I’ve held my tongue for too long on the subject of Chelsea Barracks, the London development that has architectural conservatives and progressives on both sides of the Atlantic locked in yet another titanic struggle, and my colleagues in the press crowing at every turn. I’m flabbergasted. Is it an overblown catfight between rival design camps? A vital public debate? Or simply great theater?
One thing’s certain, the stakes are high: the design of a 13-acre site in tony West London, a shuttered army barracks next door to Sir Christopher Wren’s Royal Hospital Chelsea. The property is owned by the Qatari government, which hired Rogers Stirk Harbour + Partners to prepare a plan for some 550 market-rate and affordable flats, in Richard Rogers’ signature high-tech idiom. The results were not well received. The audience apparently wanted a costume drama, not a space opera.
Neighborhood groups and celebrity locals such as pop star Bryan Ferry and actor Rupert Everett balked at the prospect of so much glass and steel looming over their Georgian townhouses—just one gripe on a long list of NIMBY-isms: blocked sunlight, excessive density, insufficient green space, and so forth.
Prince Charles, famously not a fan of modern architecture, shared his own disgruntlement with Rogers’ design in a private letter to the ruler of Qatar. The letter has never been published, and Prince Charles’ handlers refuse to confirm or deny whether he actually wrote it, but I like to think that the prince used the alleged occasion to quote his formidable ancestor, Queen Victoria: “We are not amused.”
One of Prince Charles’ favorite architects, Quinlan Terry, released an alternative design (at the prince’s secret request?), in an idiom reminicent of Wren. When Building magazine staged an online face-off between Terry’s guerrilla traditional scheme and Rogers’ official modern one, nearly 70 percent of the 1,000-odd respondents voted for Terry.
Ultimately, all that pressure had an effect: In June, the Qataris fired Rogers. Cue the backlash. The Royal Institute of British Architects and Culture Secretary Ben Bradshaw rallied behind Rogers and upbraided Prince Charles for interfering. Rogers himself went further, calling the prince’s letter-writing “unconstitutional” and “an abuse of power,” and he is suing the Qataris for a reported £2 million in back pay.
The story to date blows my mind; it’s like a postmodern remix of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead and Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest, with Rogers playing Howard Roark, full of righteous indignation, and Prince Charles in drag as the cantankerous Lady Bracknell.
“A monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much loved and elegant friend,” the prince famously complained of a 1984 proposed addition to the National Gallery, in words so purple that Wilde could have written them. I see little value in upbraiding the prince for his long-standing, vocal opposition to modern architecture. He has been criticized for it ad nauseam. And aren’t we all entitled to an opinion, even the Prince of Wales?
Rogers’ claim of unconstitutionality is pure bunkum: No British law prohibits Prince Charles from taking the actions he supposedly did. By crying foul, Lord Rogers of Riverside sounds suspiciously like a poor loser—a peer who got an unpleasant lesson in realpolitik. Listen up, milord: The strong have used their power to get what they want ever since the big caveman conked the little one on the head and took his meat.
The prince chose to exercise his influence on Chelsea Barracks in much the same way that Brad Pitt has adopted New Orleans as his personal playground for modern architecture. Pitt happens to look good on camera; Charles, who decidedly does not, happens to have been born in a palace. The two men, the prince and the pretty boy, use their respective hereditary benefits to advocate for the architecture they love.
Rogers has his own gifts—his Madrid airport blew me away—but critics of his Chelsea Barracks scheme had reason to complain. He proposed a row of nine parallel blocks of glass and steel, with planted walkways between them. The pattern looks beautiful in plan, the blocks deployed in perfect Bauhaus marching order. And the buildings as rendered exhibit all of the fine-grained structural detail one would expect of Rogers.
But, as many have observed, at nine stories the blocks are too tall in contrast to their surroundings, including Wren’s Royal Hospital; their tight parallel placement would likely result not in delightful interstitial green spaces, but dark and gloomy slivers. The excessive density of the project is hardly Rogers’ fault; it must have come from the developer, who naturally would want to squeeze every last buildable square centimeter out of the £1 billion site. But Rogers singularly failed to ameliorate the situation.
Both fans and foes of Rogers’ Chelsea Barracks scheme are mistaken in thinking that style is the central issue. I personally love both old- and new-looking architecture, so long as it’s well-done, but the opposition is mistaken in thinking that traditional architecture, for all its merits, is a panacea. After all, plenty of classicists have demonstrated insensitivity to fine-grained locales, especially when working for clients like Stalin, Hitler, and Ceausescu. On the flip side, modern architecture isn’t inherently unneighborly. Even the most iconoclastic of architects have proved perfectly capable of designing materially and formally appropriate designs in sensitive historic contexts, like Gehry’s DG Bank on the Parizer Platz, with its creatively massed, solid-masonry façade.
But Gehry was working on a tight infill site at the DG Bank, not 13 acres. Rogers’ fans should remember that planning at a large scale has been a weak spot for progressive architects since the collapse of Urban Renewal in the 1970s, and Rogers’ scheme was no improvement. The look-back-with-love Congress for the New Urbanism found a mass audience in part because the movement’s modernist counterparts failed to develop an alternative. This is one of the great, universal lessons of Chelsea Barracks. Rogers’ planning failure was modern architecture’s planning failure.
Now the Qataris have generated a new, schizoid shortlist of 10 design teams for Chelsea Barracks, in consultation with The Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment (notably absent from the list: both Rogers and Terry). The team approach lumps together firms with seemingly irreconcilable sensibilities: classicist Demitri Porphyrios with avant-garde Allies and Morrison, New Urbanists Duany Plater-Zyberk with corporate modernists KPF. What good can come of such pairings? Locals are already voicing their concerns. Stay tuned: The winning design is supposed to be announced next month, though there’s talk of delays.