90. Royal urban design

The royal line to which King Charles III succeeds goes back over a thousand years, and in all that time royalty have been great builders.  

Royal builders (through history)

Early Kings and queens were great military builders.  William the Conqueror is said to have built over 700 motte and baily castles across England to subdue the English, while Edward I built 17 imposing castles across Wales to subdue the Welsh.  As the middle ages came to a close, royalty turned to building palaces (when they weren’t usurping them).  Henry VII built Richmond Palace and re-built Palentia (Greenwich), Henry VIII built Nonsuch Palace in Surrey, James I the Banqueting House in London, and Charles II largely re-built the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh.  Three of these are now destroyed, reminding us that kings and queens destroyed as well as built.  Henry VIII of course was one of the worst culprits, care of his national purge of the English monasteries.

Beyond specifically military and royal architecture, kings and queens have also had a major hand in building (or typically rebuilding) everyday places.  Alfred the Great’s re-building of Anglo-Saxon London following successive Viking raids was an early example.  Much later the limits of these powers in a country where property rights are sacrosanct were demonstrated when Charles II briefly entertained dramatic plans from the likes of Christopher Wren, John Evelyn and Robert Hooke to rebuild the City of London following the great fire of 1666.  Famously, property owners quickly asserted their rights, and London was largely rebuilt on the same footprint as before.  Charles did, however, give Wren the commission to rebuild the City’s churches, including St Pauls Cathedral, reflecting the then still relatively new position of monarchs as head of the English church.

The Alfred Plaque, London

The hand of monarchs has been influential in shaping our settlements in less obvious ways as well, as regulators.  In Medieval England, the right to use crenelations on a building was controlled by the King because of their association with the building of fortifications and those wishing to use crenelations had to obtain a licence to crenulate from the 12th century onwards.  Royal charters were required to host a market which in effect determined which settlement could expand and which could not – a day’s travel between chartered markets was typically observed.  And monarchs controlled development through their land holdings.  Charles II (again) granted the 1st Earl of St Albans a lease and later a freehold to develop 45 acres of Pall Mall, for example, indirectly giving rise to London’s first garden square (St James’) which inspired the city’s later Georgian expansions. 

George IV, when the Prince Regent, was one of the most influential royal builders, care of what J.B. Priestly called his great plans for London, implemented with the help of John Nash and others.  Transformations included Regents Park, Trafalgar Square and Regents Street, all rare episodes of formal remodelling of a city that has largely favoured the ad hoc and incremental rather than the grand statement.  George IV also continued the palace building tradition, including (when Prince), the somewhat extravagant Brighton Pavilion and (when King), the creation of Buckingham Palace (from Buckingham House), with George V adding today’s familiar principal façade almost a century later.  The period even gave form and title to its own manner of classical architecture, Regency. 

Royal influence (yesterday)

Of course royalty has given its name to successive periods of urban growth – Elizabethan, Jacobean, Georgian, Victorian, Edwardian – periods in which new and distinctive styles of architecture and urbanism have emerged.  As, latterly, these styles translated into successive suburban expansions of increasingly large parts of our towns and cities, they established neighbourhoods that are still hugely popular amongst residents and make up large parts of British cities.  Looking at the poor quality of housing design that has characterised much of the longest reign in British history, from post-war Modernist housing estates to the unsustainable sprawl of everyday market housing, our recently departed queen must have breathed a sigh of relief that the epithet – Elizabethan – had already been taken.  Instead, both in the UK and across the world she has a whole host of infrastructure named after her – parks, bridges, roads, hospitals, schools, airport terminals, court buildings, university buildings, galleries, exhibition centres, and, recently, a whole tube line.

So what about our new King?  Will we have a Charlesian period?  Charles III, when Prince of Wales, was extraordinarily engaged with architecture and urban design.  This came prominently to the fore in 1984 when, in front of an audience of architects gathered to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the RIBA, the then Prince described the competition-winning high-tech design for the new Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery on London’s Trafalgar Square as a “monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved friend”.  Many read this as an attack, not just on a single building, but on an entire profession which had been pursuing a Modernist credo (in various guises) for much of the century; a credo that stood in stark contrast to the Prince’s more traditionalist sensibilities.

The original high-tech Ahrends Burton Koralek proposals for Trafalgar Square were eventually succeeded by the post-modernist scheme of Robert Venturi and Denise Scott-Brown which reflected the Prince’s more traditional sensibilities

These, Charles articulated in his 1989 book, A Vision for Britain, that offered a passionate espousal for, as he saw it, a return to the principles of: place, hierarchy, scale, harmony, enclosure, materials, decoration, art, signs and lights (not too brash), and community.  However, not content to leave his beliefs on the page, the Prince set up and oriented the work of his Prince’s Foundation towards promoting traditional architecture and urbanism, including teaching drawing and craft skills, offering consultancy design services to parties interested in a traditional approach, and creating practical tools for communities and others to use in order to follow this approach (see, for example www.bimby.org.uk).  

