Chelsea Boys

Champion of common sense or crowned demagogue, the Prince of Wales is making headlines again -- this time for engineering a veto of the architect Richard Rogers' (Lord Rogers of Riverside) plan for urban redevelopment on the prime site of the former Chelsea Barracks. For the prosecution, Hugh Pearman in the Wall Street Journal:


The "Shard" tower, by Mr. Rogers's former partner Renzo Piano -- with whom Mr. Rogers designed Paris's Pompidou Center in the 1970s -- will be the most prominent building in London by far. Its impact on the skyline will be colossal. In contrast, the visual impact of Mr. Rogers's Chelsea plan will be zero on the skyline and negligible in its neighborhood. So why isn't Charles writing letters to the Qataris about the Shard? Easy. The Shard is planned for an office quarter of a poor borough next to a commuter railway station. Chelsea, by contrast, is a rich residential district inhabited by some very conservative people with good contacts. (It also happens to be where the left-leaning Mr. Rogers lives.)

For the defense, Alice Thomson in The Times:

What are the royals for if not to protect our heritage? He's meddling, you say, but the Prince is at his best when he becomes involved. The neighbours never wanted these glass and steel high-tech residential towers stuffed with £50million flats. But they had no influence over the combined might of Lord Rogers, Gulf State money and the Candys (who have two other vast projects in the capital) and who are held in awe by London's planning committees.

Prince Charles could do something. He pulled rank and wrote a letter to his friend, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the ruler of Qatar, who was backing the project. The arrogance of architects has been trumped by the arrogance of princes.

What interests me is the demographic side of this battle. It would not be happening without the last century's gains in longevity. Queen Elizabeth II has already outlived Queen Victoria by two years and may well live longer than the 102 years of her mother. If Charles were king now he would not have been able to intervene so directly. Since he has considerable popular support -- over 70 percent according to a poll last spring by the largely pro-Rogers Guardian, we can expect his campaigns to continue for years to come.

Major twentieth-century architects -- a regal breed in their own right -- also enjoyed striking professional longevity. Frank Lloyd Wright was in his late 80s when he designed the Price Tower in Bartlesville, Oklahoma, now a National Historic Landmark. Philip Johnson was in his late 70s when the audaciously Chippendale-pedimented AT&T (now Sony) building in Manhattan created a furore; he continued working into his 90s.

I. M. Pei, still active, was over 90 when the Museum of Islamic Art he designed opened in Qatar in 2008. Frank Gehry, possibly North America's current reigning starchitect, turned 80 in February. Lord Rogers is 75; the traditionalist architect Quinlan Terry, reportedly the Prince of Wales' candidate for the Chelsea site, is 71.

So while media culture may be in the hands of ever-younger media executives, responsibility for the bult environment may be moving in the other direction.

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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