With the property boom over, London's planners urgently need to rethink their priorities. And that doesn't mean looking to Prince Charles for inspirationby Rowan Moore / July 23, 2009 / Leave a comment
This June, the architects Rogers Stirk Harbour were unceremoniously sacked from a job designing a multi-billion pound housing project on the site of the former Chelsea Barracks. The reasons were not fully explained, and there may have been more than one, but the most obvious was that Prince Charles had written privately to the site’s owners, the Qatari Royal Family, urging them to reject the Rogers design.
That Prince Charles acted shamefully should not be in doubt. He showed arrogance and contempt for others, and abused the prestige of his inherited position. Having intervened decisively in a public arena, he then refused all offers to debate or discuss his action. He showed little understanding of the issues in which he intervened. He was devious and disingenuous.
Yet his actions were greeted with whoops of joy from some of the general public, and from the Daily Mail, as well as from less predictable sources. Writers like Tom Stoppard and Andrew Roberts, who might in their own line of business oppose interference with creative freedom, declared themselves fans of Prince Charles. Why, at this moment, did libertarians start speaking up for censorship and democrats for royal privilege? Prince Charles has always been an avid scribbler of pained notes. Why did one of his letters suddenly have such an effect?
The answer is that he touched a nerve. He signalled, like a clumsy canary, that something is wrong with the way London is planned. He could not articulate a diagnosis or cure. But, if any good is to come of his intervention, it should be a change in how the destiny of important sites is decided.
The proposal for Chelsea Barracks was a product of the London Plan, the document produced under Ken Livingstone as mayor. One of Livingstone’s main advisers was Lord Rogers of Riverside, the founder and leader of Rogers Stirk Harbour. Planning authorities, such as Westminster, have to make their decisions within the framework of the London Plan.
The Plan put into practice the principles that Rogers had been urging at least since A New London, the book he wrote in 1992 with Mark Fisher. The aim was for what Rogers called “the compact city,” and the key principles were high density, good quality public space and transport, and good design. High density, it was argued, creates “vibrancy”—a critical mass of people who animate the city, enjoy each other’s…