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The key to understanding the politics of Britain’s new king, Charles III, lies in Transylvania. Anyone interested in architecture in the United Kingdom since the 1980s has had to reckon with the activities of the then Prince of Wales, which have included books, a TV series, and even an entire town, Poundbury in Dorset, designed as a showcase of his ideas. But it is in the eastern Balkans that his personal vision has come closest to fruition.
In 2018, on a trip to Romania, I was tipped off by the urbanist Gruia Badescu that I would find an explanation of Charles’s politics in the western region of the country – the area that was for many centuries part of the Habsburg Empire, but which is best known outside Romania for being the ancestral seat of a (fictional) aristocratic vampire.
Romania was one of the last countries in Europe to industrialise its agriculture. This meant that at the end of the state-socialist period in 1989, large swathes of the country were still farmed without pesticides and machinery. Despite the late dictator Nicolae Ceauçescu’s abortive 1980s attempt to “systematise” the countryside into agri-industrial complexes, many villages and small towns in Transylvania retained their historic appearance, especially those fortified with Gothic watchtowers by Saxon colonists in the late Middle Ages.
After 1989, Charles, like all British royals a landlord with massive holdings, started buying up property there. In so doing, he could keep a way of life alive, and preserve both historic agriculture and historic architecture in one fell swoop. Charles’s estates in rural Transylvania gradually became the future King’s home away from home, and a small enclave where he could permanently enforce his vision of the world – imagine one of Marie Antoinette’s farms that churned out real produce, combined with a Heideggerian vision of rural authenticity.
Looking out of the window as the train slowly trundled through these bitterly impoverished settlements, it was mildly chilling to realise that this is what, ideally, he would like for all of us.
Charles III is interesting for being a sincere environmentalist and a conservative in the most literal sense of the term. The built environment was the subject of his first and most confrontational intervention.
The job of being a royal in Britain entails opening a great many buildings. There are thousands with plaques recording ribbons being cut by Elizabeth II, or the Prince of Wales, or the “Lolita Express” enthusiast Prince Andrew if they are unlucky. From the 1940s until the 1980s, many of these buildings were ambitious modernist megastructures, such as London’s National Theatre or Birmingham’s Central Library. Charles will have seen scores of these, escorted by his entourage, and he gradually came to hate them.
In 1984, he used a speech that was supposed to honour the Indian architect Charles Correa – a devotee of natural materials and local traditions who we might have expected him to praise – to deliver a condemnation of a generation of British architects, for their deployment of straight lines, industrial materials, and their disinterest in historic precedent. A specific target was a prize-winning but unbuilt extension to London’s National Gallery by the modernist architects Ahrends Burton and Koralek – a “monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved friend,” according to Charles. It was quickly canceled.
Architects – organised in this country through a Royal Institute, not a trade union – mostly responded by trying to design in a manner that would please the Prince, although a few holdouts such as Richard Rogers refused to do so; they would be accordingly underemployed in their home country for two decades. But Charles soon found an architect he truly saw eye to eye with: Léon Krier.
Great leap backward
Born in Luxembourg, Krier, a highly talented draughtsman and caricaturist, came to prominence in the 1970s as a partner of James Stirling. Stirling was then considered Britain’s most important living architect for works such as his brutalist Leicester Engineering Building and his pioneering postmodernist Neue Staatsgalerie in Stuttgart. Krier became fixated by the existentialist, rural-romantic philosophy of Martin Heidegger and increasingly disenchanted with the results of postwar reconstruction.
He became a prominent intellectual advocating the end of modern architecture, writing a denunciatory article for the radical New York journal Oppositions with the German title “Vorwarts Kamaraden, Wir Mussen Zuruck (Forward Comrades, We Must Go Back)”. He then published a monograph celebrating the work of Hitler’s architect, munitions minister, and war criminal, Albert Speer.
In that book, along with his praise of Speer’s banal and vacuous architecture, Krier made a variety of patently disgusting statements, claiming that Los Angeles and the Nazi extermination camps were “children of the same parents” because both were reliant on mechanisation, and that “many people are more disturbed by the grandeur of Speer’s buildings than by images of Auschwitz”.
