The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

April 12th, 2009

Public opinion gets burnt to a crisp by the Chelsea Toaster

People are angry, increasingly so. The new rage has to do with a growing sense of unfairness and powerlessness and it expresses itself about all kinds of concerns, both large and small, from Mr Jacqui Smith’s rude videos to the army’s inadequate equipment. What happens to the site of the old Chelsea Barracks in west London is a small matter, relatively speaking. One could say that whatever is finally built there will affect only a few Londoners who live nearby and even fewer plutocrats who want a luxury flat close to Sir Christopher Wren’s Royal hospital. I would say it will affect a great many more people, and for generations to come, but whatever the number, the cause is one that rallies people all over the country in spirit. That’s because the proposal for Chelsea Barracks is a perfect symbol of the contempt in which the Establishment holds us. To start from the beginning, the land on which Chelsea Barracks used to stand is our land. It was held by the government in our name to house soldiers. When the army moved out, the government could easily have kept the land in our name for some other good purpose: school playing fields, for example. Instead, it flogged the site last year for as much as it could get from some Qatari developers, who in turn planned to cram every possible inch of the land with buildings for the best return on their huge investment. A brief glance at the original proposal, designed by the architect Richard Rogers and team, will explain why it was nicknamed “the Toaster”: it shows a line of ugly, utilitarian multistorey metallic buildings, crammed in such close parallel lines onto the site that there seems only just room to toast a thin slice of bread between each of them. After prolonged public objections, the architects made some of the buildings a bit lower and some smaller. Even so, the whole thing remains an offence against the eye and the spirit. It is a predictable design of huge, harsh, soulless glass and steel rectangles – too shiny, too tall and entirely impersonal. Cities all over the country have been made desolate by these inhuman buildings. But the ordinary person can do nothing. Petitions and consultations mean nothing. Planners do their worst and local elections make no difference. We just have to stand by while these buildings go up. Not only that. We have to accept the contempt of architects and planners for our philistine lack of taste. They make it quite clear that we, the public, are too ignorant to appreciate good architecture. We must leave such things to those who know better, such as those who make their money out of designing or building these monstrosities. Which of these buildings is lovable, though? Which raises the spirit, as you walk about or cross London’s bridges? They merely interrupt the celebrated view from Westminster Bridge, unwelcome in themselves and a reminder of worse to come. Earth hath not anything more unfair, one might say. I don’t think I am opposed by nature to modern architecture. There are a few modern buildings I like, particularly in other countries. But ask anyone, even someone who claims to like new buildings, to name a couple they particularly love in this country – as one loves Sherborne Abbey or a 19th-century terrace in Bristol – and it is surprising how few they will come up with. In London, some mention the Lloyd’s Building, which is at least interesting, but the Gherkin is vulgar, suggestive and pointless – there doesn’t seem to be any reason for it to be that silly shape. The Barbican is ugly and depressing but at least not as hideous as the South Bank complex. Canary Wharf will be seen before long as a monument to all that was greedy and ignorant about the derivatives bubble and the masters of the universe of our time – oversized, opulent and heartless. The Islamic Centre opposite the Natural History Museum is shuttered, blind and psychologically closed, despite its eye-catching veneer. As for the Millennium Dome, it is a ghastly reminder of the worst of bad planning and bad design. These are, of course, public buildings. The record is far worse when it comes to places where people live – machines for living in, as Le Corbusier said, in a phrase that encapsulates the inhumanity of modernism. I can hardly think of a single beautiful housing development in the country, apart from a few four-storey council flats in 19th-century streets. On the contrary, most modern housing estates express a desolation that would have astonished even Dickens. So now we have a particularly charming part of London, loved for its low-rise, human scale, its easy elegance and its history, about to be overwhelmed by the type of edifice that has blighted so many other pleasant places. For once, at least, not all leading architects are united in favour. The highly regarded Will Alsop has said he is not a great admirer of the Rogers plan, and David Chipperfield has expressed concern too. But public protest will achieve nothing and the government’s architecture watchdog has just announced its support for a new, improved Toaster scenario. When looking for a representative of the people to stand against all this, one would not automatically turn to the Prince of Wales. He is uniquely unqualified for the role; his inherited position prevents him from taking sides and using his influence to do so. That – although he doesn’t seem to recognise it – is part of the understanding accepted long ago by the Windsors: to stay in office they abandoned all power, including power they might exercise through taking sides in public. So it was wrong for Prince Charles to speak out against genetically modified crops, a controversial political issue. And it’s wrong for him to speak out against this architectural proposal, even though he is quite right. Yet he alone seems to have captured the public mood. He cannot tell the planning department at Westminster council what to do, but he has asked his royal friends in Qatar to dump Rogers’s development and, one way or another, he’s proving a powerful supporter of what most people want. I can’t feel this is right, although I am grateful nonetheless. How odd it is that the growing democratic deficit in this country should, in this case at least, have been filled by a most undemocratically chosen prince.