Vision of Britain

The Uneven—but Important—Legacy of Prince Charles, Architecture Critic

Hanging on my office wall is a framed letter from then-Prince Charles thanking me for attending his International Symposium on Traditional Urbanism in 2000. With it is a photograph of me presenting to him the review I had written in 1990 about his book A Vision for Britain: A Personal View of Architecture. The location of the meeting was the Prince’s Estate, Highgrove, in the Duchy of Cornwall. Urbanism is that easily misunderstood study of cities and towns that focuses on the total built environment—Jane Jacobs called it the ecology—of a place, the pattern and interaction of streets, buildings, roadways, public spaces, public buildings, and people. 

At the time of the prince’s book and symposium, the planning and design of places were predominantly still in the hands of professional planners and architects dedicated to the post–World War II strategy of clearing old cities and constructing new places, ideas that mostly valued the new and the importance of the automobile. Highways between and through places were the priority. These highways were dividing and decimating long-established communities and ensuring racial divisions for decades to come. Traditional neighborhoods, built up over time and occupied by a mix of people, were being bulldozed. Solidly built old buildings of varied age and style were indiscriminately being replaced by charmless contemporary boxes.

The Prince of Wales had had enough of that. 

Right in the book’s introduction, he wrote: “I have felt strongly about the wanton destruction which has taken place in this country in the name of progress; about the sheer, unadulterated ugliness and mediocrity of public and commercial buildings, and of housing estates, not to mention the dreariness and heartlessness of so much urban planning.”

He had not been silent before the book. The prince had caused quite a stir five years earlier when, addressing the Royal Institute of British Architects, he denounced a proposed addition to the National Gallery in London as a “monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend.” The design was dropped. Charles didn’t stop there. He raged against all manner of modern design. The 1976 National Theater, he said, looked like a “nuclear power station” and the 1973 British Library like “a place for burning books.”

Those were potent opinions and, considering who they came from, reverberated not only around the British Empire but in the U.S. as well. Many in the public in both countries shared those opinions. But no one had the same capacity to gain attention by articulating such heretical views. He was a scourge to the architecture and planning professions, but a hero to those equally displeased with the reshaping of the urban environment since World War II. The book was like icing on the cake—and a welcomed treat indeed. 

Prince Charles, in 1990, on book tour, meeting the author.


And so I opened my review of his book in The Nation Magazine, “What We Call Character,” in March 1990 thusly: “I think he’s got it! By George, there is no doubt that Prince Charles has got it. He truly understands what is wrong with architecture, planning and urban design today, not only in Britain but also in the United States.” It didn’t matter if you caught the reference to Henry Higgins’ enthusiasm for Eliza Doolittle’s finally achieving proper pronunciation; my enthusiasm was clearly evident. I added that the book “is a much-needed scathing critique of postwar design and planning trends that, because of who wrote it, cannot be ignored.” And while many people questioned Charles’ credentials as an architecture critic, it was time for the professional planners, architects, and developers to be raked over the coals for not only the new world they were creating but the old, beautiful, and very much still-functional one they were destroying. Thirty-four years later, the world has more than caught up with the cheeky Prince of Wales, now king. But now he is constrained by his new, exalted office from voicing such strong views. That is unfortunate.

At the time, the contemporary world was being littered with glass, steel, and concrete towers. The traditional urban mix of residences, businesses, public institutions, and public spaces that had organically evolved within walkable communities was being destroyed, replaced by self-contained, automobile-dependent places that were privately owned. Consideration for the longstanding evolution of communities was nonexistent. Towns and cities in the U.S., Great Britain, and elsewhere were becoming soulless. The existing urbanism that had built up over time—the interconnections between people and their community—was being bulldozed in the name of Modernism. The scale of the new structures was overpowering. The prince was articulating what many in the public felt. There were only a few others publicly voicing these opinions; the planning, architecture, and development community was decidedly and arrogantly ignoring them. Charles’ words resonated. Those fundamental ideas about urbanism could not be ignored.

One rigid mindset was being replaced by another more aesthetically appealing one. Yet his planning concepts—as opposed to his design ideas—reflected time-tested ways about how long-evolved places functioned.


