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Kicking up the dust of change

The news in the architecture profession has been dominated for much of the summer by a few guardians of homeland and propriety -- one of whom happens to be first in line to the British throne.

In London, a pitched debate continues over efforts by Prince Charles, long known as a champion of traditional architecture, to block firms he considers avant-garde from working in the vicinity of his favorite landmarks. Offended by a $5-billion plan by architect Richard Rogers for the Chelsea Barracks in southwestern London, Charles complained to the emir of Qatar, who was bankrolling the project, and succeeded in having it canceled. Last month, the Guardian newspaper reported that in 2005, Charles had lobbied to remove the French architect Jean Nouvel from a commission near St. Paul's Cathedral.

In this country, meanwhile, the General Services Administration announced it was dropping Norman Foster's huge London firm Foster and Partners from a project renovating 50 UN Plaza, a 1936 Beaux-Arts office building in San Francisco, after local architects pointed out rather testily that the job was being funded by federal stimulus dollars. The GSA swiftly replaced Foster with San Francisco's own Architectural Resources Group (which did very good work restoring the Huntington Art Gallery in San Marino) and with Texas-based HKS.

It would be going too far to call these stories proof of some emerging architectural blacklist. The profession is hardly on the brink of loyalty oaths or are-you-now-or-have-you-ever-been-a-starchitect litmus tests; Rogers, Nouvel and Foster, all lions of the international architectural scene, have plenty of other commissions and magazine shoots to keep them busy.

What the stories do suggest is that efforts to pursue blanket bans on certain architects because they're foreign, or because their work is seen as insufficiently sensitive to context or history, don't do anybody much good, not least the banners themselves. In both cases, simplistic judgments -- Modern architecture ruined the city! Keep foreign architects away from our stimulus money! -- can lead to a sort of provincialism by way of protectionism.

Perhaps more to the point, both stories make clear that a supposed understanding of cities from "on the ground" or "in the neighborhood" can sometimes act as a blind spot. In certain cases -- the prince and the New Urbanists notwithstanding -- a top-down view can actually provide the most useful perspective.

The federal stimulus package, in fact, has so far failed to transform the architecture of our cities in any but the most rudimentary way for precisely this reason. President Obama, in what was perhaps an understandable move tactically, allowed Congress to write the package's details and states to hand out the money, which meant it was heavy on patronage and pork and, particularly where architecture and cities are concerned, light on big-picture thinking.

The bigger picture

The flap in San Francisco was predictable, at least in hindsight. If the central goal of stimulus money was to generate domestic jobs, of course handing a small chunk of it to a foreign firm was bound to be controversial. But objecting to Sir Norman pocketing Uncle Sam's dollars misses a couple of larger issues: First, that the GSA job, and the stimulus money attached to it, wasn't going to go just to Foster and his partners; it was going to go to Foster along with a long list of engineers, consultants, contractors and subcontractors -- nearly all of whom would have been as American as Glenn Beck.

Second, a knee-jerk dismissal of foreign architects playing any part in stimulus projects clouds the more meaningful questions we ought to be asking about that federal windfall and its relationship to American urbanism: Namely, will stimulus projects improve life in our cities even as they create jobs? Foster's firm has proved uniquely skilled at bringing historic buildings and urban spaces crisply back to life -- and helping revive streets and neighborhoods in the process. It added superbly proportioned glass canopies, for instance, to both the Great Court at the British Museum and to the Smithsonian's Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture in Washington.

Put it this way: Which is more offensive, that Foster had -- for a time -- a stimulus-package commission, or that lonely stretches of road are being repaved or widened across rural America for the sake of political and economic expediency?

The London controversy, at least from afar, suggests that related questions continue to get an entertainingly vigorous hearing in Britain. The prince got the conversation restarted in a much-anticipated May speech to the Royal Institute of British Architects, whose leaders he's clashed with in the past. He began by offering an olive branch but then appeared to pull it back, attacking modernist planning in blunt terms and criticizing as hypocrites famous modernist architects "who live in beautiful classical homes." It seemed a clear jab at Rogers, who owns a house in the Georgian style.

The debate kept bubbling all summer, and by last week the Times of London was reporting that a loggia designed for the restored Kensington Palace by one of Charles' favored architects, John Simpson, had been rejected by a neighborhood council because, as one politician put it, it was "decoratively over-elaborate and almost embarrassingly twee." In the Guardian, another of his foes called the prince's tendency to meddle in architectural affairs "almost feudal."

Simply because of the combination of his title and his old-fashioned, if admirably consistent, views on urban design, the prince qualifies as one of the most prominent and active architecture critics in the world. No American critic -- not even Herbert Muschamp in his "blazing chandelier to swing your dreams upon" prime -- has written anything half as well known as Charles' description of a proposed addition to London's National Gallery as "a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend."

Equally vivid was his condemnation, in 1987, of postwar changes to the London skyline in the area around St. Paul's. "You have to give this much to the Luftwaffe," the prince said. "When it knocked down our buildings, it didn't replace them with anything more offensive than rubble."

Fears of the future

Still, it's the very liveliness and energy of these complaints that makes them worth contesting, isn't it? The enthusiasms of royals are in certain ways no different from those of any dilettante; and yet in Charles' case, they have the power to pinch off architectural vitality in favor of some rose-colored idea of what the past looked and felt like.

Simply put, the prince's comments play ruthlessly on fears of the future. They are effective in part because of the degree to which London was victimized after World War II by ill-conceived modern architecture. On top of that, few cities have changed as much culturally or demographically in the last generation; youth, rising immigration and shifting tastes have transformed London in ways that strike some locals as liberating and others as terrifying.

Indeed, what Hanif Kureishi and others have brought to the London novel, and M.I.A. to the London soundtrack, Charles, in the most primitive analysis of his activism, would prevent architects from bringing to the London skyline. Of course, architecture is a rather blunt instrument for effecting change. When M.I.A. puts out a record, it joins all the other records in the world in infinite digital space; the same is true for a new novel. When these products appear, the universal cultural bookshelf simply expands by a few pixels.

The combination of architecture's growing popularity over the last decade and the new power of the profession's image-making capabilities -- with jaw-dropping renderings of new buildings taking up more and more space in newspapers and magazines and online -- give many of us the false impression that designing buildings could be like that too. Architecture began to seem more and more like a consumable and liquid commodity -- something we could enjoy without worrying about zoning ordinances, preservation boards, setback requirements or environmental-impact reviews. Almost like something we could carry around on our iPods.

And if young architects seemed blazingly naïve about politics, engineering or history? Or all three? As long as their on-screen creations were diverting enough, nobody really cared.

But the truth is that putting up a building, as opposed to designing one, remains the least digital act imaginable, which is one reason the prince's complaints about contemporary architecture continue to gain more traction than they seemingly deserve. Particularly in its historic neighborhoods, as Charles is never hesitant to point out, London's architectural bookshelf is mostly fixed and full. To make room for a new book, you usually have to squeeze the other ones uncomfortably, or take down an older volume and toss it on the trash heap. That process can kick up not just rhetorical dust but also the literal variety.

christopher.hawthorne @latimes.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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