The Prince of Wales certainly gets people talking about architecture. His pronouncements on, and interventions into, designs for new buildings date back to 1984, when he was invited to speak at the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) on its 150th anniversary. He shocked his hosts by denouncing the modernist architect Peter Ahrends’ proposed extension to the National Gallery as a “monstrous carbuncle”. Ahrends’ design was later scrapped and the speech was said to have sparked a “style war” between classicists and modernists.
Further provocations followed: in 1996, The Prince said that the Luftwaffe had done less to damage London than Richard Rogers’ designs for Paternoster Square by St Paul’s Cathedral (Rogers’ plan was dropped); the two clashed again in 2009 when, after seeing Rogers’ plan for 552 steel and glass flats on the site of London’s Chelsea Barracks, The Prince complained that the scheme was “a gigantic experiment with the very soul of our capital city”.
While these spats were hitting the headlines, the architectural charity set up by The Prince was quietly working away. Established as The Prince of Wales’s Institute of Architecture in 1986, it taught the traditional approaches that The Prince felt were neglected in mainstream architectural education. In 2001, it was relaunched as The Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment to reflect its growing role as a consultant on urban planning, before becoming The Prince’s Foundation for Building Community in 2012.
Thirty years after The Prince’s “carbuncle” speech, there is considerable overlap between the values of his foundation and those of the architectural community. RIBA president Stephen Hodder says that “[the foundation’s] agenda is something many people have been pursuing for some time”, but adds that it “acts as an important reminder that places are for people”.
The foundation’s buzzwords “community” and “sustainability” may chime with current concerns over the environment and social cohesion, but The Prince has long attacked what he sees as postwar architects’ top-down approach. In his 1989 book A Vision of Britain, The Prince says: “The professionals need to consult the users of their buildings more closely. We need design and layout that positively encourage neighbourliness.”
He first put these ideas into practice in Poundbury, a new suburb of Dorchester, Dorset, designed by Léon Krier on Duchy of Cornwall land. With its Georgian town houses, red brick cottages and supermarkets wrapped in classical columns, it has been called a pastiche. However, the foundation’s executive director Dominic Richards, who trained at The Prince of Wales’s Institute of Architecture in the 1990s, is keen to stress the forward-thinking principles that lie behind it. Poundbury is a mixed-use development of comparatively high density, designed to encourage walking and minimise sprawl. Significantly, it has 35 per cent affordable housing but no segregated estates – a model that, according to Richards, “makes people nervous because they think you are going to devalue the more expensive properties”. (Poundbury disproved that theory, with estate agents claiming that homes there have sold for more than those in Dorchester.)
The foundation applied the same principles when advising on the design of Highbury Gardens, a £35m housing development in north London that opened in 2011. Of the 119 flats, 58 per cent were sold on the open market and 42 per cent as affordable homes. The flats for social tenants are visually indistinguishable.
The volume of the buildings is broken into smaller elements differentiated by height and colour so as to suggest a terrace of town houses – though there are only apartments inside. Highbury Gardens architect Demetri Porphyrios resists the term “pastiche”, saying: “You can never copy anything in life; each time you go to the stream, you will never collect the same water.”
Highbury Gardens has proved popular, with three-quarters of the flats selling in three weeks and those sold privately going for 20 per cent more than comparable properties in the area. The development faces on to the busy Holloway Road but, on a recent visit, I am struck by the quiet garden courtyard. I meet teacher Shehnaz O’Mallie, 38, in the two-bedroom flat she and her husband part-own through a government scheme to help key workers afford accommodation near their jobs. “I love living here,” she says. “I know other teachers in key-worker housing in newbuilds and their square footage must be half that of this place.”
The construction of more developments like Highbury Gardens – mid-rise, on brownfield sites – is put forward as one solution to London’s current housing crisis in the foundation’s recent report Housing London: A Mid-Rise Solution, which argues that mid-rise blocks are more conducive to good neighbourly relations than high-rise. The main barriers to implementing a “mid-rise solution” in London are securing financial backing and land. Developers can make most money selling off-plan to foreign investors – and these investors tend to favour the skyscrapers common to Singapore, Chicago and every big city in between.
“I’m all for international investment [into London],” says Richards, “but if we were encouraging that investment to go into mid-rise, we’d be getting the form and the investment.”
This doesn’t tackle the housing shortage facing Londoners, though, I say. “Well, every development we do is a mixed-income development,” he replies. “But this has to be something that produces a financial return . . . I would like to see us as the people who enable good-quality development that answers to the economic reward and the social reward.”
Pleasing investors while also solving social segregation is an ambitious aim. Though the foundation’s mixed-income model – with typically 30 per cent affordable housing – has been successful, it won’t solve on its own the problem of London’s inadequate housing stock, where more council homes are still being sold than replaced. According to the charity Shelter, there are now more than 1.8m households in England waiting for an affordable home – up 81 per cent since 1997.
By describing London’s skyscrapers in its report as “glittering towers of exclusivity”, the foundation is, arguably, piggybacking on the widespread worry that the city’s most prominent new buildings serve absent investors, not Londoners. Yet the foundation’s emphasis on fostering communities echoes a recent “Skyline” campaign by the Architects’ Journal magazine, calling for a more “holistic, thoughtful” approach to planning tall buildings. It is “about architects rediscovering their lost role as civic leaders”. Which sounds rather like something The Prince might say.
Illustration by Clare Mallison