Newer posts are loading.
You are at the newest post.
Click here to check if anything new just came in.

January 28 2012

Interview: architects Richard Rogers, Graham Stirk and Ivan Harbour

Celebrated architect Richard Rogers and his partners discuss £140m penthouses, John Prescott's ministerial 'flair' and Prince Charles's strange ideas about architecture

Richard Rogers, at 78, is not about to slow down. "I am enjoying myself, so why would I retire?" says the architect of the Pompidou Centre and the Lloyd's of London building. "I'd like to think I'll be learning a new language or something when I die."

But even a master builder can't go on for ever, which is why Richard Rogers Partnership discreetly changed its name, some five years ago, to Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners. "We wanted," explains Rogers, "to avoid the situation where the name of the practice is someone who died 100 years ago. Architecture is a living thing. If I want to leave something to the future, it has to be able to change – but retain something of the ethos that we built up over 50 years."

Graham Stirk and Ivan Harbour are here today too, flanking Rogers protectively like affectionate, respectful and, just occasionally, faintly exasperated sons. (If Rogers is known for running his practice like a family, he is also famous among those who know him for a close and warm family life – one into which tragedy came late last year with the unexpected death of one of his sons, Bo.)

Leeds-raised Stirk, 54, is trim and wiry, with a narrow tie, dark suit and spiky hair; he is softly spoken and emphatic. Harbour, 49, is a rangily tall redhead, brought up in the West Country, with an easy grin and friendly manner. Between them is Rogers, whose get-up – turquoise shirt, orange sweater and splendid, canary-coloured socks – reminds me of Madrid airport's brightly coloured Terminal 4, for which Harbour was lead architect, winning the practice the 2006 Stirling prize.

At the moment Harbour is involved in planning Barangaroo, a former container port in Sydney – the biggest piece of city-making the practice has ever undertaken. Stirk, meanwhile, is working on the new exhibition and conservation centre for the British Museum; he also designed the Knightsbridge residential complex One Hyde Park, infamous for its £140m penthouse, thought to be the most expensive apartment ever put on sale. According to Harbour, their emergence as key figures in the firm is not a revolution. "Between Graham and myself, we have put in 55 years at the practice, so we are not new at it. It's an evolution."

Could a practised eye, I wonder, tell a Stirk from a Harbour building? "I hope not," says Harbour. (Though in fact, one might contend that Stirk buildings – such as the Leadenhall Building in the City of London, and Neo Bankside, a new apartment block next to Tate Modern – tend to be somewhat orthogonal; Harbour's buildings, such as Madrid airport, more expressive and sculptural.) This self-effacing attitude to individual style comes in part from that ethos Rogers mentions. The practice is run on idealistic principles; it has a manifesto that asserts the architects' responsibility towards "contributing to the welfare of mankind, the society in which we practise and the team with whom we work". (It is a moot point, of course, whether the creation of a building containing a £140m penthouse contributes to the welfare of society, a point to which we shall return.) Each Monday morning the staff gather for a discussion of current projects, in which everyone from the highest to the lowest can express views – along the lines of an art-school "group crit" session. There is a profit-share system, and the salaries of the directors cannot rise above a certain proportion of the lowest paid in the firm.

Rogers starts waxing lyrical about the profit-share scheme in answer to a question I put to Harbour about why he has never left the practice, which he joined as an architecture graduate in 1985 "to help out on the Lloyd's building for a couple of months". (Stirk joined in 1983, also cutting his teeth on Lloyd's, which was in December accorded Grade I listed status.) After listening patiently for a little bit, Harbour says: "Actually Richard, that's not the primary reason I am still here. The primary reason I am still here is … every Monday morning it is exciting to come into work because you never quite know what's going to happen, and the debate about architecture and the enthusiasm of the people here is infectious. Richard has been fantastic at encouraging us. I have always felt I can go anywhere within the practice, and I am more excited about tomorrow than yesterday. It's the intellectual environment that I have enjoyed. When I was at college I learned about learning. Here I learned about architecture." He suddenly gets modest. "Of course I know very little about architecture, and the older I get the less I know." He makes it sound a little cultish, as the passion burns in his voice.

