Sunday, June 21, 2009

Oh My Lord, or Why I Don't Wanna go to Chelsea.

OK, so this is the scenario. An unelected Lord who has sworn an oath to an unelected monarch admonishes her son for acting undemocratically*. Lord Rogers of Riverside is backed in this attack by the Royal Institute of British Architects, an exclusive closed shop enjoying royal patronage and dedicated to advancing the cause of its members.

Various high profile members of the RIBA call for a boycott of the Prince’s speech at Portland Place. These members are happy to bear royal support but not so far as to allow one of its members to address them about architecture. Lord Rogers meanwhile accuses the Prince of not wanting to take part in an open debate and calls for an unelected cabal of constitutional ‘experts’ to limit the Prince’s powers.

Meanwhile in their battle against Lord Rogers’ designs for the barracks site, the forces of conservation have commissioned an alternative scheme by Quinlan Terry, a "Champion of classical architecture"** who was recently fined £25,000 by the ARB for destroying two listed buildings.

My colleague Sean Griffiths describes the debate in today’s Observer as “two Chelsea pensioners still fighting world war one”. In truth it’s perhaps closer to a medieval feud between a prince and a powerful nobleman. Ludicrously and depressingly anachronistic it seems to have engaged public opinion in a way that few architectural debates usually manage.

The Chelsea barracks debate abounds in ironies. It also won't go away. Like a lot of architects though I’m finding it difficult to care about either scheme. I’m perversely intrigued by Quinlan Terry’s Hogwarts style alternative if only because its form seems so dementedly unsuited to its purpose. I would love to see what some of the high-end flats might turn out like in such a layout. Ultimately though it's not a real project, more a slightly ludicrous excuse for an argument.

Unfortunately it's the same old argument. Rogers defends his scheme on the grounds that every age has its own architecture and, presumably, his represents the apogee of our one. In such a scenario, the past is always presented as a continuous uninterrupted line of development with each discrete era utterly certain of its direction. This is clearly a psychological trick designed to make us think that there is no alternative to where we've ended up.

Meanwhile supporters of the Quinlan Terry scheme hide behind the miserable barricades of contextualism in a way that makes you long for some '60's style Brutalism to come and wipe everything away.

What this debate is about ultimately is style, a debate that architects are ill equipped to fight on the grounds that they are in denial about it. No one cares really about the densities, or hard to grasp notions of what constitutes successful public space, or even the quality of accommodation being proposed. It is, as they say, a style war and architects hate talking about style.

They are desperate to shore up their status as professional dispensers of rational, sensible advice. Lord Rogers has been the designer of some of the most ludicrously style crazed buildings of the 20th century. That's what so brilliant about the best of them. It's just a shame that the Chelsea barracks scheme doesn't measure up. Otherwise I would be out there campaigning for it.

Last week while I was sitting on the bus reading an article about Rogers' scheme being canned, a man (somewhat inexplicably carrying a pair of skis) leant over to me and said; "It's a victory for common sense". You have to say that whatever it is, it isn't that.

* James Heartfield unpicks this well in this article in the New Geography.

** Quoted from this article in the Daily Mail.

P.S. For a sane description of the scenario behind the whole thing you should read this.

1 comment:

Hadwin said...

Why do you think the press haven't mentioned that four years ago Foster and Rodgers did their own bit of "undemocratic interference in the planning process" when they tried to get the classical design for the new Infirmary, at Royal Chelsea Hospital, scrapped?