- The Washington Times - Friday, November 4, 2005

Call him the Rush Limbaugh of architecture. Britain’s Prince Charles, who picked up the Vincent Scully Prize at the National Building Museum on Thursday, has spent two decades arguing for staunchly conservative buildings and towns.

He has criticized modern buildings as doing “more damage to London since World War II than the Luftwaffe managed to do during the war.” He has dismissed skyscrapers as “statement buildings” that “cast long shadows … darken streets and suck life from them.” He has blamed the past 50 years of town planning for creating places with “a large degree of uniformity and monotony.” He denounced a since-abandoned design for London’s National Gallery as a “monstrous carbuncle.”

Many architects denigrate the royal’s verbal attacks as elitist and out of touch, but his views on architecture and urban planning, first penned in his 1989 book, “A Vision for Britain,” have proved prescient. Old-fashioned street grids and contextual buildings have become essential tools in planning city and suburb. Subdivisions with closely spaced traditional homes, such as Kentlands, Lakelands, Fallsgrove and King Farm in Montgomery County, are sought-after places to live and linchpins of “smart growth” policy.

A pair of small exhibits opening today at the National Building Museum underscore the popular appeal of the prince’s conservative ideas. They highlight the work of two of his 60 charitable organizations: a graduate school of traditional arts based in London and accredited by the University of Wales, and the Foundation for the Built Environment, which sponsors collaborative design workshops, among other programs.

The more visually enticing exhibit showcases work by students and faculty of the traditional arts school, which almost could have sprung from one of President Bush’s faith-based initiatives. Indeed, Prince Charles said in his Thursday speech at the Building Museum that the school “has at its core the search for the sacred.”

Stained glass, tiles and wooden screens for churches and mosques make a convincing case for reviving lost artistry and craftsmanship. They are tangible evidence of the nature-derived geometries and proportional systems explained all too dryly at the beginning of the show.

With its strong emphasis on Middle Eastern and Asian traditions, the display promotes Prince Charles’ long-held conviction that the West should engage with Islam. Intricately carved gypsum moldings, hand-painted glass and an Escher-like tile mural translate time-honored Islamic patterns into exquisitely crafted creations.

It is easy to imagine these decorations enriching a cutting-edge building as well as a traditional one. “Art is not a luxury but a part of everyday life,” the prince said in his speech.

Far more disappointing is the vacuous exhibit “Civitas,” meant to showcase the merits of traditional town planning. It squanders the opportunity to delve into the places where the prince’s “10 commandments” of design have been applied.

Many of these planning principles, from “place” and “enclosure” to “longevity” and “value,” are introduced through childlike dioramas of wooden building blocks, model trees and tiny human figures that do nothing to explain the concepts.

By now, the traditional urbanism movement has gone global. However, the exhibit presents only a cursory look at 15 communities in the United States, Europe and South Africa through a few photos and drawings mounted on hanging banners clustered at one end of the largely empty gallery.

They include new towns such as Seaside and Watercolor in the Florida panhandle, downtown developments such as the Alvarado District in Albuquerque, N.M., and communities proposed for industrial brownfields, including one on a former oil refinery in South Wales. A nod also is given to the recent Mississippi Renewal Forum, the post-Katrina workshop in Biloxi.

Held up as a “pioneer” of traditionalism is the prince’s pet project, Poundbury, although you don’t see much of it in the show. The model “village,” a suburb of Dorchester in southern England, was laid out in 1993 according to a plan by Luxembourg-born architect Leon Krier, an admirer of Nazi architect Albert Speer’s classical designs.

Absent from the exhibit, however, is a reality check on how well the prince’s beloved faux Georgian and Victorian towns are working.

Far from being “mixed-income communities,” as many are billed, most of the American examples such as Seaside and Kentlands have turned into enclaves for the privileged. Shops, offices and transit connections are slow to develop or don’t materialize. As for walking, most inhabitants drive to work and nearby shopping centers and malls.

More troubling still is the naive notion that by re-creating the small town of the past with its cozy architecture of pitched roofs and front porches, architects and planners will be able to rekindle small-town civic and social life. That’s as simplistic as 20th-century visionaries such as Le Corbusier insisting that their stark towers in parklike settings could unite people, nature and machines in blissful harmony.

In claiming architecture has the power to change lives, Prince Charles is not so different from those modernists he so abhors. On Thursday, he seemed to call a truce in his war against modern architecture, claiming that “in a sane society, traditionalism and modernity would be best of friends.”

WHAT: “A Building Tradition: The Work of the Prince’s School of Traditional Arts” and “Civitas: Traditional Urbanism in Contemporary Practice”

WHERE: National Building Museum, 401 F St. NW

WHEN: Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Through Jan. 8.

TICKETS: Free admission

PHONE: 202/272-2448

WEB SITE: www.nbm.org

Merging of energy savers, architecture urged

During his speech Thursday at the National Building Museum, part of a two-day visit to Washington with his wife, Camilla, the duchess of Cornwall, a gray-suited Prince Charles admitted his anti-modern-architecture barbs have earned him the reputation of being “a dangerous commodity in certain circles.”

Before a large crowd in the museum’s Great Hall, he threw out few zingers but focused his remarks on the “urgent environmental agenda,” suggesting that energy-saving technologies and traditional architecture be merged.

Recalling his own love of gardening, he said that architects can learn much from nature, which “offers clues as to how … to achieve the fine grain of things that make buildings and streetscapes such a delight.”

The prince also noted that he is planning to donate the money from his Vincent Scully prize (established by the museum in 1999 and named after a Yale art history professor) to help revitalize Gulf Coast towns devastated by Hurricane Katrina.

Last month, he noted in his speech, his Foundation for the Built Environment helped produce “creative plans” for nine communities, temporary and permanent housing and the rebuilding of infrastructure. The plans were drawn up as part of the Mississippi Renewal Forum, a six-day workshop convened by Republican Gov. Haley Barbour in Biloxi.

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