Rogers tells me that "architecture is about public space held by buildings"; and civic space, both metaphorical and physical, and the architecture that holds it together, is the subject of a lecture the three are giving at the Royal Institute of British Architects on Tuesday. They gesture toward the public square outside the office, on the banks of the Thames near Hammersmith Bridge in London, to illustrate what they mean. (Beside it is the famous restaurant, the River Cafe, run by Rogers' wife, Ruth.) It is privately owned land; but the architects take the view that it adds to the sum of human happiness if they don't lock it off from passersby. And that, in microcosm, is Stirk's argument about One Hyde Park. The important thing, he says, is what they didn't do: "We could have slapped up 12 storeys hard against Knightsbridge, and held the line of the street," he says. Instead, they built a series of pavilion-like structures at right angles to Knightsbridge, allowing passersby to glimpse Hyde Park between the buildings as they wander past.

According to Stirk: "We replaced one big slab building that was impermeable. The notion was to say: this is not a citadel. There are retail areas and garden areas at the base of the building. At least people can sit down on extended pavements; there is an area now where people can congregate and breathe." In short, whatever absurdities prevail upstairs, at street level it is still a better public environment than before.

The idea of the city has preoccupied much of Rogers' life as an architect and, in later years, a politician. He was chairman of the Urban Taskforce from 1998-2005, championing high-density cities; brownfield not greenfield for building. The taskforce was appointed by then deputy prime minister John Prescott, about whom Rogers has nothing but good to say. "Contrary to what everyone believed, I thought Prescott was a good minister, because he concentrated, and stuck around, and had a certain flair. It was a very important part of my life." The question of "how one builds at the density required of a city centre, and still achieves the right feel at the street scale", as Harbour puts it, is of urgent concern, they argue. "It's about humane scale in intensified development," adds Stirk. "It's about concentrating, rather than spreading," says Harbour. "You need good design to solve the problems of dense spaces."

Which is why Rogers has been speaking in the Lords about the government's draft National Planning Policy Framework. He agrees that the planning laws are due for rationalisation. But he fears the proposed reforms will loosen planning regulations too much: we could end up "like the south of France or the southern coast of Spain, with the whole south-east peppered with buildings". He agrees with the National Trust's campaign against the reforms, but from the other end of the argument – their potential effect on cities and towns, rather than just on the countryside. Cities that sprawl lose energy, he says. It's not so long ago, he warns, that post-industrial city centres, such as Manchester's, were bleak places, more or less uninhabited. Drawing residents back to the heart of cities has made them more attractive, safer, livelier. Intelligent density is the answer, with old and new buildings cohabiting gracefully, argue the architects. "Cities are about juxtaposition," says Rogers. "In Florence, classical buildings sit against medieval buildings. It's that contrast we like." Harbour adds: "In Bordeaux we built law courts right next door to what is effectively a listed historic building, and that makes it exciting. Can you imagine that in London?" There is some hope that the government will change its position – the MPs of the communities and local government committee have urged ministers, in a report published before Christmas, to drop the notion of the default "yes" to development. But the battle is not yet won, and Rogers will continue to campaign from the Lords.

The question of juxtaposition, of course, is one that has bedevilled modernist British architects in the past, particularly in relation to Prince Charles's views on architecture. In 1987, the prince spoke out against Rogers' plans for Paternoster Square near St Paul's Cathedral in a speech at Mansion House. ("You have to give this much to the Luftwaffe. When it knocked down our buildings, it didn't replace them with anything more offensive than rubble.") In 2009, he attacked them again: this time, by warning the Qatari royal family off Stirk's plans for the former Chelsea Barracks in London. The practice was sacked by the Qataris at an hour's notice, and years of work went to waste.

Rogers says: "For a long time we thought we were going to be all right, because Prince Charles had other things to think about, like Princess Diana dying. But he has some strange ideas on medicine, some strange ideas on farming and some very strange ideas on architecture. He believes architecture is something that doesn't change. And the problem is he doesn't discuss things, he makes statements." Harbour adds: "He does believe architecture can make the world a better place, so in the abstract, we have a lot in common. But if you are not prepared to debate your position..."

Rogers continues: "He loves Christopher Wren! But Wren was hated during his life because he was too modern." Harbour expands: "The irony is that his 'monstrous carbuncle' speech was made in Wren's extension to Hampton Court, which was a modern monstrosity compared to the original building." Harbour once visited the prince's pet architecture project, Poundbury, on the outskirts of Dorset, "when I was on holiday nearby". He didn't much like it.

