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King Charles III’s Vendetta Against Modern Architecture, Explained

Historically, the British Royal Family has shied away from voicing controversial opinions. When it comes to design and architecture, perhaps they refrain because many of the palaces in which they reside were paid for by their subjects’ tax dollars. But over the last few decades, there has been one notable exception to this rule, and he was just made king.

King Charles III has been a rather outspoken critic of modern architecture for most of his adult life. Perhaps his most damning insult—and what gave him the sobriquet of “the most prominent architecture critic in the world,” from The New York Times—was when he declared a proposed addition to London’s National Gallery as a “monstrous carbuncle” in 1984. Since then, he has not hesitated from offering his opinion on contemporary urban planning or architecture. A story in The Guardian notes that he once called Birmingham’s city center “a monstrous concrete maze,” with a library that resembled “a place where books are incinerated, not kept.” 

The London skyline includes modern buildings, like The Shard, and historic landmarks, like Tower Bridge.

Photo: Laurie Noble / Getty Images

And even though not everyone in the city planning and architecture worlds shares his vituperative views of modern design, his opinion has carried weight over the years. The Guardian article lists several projects that were dismissed after the then prince refused to give his imprimatur, including an office tower by Mies van der Rohe and multiple projects by Pritzker Prize winner Richard Rogers.

Apart from critiquing modern design, he’s also tried his best to champion the classic form. As prince, Charles even went so far as to produce an architecture magazine called Perspectives in 1994 (it folded just a few years later), wrote a philosophic architectural book called A Vision of Britain, and created his own architectural institute that focused on his preferred style of classical design. Perhaps his most notable achievement is Poundbury, a housing development and town in southern England filled with neo-Georgian, Victorian, and castle-style homes—you won’t find anything Brutalist here. Architectural critics like The Guardian’s Oliver Wainwright have referred to it as a “feudal Disneyland,” all show and no depth. But the monarch certainly rules over this miniature kingdom with carefully thought-out aesthetic edicts: As a September The New York Times article points out, “nobody is allowed to paint their home a new color ‘without the consent of His Royal Highness.’” You can forget about a visible satellite dish too.

As to why the royal has a distaste for the modern? No one knows for sure, but famed architect Ian Ritchie has a guess. “He comes from history, studied history, loves history, and has spent his entire life living in and with historic buildings; he is living history,” Ritchie tells AD. Although Ritchie agrees with the King’s views on preserving the natural environment, he feels “[Charles] struggles with articulating architectural opinion other than through a historic reference.” The King, for his part, said in a 2009 speech that his passion comes from a love for humanity. “Architecture defines the public realm, and it should help to define us as human beings and to symbolize the way we look at the world,” he explained.

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