With Charles III set to be officially crowned this Saturday, Robert Bevan reflects on the cultural and political implications of the king’s famous love for traditional architecture.
With Charles III a freshly minted king, there has been some revisionism going on about the monarch’s record. Whisper it, say some commentators, but perhaps he was just way ahead of the times with his organic farming, the supposedly pedestrian-friendly Poundbury development on his Duchy of Cornwall land, and his populist attacks on modernist architecture for “ignoring the feelings and wishes of the mass of ordinary people”.
Well, yes and no. Few would begrudge him praise for his early recognition of the climate crisis. But it is not just Charles’s favoured New Urbanist traditionalists who, for example, accept that perimeter blocks are best for dense city-making – the more responsive urban designers and architects took this on board decades ago. And since hardly any classical buildings are built in the UK, the effect of his influence might be seen as marginal.
Chas 3’s conservative architectural views are not just about a somewhat esoteric preference for classicism
But Chas 3’s conservative architectural views are not just about a somewhat esoteric preference for classicism as a style. They need to be seen within a context where design traditionalists have been consistently linked to nationalist and far-right causes across Europe, the US and beyond.
Whatever the king’s personal views, many of his fellow travellers are hostile to migrants and multiculturalism, to difference in general, and spread proto-fascist messages of the need to rescue Judeo-Christian European culture from degeneration and vigorously breeding alien interlopers who would cause a genocide of whites – Renaud Camus’s racist Great Replacement Theory.
An ostensibly more palatable version of this thinking can be found in Douglas Murray of The Spectator’s 2017 book The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam, which enjoyed a scandalously warm reception from the British commentariat. Like King Charles, Murray wrings his hands at our contemporary inability to create the great cathedrals of old. The austere Habsburg palace El Escorial outside Madrid is a Murray favourite. Franco admired it too.
Amid Islamophobic campaigns against new mosque buildings across Europe, Murray delivered an infamous speech to the Pim Fortuyn Foundation (named for the late far-right Dutch politician) where he complained of Islam’s “thuggery” and called for mosques to be pulled down if they became “centres of hate”.
Across Europe, populist Eastern Europe especially, nationalists are now pushing to resurrect long-demolished churches and palaces or rebuilding city centres such as Dresden and Frankfurt in trad architectural drag in an effort to turn back the ideological clock. In the US meanwhile, former president Trump was among those demanding that all new federal buildings be classical while the now-defunct white supremacist outfit Identity Evropa used images of antique architecture and statuary on its “Protect Your Heritage” propaganda posters.
Traditional architecture has become part of the war of position for the right and far-right
Charles’s interference in the architectural and political does not sit outside this ugly milieu. Indeed, he intervened directly in the campaign to recreate the lost monuments of war-damaged Potsdam. This campaign, especially the ongoing reconstruction of the town’s infamous militaristic Garrison Church where Hitler famously shook hands with Paul von Hindenburg, was wildly controversial at the time and remains so, not least because of the involvement of dubious far-right figures.
As prince he appointed architect Leon Krier to oversee Poundbury, a man who admires the work of Hitler’s architect and minister Albert Speer. Krier and Charles’s mythical notion of eternal beauty as something unchanging and deriving from God or nature (and preferably with a pediment) was promulgated through Charles’s TV appearances and publications, via The Prince’s Trust and his defunct magazine Perspectives on Architecture.
As Owen Hatherley usefully pointed out in Jacobin, the king is not exactly a man with much experience of city life as ordinary people experience it, and talks of beauty in terms of pretty images rather than spatially.
There are strong links between the beauty myth and neoliberal think-tanks that want to dismantle the British town-planning system, a system that really should be seen as an arm of the welfare state and socio-democratic post-war settlement. They want to replace it with tick-box national and local design codes that fast track “beauty” to assist developers.
It was a Policy Exchange report, for example, that inspired the government’s Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission and its traditionalist agenda, an agenda still championed by secretary of state Michael Gove. Yet it is hard to think of a strategy more guaranteed to destroy beauty rather than create it, and no wonder Tory countryside campaigners are worried. The neoliberal, anti-regulatory push may yet be thwarted.
We need to remember, of course, that the classical style is not innately politically dodgy and nor is modernism inevitably progressive; there is nothing intrinsically ideological in the arrangement of brick and stone except in the intent behind it and the values brought to it. Yet, with honourable exceptions, traditional architecture has become part of the war of position, to use Antonio Gramsci’s term, for the right and far-right who are using it to open a new front in the culture wars that is hostile to difference and the cosmopolitan.
Charles will be rightly judged by the company he keeps
Even if naively, Charles is entangled in the weaponisation of architecture by the far-right. Our new king has previously stated that the avant-garde has become the establishment and it is hard to think of a more populist, anti-metropolitan-elite talking point than this.
The idea that Charles III’s views make him in some way “woke” or more socialist than the Labour Party is laughable. At best, his royal views are in the spirt of a One Nation Tory grandee. As newly anointed king, Charles will be rightly judged by the company he keeps – and his ability to keep his mouth shut rather than fuel racist and nationalist culture war talking points.
Robert Bevan is a former editor of Building Design and architecture critic for the Evening Standard and now runs the heritage consultancy Authentic Futures. His new book, Monumental Lies: Culture Wars & The Truth about the Past, is published by Verso.
The photography is by Fergus Burnett.
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