His career, says Rogers, has never been easy. "It's been a bloody lot of work to get here. After the Pompidou Centre, my partner was threatening to become a taxi driver. We went through some pretty difficult times. I thought I was going to have to give up architecture at least three times, not because I wanted to leave architecture, but because it seemed to want to leave me." Despite the Prince of Wales's best efforts, though, Rogers has kept at it. And, says Harbour: "He has many years to go." He adds: "I am still younger than Richard was when I joined the practice." I ask why it matters; is it that he will feel truly grown up when he reaches that age? "A deadly concept, growing up," pitches in Rogers. Harbour adds: "What is work? It's part of your life. The idea of stopping work, if you are fortunate enough to love it, is something I don't understand – and I know Richard doesn't."

Rogers, Stirk and Harbour's lecture on Cities and the Language of Architecture is at the RIBA, London W1, on 31 January © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

July 12 2011

Cornish cafe sells celebrities' leftovers

Uneaten morsels left by Prince Charles, David Bailey and Michael Winner at a cafe in Kingsand are to be sold for charity

Celebrity memorabilia is huge business in the auction rooms of London, New York and Los Angeles. But a Cornish cafe is getting in on the act by selling off leftovers that remained on the plates of famous visitors.

Among the goodies being sold by the Old Boatstore in Kingsand are:

• A small lump of bread pudding left over by Prince Charles, valued at £300.

• A crust from a cheese and tomato sandwich left by photographer David Bailey, for £100.

• A shell fragment from egg in a sandwich eaten by comedian Hugh Dennis, for £100.

• A small uneaten piece of lemon drizzle cake left by film director and restaurant critic Michael Winner, for £100.

• A single blackcurrant from a bowl of ice cream left by swimmer Sharron Davies, for £100.

The so-called Museum of Celebrity Leftovers was created by Michael and Francesca Bennett, who say the collection began in 2004 when David Bailey dropped in and left a crust.

They now have more than 20 exhibits stored in airtight jars and want whoever buys the cafe to take them on, too. The money made from selling off the leftovers is to go to charity.

Francesca Bennett said: "We were so chuffed that David Bailey came in we kept part of his sandwich as a joke. It just grew from that.

"It's so quiet here, it's really surprising that so many famous people should turn up in such a small village."

The exhibits are not preserved but are not showing signs of going mouldy, she said. "They just seem to be drying out, really." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

July 01 2011

Constructive criticism: the week in architecture

A team of architects tuck into the Thames Barrier, Peter Zumthor plans a secular retreat and Prince Charles shows off his eco-design for the future

This week, architects at the London-based practice Jestico and Whiles spent a day shaping food into famous London landmarks. As part of a monthly session in which the architects explore their craft in creative ways, Edible Architecture Day was both delightful and funny, although as Chris Hildrey, one of the architects invited to join the event, said, "We created the Thames Barrier from sushi. It didn't taste good." Other edible buildings were made from towers of toast (Canary Wharf), sponge cake (Houses of Parliament) and anything else you might find in the fridge of your ideal home.

While the Jestico and Whiles team were encouraging us to have our architecture and eat it, the question of what an ideal home might be in Britain today has been raised by three very different architects. They might not all be to your taste, but they are brave attempts to think through the nature of homes now and in the future.

Today is press day for Kevin McCloud's much-vaunted Triangle housing scheme on the site of a former caravan park in Swindon, Wiltshire, designed by Glenn Howells Architects. The presenter of TV's Grand Designs has worked with Howells and his own development company to shape a 42-home development that, says Howell's publicist, "creates a contemporary interpretation of Swindon's traditional railway cottages; flexible, affordable housing which, being terraced, is efficient to build and run". Swindon's 19th-century Great Western Railway cottages remain popular, while McCloud and Howells have been working to create a low-cost, unassuming and low-energy version of this especially successful type of low-cost home.

Peter Zumthor has designed a small number of ideal homes in Switzerland, including the House Annalisa for his wife, which sits in the mountains above his studio. He told me this week that it's his wife who keeps him living in a distant valley and the mountains of Switzerland. But when you look at the loving detail of his simple Swiss chalet, you can see how rooted he is to the Chur Valley: an ideal home in an ideal location. Zumthor, architect of this year's Serpentine Gallery pavilion, corrected me this week when I spoke about his first permanent building in Britain, "a holiday rental home" in Devon that aspires to bring the peace he finds in Switzerland to England. "It's not a holiday rental home," Zumthor retorted. "It's a refuge, a place of solace and contemplation." Apologies. The Secular Retreat is one of a number of special houses, designed by leading architects, that the public can rent as soon they are completed for Living Architecture, brainchild of the populist philosopher Alain de Botton. Zumthor's seaside retreat should be finished by the end of the year. Try not to all rush at once – such behaviour would undermine the architect's ideal.

