We're still feudal

Woke up on a Chelsea morning…. Ten things you need to know about that Richard Rogers/Prince Charles/Chelsea Barracks rumble

In case you missed it, the twattish heir to the British throne, Prince Charles, has been caught out trying to subvert the planning process again – this time writing to the Qatari owners of the vast Chelsea Barracks site in west London, right next door to Wren’s Royal Hospital – and very close, incidentally, to where Richard Rogers lives. A stonkingly enormous luxury housing scheme for the site, designed by Rogers Stirk Harbour, is going through the real planning process. Meanwhile, in the Prince’s murky shadow planning process, Charles was caught trying to persuade the Qataris to replace Rogers with his favoured neoclassicist, Quinlan Terry.


The affair has predictably polarised opinion. All influential architects, and everyone who thinks Charles is indeed a twat, and all those who believe in a democratic rather than dictatorial planning system, have weighed in against the Heir of Sorrows. Today a clutch of international superstars has jointly signed a letter condemning the Prince’s intervention, published in The Sunday Times. Foster, Nouvel, Hadid, Herzog and de Meuron, Piano, Adjaye…plus, tellingly, the names of Rogers’ two faithful academic/critic sidekicks and spin-doctors, Deyan Sudjic and Ricky Burdett. One can imagine the summit dinner (excellent food, cooked by Ruthie, nice Tuscan red to oil the wheels) to which Rogers summoned them and issued his orders, PR consultants in attendance. “Bring me the head of Prince Charles! Do it now! Ruthie, fetch me the cleaver! No, the David Mellor one!” (Incidentally, I made this bit up. But it sounds convincing, don’t you think?).

The affair has unleashed the traditionalist zombies. Since Charles’s throwback views on architectural style (nothing good since the Palladian revival of the 18th century, basically) were utterly defeated by the modernist revival of the 1990s, he’s been a bit quiet. True, he had a few personal problems, not to mention personality problems. Oh, let’s be frank – Charles became a laughing-stock, and married an old boiler. Maybe his behind-the-scenes architectural fumblings were still going on, but not seeing the light of day. Who knows? As I say, the affair has polarised opinion. With Charles’ sleazy manoeuvrings once again revealed, all those who hate modern architecture have risen like the undead to lend him their gibbering support. Right-wing newspaper columnists are right behind him, of course. Who cares about democracy? Charles is right! We need more columns and pediments next to Wren, not tightly-packed tinfoil and glass! The planning system is clearly an ass not to provide lots more of them! Hurrah Charles, hurrah end-justifies-the-means, oh whoops, my rotting cadaver has just oozed embarrassingly!

But there’s a problem. A big problem for the supporters of Rogers and all those who regard Charles an in inbred retard who really ought to spend more time with his amusingly-shaped vegetables. The problem is this. The Rogers Stirk Harbour design at Chelsea Harbour is Not. Very. Good. In fact, it is Shockingly Bad. So far as one can tell from the limited images available, it is a dog’s breakfast worthy of Kanine Krunchies. To some extent this is not the fault of the architects It is plain old over-development. That comes down to the Qatari developers. With whom Charles is apparently on such good terms.

So: here are Squidgy’s ten salient points abut the whole business.

1. This comes down to developer greed. If you buy a site like this for nearly a billion pounds (as they did) you are going to have to really pile up the buildings to try to make it pay, especially since you are forced by planners to build large amounts of unprofitable “social housing” as part of the mix. Oh dear, rather a sensitive location to ram in the square footage.

2. To continue the canine theme, the Rogers scheme is a dog worthy of Best in Show at Crufts, which is a dog show. It’s not so much the height (it’s been reduced since the even worse first design last year). But the blocks are jammed far too close together, in a totally unimaginative way. They look like a 1960s council housing estate crossed with a 1990s business park.

3. But merely switching style does not solve the over-density problem. Though a different architect would presumably slice up the lumps differently, as Quinlan Terry is doing. His sketch looks grim indeed. Terry is good at country houses with lots of land round them – not so sure he can cope with this level of urban density either. Even at Downing College Cambridge, his new quad is uncomfortably squeezed.

4. Odd – all mention of Chelsea Barracks has vanished from the Rogers Stirk Harbour website. And very few images exist in the public domain to show what it’s really going to look like, and those focus on the little bit of park rather than the serried ranks of marching cheek-by-jowl blocks Surely it couldn’t be that they’re a bit embarrassed by the project?

5. Even more odd – how come Charles has made no mention of a far more prominent piece of over-development, the 1,000 foot, 70-storey “Shard” tower at London Bridge by Renzo Piano (old friend and staunch supporter of Rogers). The Shard is financed by the same Qatari developers as Chelsea Barracks. A few well-heeled West Londoners will be affected by Chelsea Barracks. But the whole population of London – and a lot of the South-East – will be affected by the Shard. But that’s all right, most of them are proles, and most of them are poor, aren’t they?

6. How curious that Charles only ever attacks the better architects. It must be one of those posh-upbringing things. For some reason he seems blind to the real dross. What about the canyons of god-awful new apartments lining the Thames? What about the dystopian suburbs of Hull?

7. Charles’ attempts to subvert the planning process by stealth do indeed look unconstitutional and he is sailing very close to the wind. He did not want this correspondence to emerge. It was meant to be secret. If any other mega-rich landowner tried to muscle in on someone else’s property like this, everyone would be up in arms. The end does not justify the means. Oh, and he’s a plonker.

8. His actions also amount to a criticism of government. Hah – he’s not meant to do that. But it was the Government which sold off the Barracks site to the highest bidder, which is what got us all into this mess in the first place. Charles criticising the Barracks designs is therefore the same as Charles pulling down the Prime Minister’s trousers in public. Which would be fun, but might provoke a constitutional crisis leading to civil war and regicide.

9. If Charles succeeds in turfing Rogers out, would not Rogers be justified in seeking legal redress against the Prince? And how much fun would that be?

But there is a way out of all this nonsense, and it is this:

10. The best solution for the Chelsea Barracks site would be for it to be sold on at a thumping great loss to other developers, who would then be able to build a far less dense scheme, ideally with the architects decided through a new competition. Open, fair. transparent.

Rogers and Terry could both be invited to take part, along with a raft of others. Judges to exclude all those known to be in either the Rogers or Zombie camps. So no Sudjic, no Burdett, no Nicholas Serota, no Simon Jenkins, Roger Scruton, etc etc.

And if Charles starts meddling again, take him to the Palace of Westminster and show him the statue of Cromwell. Final warning.