes down to, is his belief in ”coherent, vital, humane places.”

Of course, it cannot be denied that the execution of these interventions – and indeed the absolutist evaluations that have come with them – suggest that Prince Charle’s definition of “good” architecture is far more limited in scope than his noble intentions.

The Glass Underpants Problem

Detail of Birmingham Central Library, which Prince Charles called "an unmitigated Disaster." Photo via Flicer CC User R~P~M

Over the years, Prince Charles has referred to a potential Mies van der Rohe skyscraper as a “giant, glass stump,” likened an award-winning Lecture Hall to a “dustbin,” and dismissed a Brutalist Library in Birmingham as “an unmitigated disaster.” [2]

These kinds of comments ruffle Architects who, understandably, hate to have their well thought-out designs reduced to easy metaphors – often to damaging effect. In fact, it was the unfavorable comparison of one of Pritzker Prize Winning Peter Zumthor‘s designs to Glass Underpants that ultimately destroyed its chances of being built.

In this respect, Prince Charles is very much the voice of the resistant observer – encountering the new and dismissing it at face-value – and the perpetrator of the very sin he has openly critiqued: evaluating architecture for its aesthetic qualities instead of its user-oriented qualities.

For while he says that he is concerned about the common man who will live and experience these buildings; he often doesn’t imagine how forward-looking, progressive design (not just traditional architecture which mimics its surroundings) could also heighten the user experience. Amanda Ballieu, editor of  Building Design and a Stirling prize judge, sums it up so:

“The positive impact has been on the profession that thought it was beyond criticism, was on a pedestal and beyond reproach. My criticism of him is that he often sees buildings and skylines as he would in a painting rather than as someone who uses them.” [2]

Forget the Words, It’s the Conversation

The Great Court of The British Museum, by Foster + Partners, an example of forward-thinking British Design that probably doesn't fit into Prince Charles' aesthetic tates.

But it cannot be denied that Prince Charles contributed greatly to the debate, forced British architects to consider the integration of place in design, and rethink the purpose of Architecture – not as an isolated work of art, but as an art directly entangled in the human experience. And, frankly, the quality of architecture that has resulted in Britain since the infamous “Carbuncle” debate is, “on the whole, far superior.” [3]

Prince Charles’ comments represent an entirely different schema for Architectural design, a legacy that will be far more influential on Britain’s built environment in the next 60, or even 150 years. As he said at the end of his “Carbuncle” speech: “May I express the earnest hope that the next 150 years will see a new harmony between imagination and taste and in the relationship between the architects and the people of this country.”

Well, Prince Charles, while you may not see it this way, you’ve gotten exactly what you wished for.


[1] Hales, Linda. “Charles in Charge.” Washington Post. October 29, 2005.

[2] Jamieson, Alastair. “The Prince of Wales on Architecture: His 10 ‘Monstrous Carbuncles.’” The Telegraph. May 13, 2009. .

[3] Glancey, Jonathan. “Life After Carbuncles.” The Guardian. May 17, 2004.

About this author
Cite: Vanessa Quirk. "Britain's Built Legacy: From "Carbuncles" to the Cutting-Edge" 06 Jun 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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