A new skirmish in a long-running and often bitterly fought architectural “style war” between modernists and traditionalists has broken out over the stadiums and arenas of the London Olympics park.
Prince Charles’s favourite architects have accused the head of England’s national architectural review body of “overt prejudice” after he made a barbed attack on the heir to the throne’s love of traditional buildings, and heaped praise on the resolutely modernist designs that will be beamed around the world as the backdrop to next summer’s games.
Paul Finch, chairman of the Design Council Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, the government-funded design watchdog that vets major planning applications with the help of government funding, applauded the selection of Zaha Hadid, the avant garde Iraqi-born architect who designed the sinuous aquatics centre, and Populous, the designer of the main 80,000-seat stadium.
But, more provocatively, Finch celebrated the fact that the country’s leading traditional architects, who are favoured by the Prince of Wales, were not in any way involved. “One of the good things about the London 2012 Olympics is the realisation that we have a set of buildings produced not by Quinlan Terry, Robert Adam, John Simpson, but by Hopkins, Hadid, Populous, Make, Heneghan Peng et al,” he said. “None of it endorsed by the Prince of Wales, none of it to do with heritage.”
The Traditional Architecture Group, whose members include Terry and Adam, both leading exponents of classical buildings inspired by architects from the past, including Sir Christopher Wren and Andrea Palladio, has complained to the culture secretary, Jeremy Hunt, and communities secretary, Eric Pickles, that Finch’s remarks, made in the Architects’ Journal, displayed “significant prejudice against one style or architectural philosophy at the highest level”. The group said its members were “dismayed and alarmed”.
“His is a fundamentally prejudicial point of view from someone in a senior position,” added Adam. “He shouldn’t be in the position he is in.”
Prince Charles has previously enraged some British architects by speaking out against modernist designs. In 2009 Richard Rogers was dropped as the designer of a £3bn housing development at Chelsea Barracks after the Prince questioned his design in a private letter to the Qatari client. In 1984 he torpedoed a modernist extension to the National Gallery in London by complaining it was “like a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend”.
Now the prince’s architectural allies feel they have found in Finch a lightning rod for their own simmering sense of injustice that a parallel “modernist establishment” is seeking to marginalise them with the result that some traditional architects believe commissions for Olympic projects were effectively closed to them. “It was considered a waste of time to go for the Olympic work,” said Adam, a classicist who has designed a new 4,000-home settlement in Wales with the Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment.
Lord Rogers chaired the selection panel for the aquatics centre and Ricky Burdett, professor of urbanism at the London School of Economics and a close ally of Rogers, was hired as chief design adviser to the Olympic Delivery Authority. Finch continues to chair the panel scrutinising designs for stadiums and arenas for the Olympics.
The firm of Sir Michael Hopkins, who designed the Portcullis House MPs’ office, was responsible for the velodrome which is favourite to win this year’s Stirling prize for the best building designed or built in Britain. Make, a firm led by Ken Shuttleworth who was a lead designer on the gherkin tower in London, has designed the handball arena, while Heneghan Peng, a Dublin-based firm, has designed a sinuous complex of footbridges between the main stadium and the aquatics centre.
In his remarks Finch singled out Terry, who provided architectural advice to Prince Charles in his successful attempt to block the modernist redevelopment of Chelsea Barracks, and John Simpson who was hired to carry out alterations to Kensington Palace.
The Traditional Architecture Group has asked Pickles, whose department funds the Design Council Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, to instruct councils to ignore the watchdog’s views until Finch apologises and retracts his remarks. “It is the policy of this and recent governments to favour no architectural style in planning decisions,” wrote Alireza Sagharchi, the group’s chairman. “Yet by contrasting some better-known traditional architects with those working on the Olympics, Mr Finch has expressed his very clear bias against traditional architecture.” He asked for assurances that Finch’s views would “not be allowed to taint the planning system”, according to Building Design magazine.
In response Finch said: “I will respond to them when they show me the courtesy of writing to me and I will be only too happy to point out the many apparent errors in what passes for their analysis.”
A spokesman for the Department for Communities and Local Government said: “These are opinions expressed in a magazine article, not official advice to central or local government. As such we have no comment to make.”
Finch’s comments in favour of the modernist appearance of Olympic Park architecture appear to undermine the neutral stance he advocated last year when asked about a proposal by Prince Charles’s Foundation for the Built Environment to take on some of the design review role now undertaken by the Design Council.
He said: “The public interest is better served by concentrating on the quality of a piece of architecture rather than style which can come down to superficial visual appearance. It comes down to whether their advice would be independent and disinterested and they obviously have a stylistic preference.”
Charles’s tastes: rated and hated
• Charles praised Dharavi, one of the largest slums in Mumbai, for its “underlying intuitive grammar of design”, saying it represented a better model for housing populations in the developing world than western architecture
• He backed Quinlan Terry’s alternative designs for Chelsea Barracks which were inspired by the work of Sir Christopher Wren, the 17th century architect of St Paul’s cathedral
• Poundbury in Dorset is the most complete version of Prince Charles’ architectural vision, including the fire station which has been described as “the Parthenon meets Brookside”
• When talking to soldiers destined for service in Afghanistan in 2008 he said the Ivor Crewe building at Essex University “looks like a dustbin from the outside”
• Earlier that year he warned a series of planned skyscrapers in London would be “not just one carbuncle on the face of a much-loved friend, but a positive rash of them that will disfigure precious views and disinherit future generations of Londoners”
• Charles said the brutalist concrete Birmingham Central Library, designed in 1974 by John Madin, looked like “a place where books are incinerated, not kept”
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