Fiery Prince Charles
The Prince of Wales made nice with the architects this week, but he's really more fun when he's dropping a few culture bombs in a crowded room. This is the address that got him in trouble 25 years ago, at the gala celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Royal Institute of British Architects, to whom he was so respectful on Tuesday. But the Mansion House speech, from 1987, is the one I wish I'd been there to hear him give -- not because the prince and I think as one on matters architectural (we don't), but because even on the page the speech is an absolute blast, exclamation points and all.
I came across it yesterday, quite by accident, as I was doing some research in the Art and Architecture Reading Room at the New York Public Library's gorgeous Beaux Arts building on Fifth Avenue. In this utterly civilized room, surely one of the most serene public spaces in Manhattan, and one of which even Charles might approve, I shook with silent laughter as I read his impassioned address, with all its shock at the vulgarity of commerce and urban life, its intermittent sarcasm, and what seemed to me an ill-advised mention of a coach-and-four. But I also found more common ground than I thought I would with this man who insists on the importance of "architectural good manners" and "generosity of vision."
One prominent architect recently confessed, airily and with no apparent sign of shame, that some of his earlier buildings have ceased to interest even him, now that the thrill of creativity has worn off.
Well, what kind of creativity is that? To put up a building which other people have to live with, and leave them to live with it while you wander off saying you're tired of it, and then to put up another one which you will presumably get tired of too, leaving yet more people to live with the all-too-durable consequences of your passing fancy. There is a terrible fecklessness to all this, when grown men can get whole towns in the family way, pay nothing towards maintenance, and call it romance.
The prince's outrage can be as comical as his advocacy of architectural regulation is alarming. It's easy to dismiss him wholesale if you read only the highlights in the news. But anyone who bothers to argue for architecture that makes workers feel good -- as Charles, of all people, does -- grasps something important about the way human beings interact with the built environment.