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Architects urge boycott of Prince Charles speech

There may be empty seats Tuesday evening when Prince Charles  addresses the Royal Institute of British Architects, some of whose members have called for a boycott of his remarks.
/ Source: The Associated Press

A respectful audience, polite applause, and congratulatory cocktails at the inevitable reception. That's what's expected when Prince Charles gives a speech.

But there may be empty seats and pointed silence Tuesday evening when the heir to the British throne addresses the Royal Institute of British Architects, some of whose members have called for a boycott of his remarks.

They are angry not only over his long-standing opposition to much modern architecture, but his efforts to block a major steel-and-glass tower project on the site of an old army barracks in the posh Chelsea neighborhood of London.

This time, they say, he's gone to far, trying to torpedo the normal planning process by using his connections and influence to pressure developers into using a more traditional design. The royal family, they say, is supposed to remain above the fray.

"An empty room would be the best response," said Piers Gough, a prominent British architect who signed a letter urging his colleagues to stay away from the prince's talk, which marks the institute's 175th anniversary. "I think the prince has been a poor influence on architecture, and he's had a bad influence on the Chelsea barracks."

Gough said the prince takes an elitist view, advocating classical architecture — with its origins in the grand public buildings and columns used by the ancient Greeks — and rejecting modernist designs that typically include plans for affordable housing and increased public access.

"I can see why classical architecture suits him as he sits in his palace, but it's very bad for society," said Gough, who believes the architects should not have invited the prince to speak.

Railing against modernists
Charles used a speech to the institute in 1984 to spell out his opposition to modern architecture, launching a 25-year crusade that has had limited impact on British building styles.

He said modernists were destroying the distinctive centuries-old fabric of London by replacing classical works with modern ones. He even put his architectural and planning theories to the test by building a traditional village, called Poundsbury, 130 miles southwest of London.

In recent years his criticism has been muted and he has concentrated on a number of environmental and food safety concerns. But his opposition to the barracks project has angered some top names in the architecture world. Norman Foster, Frank Gehry and other luminaries have signed letters urging Charles to remain on the sidelines during the planning and permit process.

The barracks redevelopment plan calls for steel and glass towers designed by decorated architect Richard Rogers to be built next to the Royal Hospital Chelsea, a classical building by Christopher Wren, the renowned 17th-century architect who designed St. Paul's Cathedral and other London landmarks.

The 13-acre development would include a hotel and 552 apartments, half priced by market forces and half classified as affordable housing. It is a mega-project by any standard — the site alone cost $1.44 billion.

Power of influence
The majority of the funding comes from the Qatari royal family, and British press reports indicate Charles has lobbied Qatari royals to rethink the design along traditional lines.

That has angered many in the field, said architect Tony Fretton, who is urging a boycott of Tuesday's speech.

"If that's true, it's far outside the democratic process," he said. "He wrote directly to the client, who was also a prince, in an attempt to get him to modify the design. I think it's a bad thing, to try to influence things in that way. It's been recommended for approval. What right does the prince have to interfere?"

The Westminster City Council will consider the plan with hearings expected to begin in June.

A spokeswoman for Prince Charles who asked not to be identified because of palace policy said she could not comment on reports that Charles had contacted his Qatari counterparts to discuss the project.

"We don't comment on alleged private correspondence," she said.

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