The New King of England Hates Modern Design

King Charles III’s public criticisms of British modernism have had real, negative impacts on U.K. building projects. So what does his ascension to the throne mean for British architecture?
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It’s not particularly surprising that a hereditary monarch would have a preference for classicism, or at least an established comfort with traditional approaches. But Britain’s new monarch, King Charles III, is a noteworthy and particularly staunch critic of modern architecture, and his public polemics over the years have had real consequences for building projects in the United Kingdom.  

Over the decades as he has waited for his moment on the throne, the former Prince of Wales has had ample time to make his strong distaste for modern architecture quite well-known, using speeches, books, and documentary interviews to lambast new developments that have transformed—or even just posed to alter—Britain’s urban landscape with nonclassical building styles. Some of the famously fussy monarch’s scathing statements about modern designs in Britain have included saying that architect John Madin’s now-demolished 1974 Birmingham Central Library looked like "a place where books are incinerated, not kept," and that the British Library by architect Colin St John Wilson was "more like the assembly hall of an academy for secret police." Of architect Denys Lasdun’s Royal National Theatre, a brutalist complex completed in 1976, Charles once stated: "It seems like a clever way of building a nuclear power station in the middle of London without anyone objecting." 

King Charles III once publicly criticized London’s Royal National Theatre, completed by architect Denys Lasdun in 1976.

King Charles III once publicly criticized London’s Royal National Theatre, completed by architect Denys Lasdun in 1976.

Charles has used his platform to vocalize his vendetta at many points in his royal career. In 1984, the then-Prince delivered a now-infamous broadside against British modernism at the Royal Institute for British Architects’ 150th anniversary celebration, where he was expected to raise a glass to the night’s honoree, but instead gave a pointed teardown of modern building projects in the United Kingdom. In that speech, he described a proposed addition for London’s National Gallery as "a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend" and also criticized a proposal for a 19-story Mies van der Rohe–designed tower in Square Mile, stating: "It would be a tragedy if the character and skyline of our capital city were to be further ruined by yet another giant glass stump, better suited to downtown Chicago than the City of London." (Ouch to the much-beloved architectural city of Chicago.) Soon after, the design for the National Gallery extension by British practice Ahrends, Burton and Koralek (now ABK Architects) was dumped, and the Mies van der Rohe scheme was rejected.

A few years later, in the 1988 BBC documentary called HRH Prince of Wales: A Vision of Britain (which Charles wrote and narrated) he condemned the "monstrous concrete maze" that London became in its post–World War II rebuilding, pointing to "a jostling scrum of skyscrapers all competing for attention" while on a boat tour on the River Thames. "All around me is what used to be one of the architectural wonders of the world," Charles said. "London, a city [that] took about 300 years to build. It took about 15 years to destroy." The following year, Charles doubled down on this sentiment when he published his book, Vision for Britain, in which he outlined his 10 principles for architecture, and argued that traditional design methods and aesthetics used in Britain should be employed in the future.

Architect Colin St John Wilson designed London’s British Library, which King Charles III once said was "more like the assembly hall of an academy for secret police."

Architect Colin St John Wilson designed London’s British Library, which King Charles III once said was "more like the assembly hall of an academy for secret police."

Years later, Charles’s statements reportedly thwarted yet another building project in London. In 2009, architect Richard Rogers’s designs for more than 500 glass-and-steel apartments at Chelsea Barracks were dumped after Charles allegedly sent a plea to the site’s owners, the Qatari royal family, urging them to abandon the plans. The incident led Rogers to tell the Guardian that the prince’s intervention "single-handedly destroyed this project." Architects Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Lord Foster, and Renzo Piano rushed to the defense of their fellow Pritzker Prize winner, publicly accusing the prince of trying to "skew the open and democratic planning process." (Years prior, in 1987, Charles decried Rogers’s plans for the redevelopment of Paternoster Square just north of St Paul’s Cathedral. "You have to give this much to the Luftwaffe: when it knocked down our buildings, it didn’t replace them with anything more offensive than rubble," he said at the Corporation of London planning and communication committee’s annual dinner.)

A few months after the Chelsea Barracks debacle—and 25 years after his "carbuncle" address—Charles delivered another speech at the RIBA HQ in which he equated the argument between modernist and traditional architecture to the argument between "the inhuman and the human." He seemed, however, to understand that he had been developing a bit of a reputation, first making sure to assert that he never intended to start a "style war" between classicists and modernists. He did the same in a 2014 Architectural Review essay, further defending his stance against his critics, writing: "I have lost count of the times I have been accused of wanting to turn the clock back to some Golden Age. Nothing could be further from my mind. My concern is the future. We face the terrifying prospect by 2050 of another three billion people on this planet needing to be housed. We have to work out now how we will create resilient, truly sustainable, and human-scale urban environments that are land-efficient, use low-carbon materials, and do not depend so completely upon the car." 

A 2018 tabloid story headline posed the pointed question: "Prince Charles’ Poundbury: Charming masterpiece or feudal Disneyland?"

But what’s odd about Charles’s decades-long, vehement distaste for modern architecture is that some of his driving concerns are also hugely important to modern architects. "What the modernists are known for is a commitment both to sustainability and to the larger concerns of urban design and planning, both of which interest Charles a great deal," writes Douglas Murphy for The Guardian.

Before inheriting Britain’s throne, Charles did more than just critique design: he developed several model towns across England and Wales according to his theories on architecture. In them, there are no concrete towers or glass buildings, rather rows of neoclassical buildings in a mix of historical and regional styles. One such experimental community named Poundbury—started in the 1990s and due to be completed in 2025—was described by British journalist Oliver Wainwright as "a merry riot of porticoes and pilasters, mansards, and mouldings, sampling from the rich history of architectural pattern books with promiscuous glee." A 2018 tabloid story headline posed the pointed question: "Prince Charles’ Poundbury: Charming masterpiece or feudal Disneyland?" But supporters have defended the town of around 4,600 people as a sustainable, mixed-use residential development that’s walkable and largely affordable compared to Britain’s expensive cities. 

Now, after ascending the throne following the death of his mother, Queen Elizabeth II, Britain’s longest-reigning monarch, King Charles III is inheriting two of her private homes in the classic aesthetic he loves—Balmoral Castle in Scotland and the Sandringham House in England. Those properties will become part of his robust portfolio of real estate investments that measures to an estimated 130,000 acres (which the New York Times points out is, ironically, nearly the size of Chicago). But, also in keeping with royal tradition, the notoriously outspoken King Charles III will have to keep his opinions about architecture—along with most other topics—to himself. Of course, there might be times where he’ll be so perturbed by a particular design that he just can’t help but express his displeasure.

Top photo by Chris Jackson via Getty Images

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