King Charles III’s carbuncles: London’s architectural style wars have international resonance

The mishmash of eclectic styles of London’s architecture goes back into its history

October 07, 2022 08:00 am | Updated 04:07 pm IST

King Charles III

King Charles III | Photo Credit: Getty Images

After King Charles III’s ascension to the British throne, the media has been on overdrive, digging up the stinging barbs he made as Prince of Wales about various prestigious post-war rebuilding projects that dot London. His contempt for modern architecture is well-known.

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In 1984, on the Royal Institute of British Architects’ 150th anniversary, when the eminent Indian architect Charles Correa was to be awarded the Royal Gold Medal, the heir apparent addressed the gathering. Contrary to the usual complimentary panegyrics in order on such occasions, Charles took the opportunity to raise hackles over modernist designs. With his hallmark sardonic candour, he described the proposed extension to the National Gallery in London as ‘a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend’ His controversial royal rants about modern architecture may be coarse in messaging, but is there some truth in what he says?

 London skyline with eclectic mix of styles viewed from river Thames.

 London skyline with eclectic mix of styles viewed from river Thames. | Photo Credit: Rajnish Wattas

Discordant notes

What is the larger issue at stake in this debate over architectural styles between die-hard traditionalists and the new-age modernists? Both have their own passionate rationales for their positions.

There is no better way to experience the discordant notes of London’s once famous historic skyline than to take a boat cruise along the Thames. The mishmash of eclectic styles of London’s architecture goes back into its history. They range from Romanesque to Baroque to Gothic and to neo-classical periods. Alas, the city with its legendary grand monuments and edifices was razed to rubble during World War II. It was therefore in a hurry to rebuild itself, provide social housing and create civic infrastructure. In the process, many cuboid, bulky ‘Brutalist’ buildings and housing projects — abhorred by the cottage-loving Britons — came up.

The Shard building in London.

The Shard building in London. | Photo Credit: Rajnish Wattas

With prosperity, soon came early modernism, when architects started making bold steel and glass skyscrapers all over the dense grain of London, sitting cheek-by-jowl with classical national landmarks like Saint Paul’s Cathedral, Westminster Hall, and the Tower of London along the river-front. As you sail past the quaint Shakespearean thatch-roofed Globe Theatre adjacent to Tate Modern — an erstwhile power station turned into art gallery — the incongruity hits hard. And more than any other structure, the slender all-glass ‘pencil-tipped’ tallest skyscraper of the city ‘The Shard’ looms large over the city.

The complex web of forces driving such new urban transformations is the pragmatic necessity to create more office, commercial and residential spaces in the tightly packed London city, with sky-rocketing rents and dark, dingy interiors of old buildings, even if retrofitted with modern amenities. In contrast, the new sleek glass boxes bathed in precious sunlight, allowing grandstand sweeping panoramas of the city, offer a far more compelling option.

How to strike a balance?

Land and space are the two perennial shortages that global cities face everywhere. Whether it is a Chicago grappling for more commercial space along its Michigan Avenue, subsuming its historic landmark 19 th century Water Tower, or New York’s post 9/11 World Trade Centres choking the quaint Greek Orthodox Cathedral, the struggle is the same, to strike a fine balance between the old and the new, past and the present.

St Paul’s Cathedral in London.

St Paul’s Cathedral in London. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

India too is no stranger to such massive urban transformations especially in metropolitan cities. In its current aspiration to decolonise the historic baggage of British rule — the most powerful symbol being the Raj’s edifices on New Delhi’s Raisina Hill — the cityscape is being aggressively reinvented.

The proposed triangular-shaped Parliament seemingly appears incongruous to the circular mass of the existing one of the Lutyens-Baker’s creation. As the two structures are sited adjacent to one another, the designer’s architectural language in twining the two is very critical. If not done sensitively, there could be a potential aesthetic clash, instead of harmonising them. Edward Lutyens and Herbert Baker evolved a hybrid fusion of European, Islamic and Rajput elements, adorned with Buddhist symbols. What will be the new script for striking that magical balance between the old and the newis the question.

Cities as engines of growth, world over, undergo constant renewals and rebirths. But to distinguish between the chaff and grain of their built-form heritage is essential. The collective memory of people of their cherished cities resides in the stones of these mute monuments.

The writer is former principal, Chandigarh College of Architecture, and an author-critic.

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