Thursday, February 21, 2008

What's so wrong with a bit of puerile name calling? The case for Prince Charles: Architecture Critic

There’s an article in this weeks copy of Inside Paper (sorry Building Design magazine) about Prince Charles describing a little building by a well-known architect as a “dustbin”. This is accompanied by the usual hurt but self-regarding comments by the architect. Buildings, he says, are about so much more than aesthetics. They are complex equations of function, science, art, mystique and the intensely lit aura of the architectural office. They are emphatically not able to be described as looking like something. Least of all something horrible like a dustbin. Thing is though, it does look like a dustbin. There’s no getting away from it. No recourse to sustainability jargon and stuff about embedding things in the ground gets you away from the fact that Sir Prince is right. Obviously, he’s an idiot and me as a staunch republican an’ all, he’s at the front of the queue to go against the wall generally, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t got eyes. More than that, I was thinking that maybe Prince Charles is actually quite a good architecture critic. I’d take him over Jonathon Glancey any day. Describing an extension as “a hideous carbuncle on the face of a much loved friend” is actually pretty good journalism. James Stirling’s design for No. 1 Poultry which he once described as looking like a 1930’s wireless, kind of does when you look at it. Not that that makes it crap. I quite like 1930’s wirelesses. Such comparisons are seen as irretrievably dumb but are generally not much dumber than the descriptions that architects use themselves. Zaha Hadid once described her design for the Welsh National Opera House as being a like a ‘string of pearls’. Now, firstly, why is that a good thing? Secondly, how does that describe an opera house in a useful or illuminating way? And thirdly, is the reference to a pearl necklace deliberate?

Similarly, a few years ago, Ron Arad wanted to build a new house in Hampstead. He described it as being like two spheres nestling together. Lovely. A neighbour started a vicious letter writing campaign against it, as people are wont to do. He described it as “a large egg that had just hatched”. Frankly, I don’t mind what it looked like and think that people should be able to build pretty much what they want and that the planning laws in this country generally support the worst kind of petty and mean spirited Nimbyism and should be scrapped. So, Ron Arad can design what he wants. But, if you ask me an egg that has just hatched is a considerably less nauseating and far wittier way to describe a building made of up two blobs, than two spheres nestling together. Maybe I am missing the inherent poetic lyricism in the description. Quite possibly. However, I would, pending revolution etc., let Prince Charles have a go at Stephen Bayley’s column in the Observer. Just for a while.

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