There was a downside to Charles’ view, because he had a very specific alternative design idea in mind, one frozen in time and history. And while the aesthetic appeal of historical styles is clear, what the prince was promoting left little room for appropriate contemporary design and innovation. One rigid mindset was being replaced by another more aesthetically appealing one. Yet his planning concepts—as opposed to his design ideas—reflected time-tested ways about how long-evolved places functioned. They were, in fact, both timely and needed. “Within the basic framework of street widths and building heights,” he writes, “there is room for a large range of styles. It is the scale that counts.” In fact, he highlights several developments that reflect ideas sympathetic to his own. He cites a new hospital in Dorchester: “Pitched roof, attractive brickwork and balconies give the hospital a domestic character. How much more welcoming than a stained concrete bunker.” A new office in Cornhill: “It’s good to see windows with character, which don’t give you a deformed reflection of yourself as you pass by.” In London, “a new office building which respects the scale and traditional materials … and is faced in stone yet looks modern.” There are more, all meant to show ways new and modern can be acceptable. Many of the principles he cites are commonly found today.

Prince Charles was decidedly not articulating anything new. He was promoting longstanding and fundamental ideas of healthy urbanism that were just being ignored. Given that so many of those fundamentals are basic assumptions found today, it may be hard to believe that 30 years ago they were hardly talked about. Jane Jacobs’ Death and Life of Great American Cities had made a great splash in 1961 when it was published, but had all but vanished from the public discourse by 1990. 

It was not until the late 1990s, when Columbia University Professor Kenneth Jackson mounted three museum exhibits around New York City in an attempt to resurrect the reputation of urban renewal czar Robert Moses that Jacobs’ ideas again started taking center stage. Hers were the antithesis of Moses. They became even more highly discussed after her death, in 2006, when critics emerged to challenge some of her ideas that they never had the gumption to do while she was alive. This time the interest in Jacobs’ ideas stuck and, while erroneously interpreted in many ways, they have been helpfully guiding a younger generation of planners, architects, and community activists.

Jacobs’ four basic components of urban vitality—density, mixed use, small blocks, and mixing old and new—took on new meaning when more people recognized the damage wrought since World War II. Density, however, remains a source of misunderstanding and confusion, because it is often confused with height. Tall buildings often have less density than shorter ones depending on the configuration. In New York City, for example, Peter Cooper Village on Manhattan’s mid-East Side is an arrangement of modest-scale apartment towers spread around a generous scale of open space—a modest example of “towers in the park” design. Because of the towers, it appears deceptively dense. However, Greenwich Village, with its tightly woven and compact streets with buildings of varying scale, is more dense, containing more people per square foot. Today, planners, architects, and developers have deceived the public into thinking that height and density are one and the same. The purpose, in fact, of the 1950s “tower in the park” urban renewal approach was, indeed, to reduce the urban density that experts wrongly said was the cause of crime. Too often now, elected officials support the large developer mega-schemes that generate huge contributions for political campaigns; the smaller, more-imaginative, less-disruptive plans lose out.

And while many pre–World War II planning ideas are again prevalent and helping to repair wrongly redeveloped cities around the globe, they have not prevented the current scourge of supertall buildings pockmarking many of those same cities. Most are occupied—sorry, owned, but rarely occupied—by oligarchs and others needing to hide their ill-gotten gains. They are mostly empty. They add nothing to the streets, neighborhoods, or cities they rise in. The prince’s voice would be welcome on this subject again but, as king, this is not expected. The problems wrought by those buildings could fill a book, but, alas, powerful money promotes, builds, and cashes in on them. “Too many of our modern buildings are huge, blank and impersonal,” Charles wrote then. One can imagine what he would say today.

What the prince wrote then stirred things up that drastically needed stirring. The importance today is that his book provides an interesting measure of how far we have come—or, rather, how far we have not. In many ways the U.S. has come a long way. Highways that divided cities—splitting neighborhoods, disrupting downtowns, decimating open land—are being removed and replaced. The need for connectivity in a city that only walkable streets, bicycle lanes, and mass transit can create is better understood, although so difficult to re-establish as the car continues to dominate. On the other hand, appropriately scaled, inventive new architecture and the creative adaptive reuse of distinctive landmarks are in evidence across the country. The supertalls and most of today’s contemporary glass towers are not so different from what the prince called “giant glass stumps”—and maybe worse. And developers, with the blessing of public officials, still assemble huge chunks of communities to build stand-apart projects. It is very much a mixed bag. How far we have come since the prince’s sharp castigation of planners, architects, and developers is a question to be debated.

Featured image via Doubleday. 


Get smart and engaging news and commentary from architecture and design’s leading minds.

Donate to, a Not-For-Profit website dedicated to reconnecting architecture and design to the public.