Throughout his long period as the Prince of Wales, Charles also continued to exert a very personal influence (opposers would say meddle) over high profile developments by speaking out from time to time in a manner that almost always led to schemes (and their architects) being replaced.  These include 1 Poultry (a Mies van der Rohe tower, sunk), Paternoster Square (an Ove Arup masterplan, finished), and Chelsea Barracks (a Richard Rogers scheme, ended), and it is likely that behind the scenes the influence of the Prince was far more pervasive.  But even more significant (and influential) were the Prince’s own town building (or rather town extending) activities.  

Royal urban design (today)

The heir to the thrown inherits the custodianship of the Dutchy of Cornwall, and Charles used this position powerfully to espouse key aspects of his personal philosophies relating to, amongst other things, organic farming, sustainable living and, of course, traditional architecture.  In 1988, the Prince appointed Leon Krier to masterplan 400 acres of duchy land on the edge of Dorchester to create a town extension that will house almost 6,000 people when completed in 2025.  Construction began in 1993 and from the off debates over Poundbury’s visual styling largely obscured its pioneering connected street pattern at a time when most guidance was still recommending dendritic street patterns.  Arguably, once its stylistic baggage is removed, Poundbury represents a remarkable piece of place-making: street-based, compact, mixed, and connected, with high quality public realm and (like it or not) a clear sense of place.  Subsequent developments at Tregurra Park (Truro) and Nansledan (Newquay) have continued the philosophy, with Nansledan due to house 4,000 homes and a similar number of jobs, many on its own high street.

Poundbury and Nansledan, putting the Prince’s philosophy into practice

On the one occasion I met the Prince myself, at a conference in the mid-2000s on design coding, I was extremely impressed by his knowledge and passion, albeit, personally, I have never shared his stylistic preferences (no doubt reflecting my own architectural education).  That was an occasion, like so many, when he was out and about advocating for his views, delivering a serious message but in a self-depreciating manner that made fun of his own past run-ins with the built environment professions.  And perhaps that will be one of the key legacies of his time as Prince of Wales, a time spent sparking and then sustaining an important debate in the UK about the nature of good architecture and urban design, while also actively demonstrating an alternative to that espoused by many others.

As King, such advocacy will no longer be possible, but it is notable that a number of mainstream media outlets have already been highlighting his legacy (prior to his elevation) in this field, with the BBC, the Mirror newspaper and others running articles on Poundbury in the immediate aftermath of King’s assession to the throne.  So, will there be a distinctive Charlesian period of urbanisation? 

The influence of Poundbury and Nansleden are already plain to see.  Both have featured heavily as exemplars in Government guidance over the years (including on the front cover of the National Model Design Code) and it has not been lost on some developers and local authorities that these developments are both locally popular and attract a premium.  The philosophies underpinning them seem also to be broadly shared by those responsible for the recent Building Better Building Beautiful Commission, and methods, such as design coding, that have been espoused for so long by the Prince’s Trust are again centre stage nationally.  Although use of any particular tool does not imply a particular style or outcome (as I have been at pains to point out), the influence currently wielded by traditionalists in England is running high.

A Charlesian age?

Elizabeth II did not herself have strong built environment views, at least not ones that were publicly shared, perhaps reflecting her own early assession when just 25.  She was, however, patron to the RIBA throughout her reign (Charles being patron to the RTPI from 1989) while her passion for, and close custodianship of, the royal estate, was demonstrated repeatedly, not least following the devastating fire at Windsor Castle in 1992 when she took the decision to open up her primary residence – Buckingham Palace – to paying guests in order to pay for the reconstruction.

The 2nd Elizabethan age began with the brave new world promised by Modernism, went through decades of shaping our cities unsustainably, but concluded in a world where the consequences of our earlier decisions have led to a new realisation over the need to address the contemporary challenges of global warming, ecological destruction, health and social inequality and ugliness.  These are all concerns which the new King, in different guises, has consistently argued in favour of tackling over the long years of his apprenticeship.  And perhaps that will be the future, a future marked by a new Charlesian architecture and urban design that in decades to come we will look back on as something new, different and profoundly necessary and which finally took these challenges seriously.  

Eddington and Derwenthorpe, tackling the new challenges of our age

Whether the result is traditional or not (in appearance), in my view, matters much less than whether it is sustainable, socially as well as environmentally, and in that regard, Charles has shown real leadership.  As King, his voice will be muted, but one of the benefits of a long period in-waiting is the opportunity it provides to fully engage in matters of personal or public interest.  For royals, initially for self-preservation, then aggrandisement and national projection and latterly for social good, the design of the built environment has long been a matter of major concern.

Matthew Carmona

Professor of Planning & Urban Design

The Bartlett School of Planning, UCL