The Prince hired Krier in the late 1980s as the chief architect and planner of Poundbury, a new town to be planned on his land in the rural county of Dorset, on the outskirts of the town of Dorchester. We can only speculate as to the future Charles III’s views on Krier’s curious opinions about Nazi Germany. However, what they clearly agreed upon was not just a liking for classical buildings and a dislike for modernist ones, but a more general philosophy of life.
Views from nowhere
Poundbury was intended to be a showcase, not merely of preindustrial design, but of a preindustrial way of building and living in cities. Buildings would be constructed in the local vernacular using local materials and would be based around walking, not driving or mechanised transport. Krier liked to argue that without the internal combustion engine, Los Angeles – or its social-democratic British imitation, Milton Keynes – would simply cease to exist since it could not be walked.
Poundbury was based around walking. Its site, though it has never had a railway station, was a short bus ride from central Dorchester, so this wasn’t wildly implausible. Moreover, it would have a social “mix”, with private housing aimed at various incomes mixed together with charitable (rather than municipal) social housing.
Poundbury was built slowly but is now roughly close to completion (I’ve visited numerous times and led a tour around it for the Architecture Foundation). What is sad about the project is how much any genuinely radical ideas were gradually shelved. The “local materials” were of no interest to the volume housebuilders who have constructed most of it, which means most of the town looks like a fairly typical outer suburb, just with the buildings packed more closely together.
As is common in recent British architecture of any style, finishes and build quality are poor because of the contracting systems which remove power from the architect. Initially, it was a relative commercial failure, but this has changed in recent years, largely because of a shift of architectural emphasis. Early parts of Poundbury were a matter of winding paths and village-y, cutesy, hut-like terraces and public buildings, with towers clearly modeled on those of Transylvania provided as focal points — a rural utopia on the cheap, with distant roots perhaps in the ideas of William Morris, carried out here by monarchists rather than socialists.
It has shifted over the last decade into much more flamboyant, grandiose architecture, with a square of massive colonnaded buildings around a statue of Charles’s grandmother, the Queen Mother. Within these are a gastropub, the Duchess of Cornwall, named after his wife, and a supermarket. Around the corner are a set of mock-industrial buildings designed to provide a sort of simulacra hipster quarter – lofts in Disneyland.
To make it all work, the main square around the statue is a free car park, to encourage visitors to the town so that they can inject some life into a rather eerie place, and maybe look at some real estate. This eighteenth-century grand classical square now frames a sea of cars.
All of it is literally facile – the distant appearance of the preindustrial past, but now with supermarkets and car dependency just as in Milton Keynes or Los Angeles. No wonder Charles has had to go to Transylvania for his fix of authenticity: looking at all of those cars in every public space, he must know that Poundbury is a failure on the terms he and Krier once imagined for it.
The royal family is a business, and the British aristocracy has been pioneer capitalists since the fifteenth century: in the end, the place had to make a profit. But at the heart of the problem is not just the fact that Charles is not an anti-capitalist – this is surely obvious – but also that he has so partial an understanding of architecture and cities.
Peter Ahrends, the codesigner of the cancelled “monstrous carbuncle”, was aware of this. In his recent autobiography, he pointed out that Charles stared blankly at the architects of the National Gallery extension when they tried to describe the spaces they had designed, the juxtapositions they had imagined between the old and new, and what it might be like walking through them – exciting, strange, contradictory. Here we can see how for all his wealth, this failure of imagination comes from the radically impoverished life the man has led.
Outside of his Victorian castles and fake Georgian homes, such as the hideous early-twentieth-century heap of Buckingham Palace, Charles will never have been able to walk freely around a building. Constantly guarded and chaperoned, he has never once in his life been able to walk freely around a city, either. Buildings and towns to him are just pictures, and they are either ugly pictures or pretty pictures. Our role is to be the picturesque little figures in these pretty pictures: ploughing, weaving, but never thinking.
Owen Hatherley is the culture editor of Tribune. He is the author of several books, including Red Metropolis: Socialism and the Government of London.