Meanwhile, the Prince of Wales, a passionate advocate of traditional architecture, urban planning and sustainability, saw his "eco-home for the future" – The Natural House, designed with Noel Isherwood Associates – formally unveiled by Grant Shapps, the minister for housing and local government, this week at the Building Research Establishment [BRE] in Watford.

"People often think that eco-homes have to be hi-tech," said Hank Dittmar, chief executive of the Prince's Foundation at the opening event at BRE, "but this house dispels these myths. Instead, it is ideal for the vast majority of homebuyers who want to be green but prefer traditional homes."

Grant Shapps agreed, but in an apparent swipe against contemporary design said: "I do think we need to cater for everybody ... it's less about some Scandinavian eco-bling and more about somewhere people can call home." Hmm. Let me know what you think. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 24 2011

The shape of things to come?

Westminster's Chelsea Barracks planning decision is the latest in a series of victories for the heritage school of HRH. And there are signs that his views are falling on friendly ears in government

Not so long ago it seemed that Prince Charles, architecture guru and scourge of modernists, was safely shut up in his box. He seemed finally to have listened to shadowy advisers telling him that it would be inappropriate to get involved in public wrangles. The public and political mood had shifted in favour of the new. Contemporary buildings – the Gherkin, for example – were popular. The Prince's old adversary Lord (Richard) Rogers had the ear first of Tony Blair and then of Ken Livingstone, and some version of his theories influenced the planning system.

Furious letters would still spew from the prince's desk, urging developers to sack architects he did not like, or ministers to save an old building that he did, but these were private, and often ignored. The days when he could have multi-million pound developments ripped up and redesigned were seemingly consigned to the era of Wham! and Brideshead Revisited.

Now, however, he is enjoying his greatest influence in two decades. Last week Westminster city council approved prince-backed plans for redeveloping Chelsea Barracks in London, two years after his intervention led to a previous plan, by Rogers, being abandoned. The classicist architects the prince favours are quietly busy producing new country houses for the rich, "urban extensions" to country towns, and rural and suburban housing developments. The government is paying the Prince's Foundation for the Built Environment to advise local groups on planning their neighbourhoods. The government's localism bill, currently winding through parliament, is supposed to empower villages and small communities to draw up their own development plans. If it works as intended, the future built environment of Britain, outside the big cities, could be prince-flavoured.

The first version of the architectural prince was launched in 1984 when, invited to mouth platitudes to a dinner celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Royal Institute of British Architects, he shocked his hosts by denouncing them. He famously called a proposed extension to the National Gallery a "monstrous carbuncle", though its architects Ahrends Burton and Koralek were then up-and-coming and, as it happened, noted for their skill with building in historic settings such as Keble College, Oxford. The prince's words dealt them a blow from which they never fully recovered. In further speeches he attacked other projects, and jumpy developers would then install architects, regardless of their ability or experience, blessed by the prince for their use of a classical style.

These architects would not always last the distance, being themselves replaced in due course by practices better able to deliver commercial projects. Often the effect of the Prince's actions was to delay development by many years, while developers worked the planning system to get the most they could out of the site. At Paternoster Square, next to St Paul's Cathedral, he had objected to an initial scheme partly on the grounds that it was too big and greedy. What was eventually built, much later, had a classical look but was even bigger. At London Bridge City, next to Tower Bridge, a prince-friendly, mock-Venetian proposal transmogrified into Norman Foster-designed grey glass blocks around what is now City Hall.

With the National Gallery, however, and some other sites, he got his way, while the mere thought of him could drive developers into a pre-emptive cringe, dressing up their blocks in columns and pediments in case they attracted his displeasure. Not that they were unhappy to do this – the prince captured a common mood, in the Thatcher years, of yearning for past glories and returning to supposedly traditional values. Architects, meanwhile, were still widely reviled for their actual and alleged failures in the 1960s, so their complaints at the prince's highhandedness got short shrift from the press. They objected that his actions were an abuse of his position, that he was ignorant and petulant, and that, while he was only too happy to launch attacks on others, he resolutely refused to engage in any kind of debate himself. But these objections did not get very far.

The prince had an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert museum, a book, a TV programme. He founded an architecture school based on the premise that there was an untapped hunger for learning architecture in the traditional way, and in 1994 he launched a magazine, Perspectives, promoting his views. In 1988 he commissioned the visionary urban theorist Leon Krier to produce a plan for developing Poundbury, an area of land outside Dorchester, Dorset, belonging to the Duchy of Cornwall. Krier had famously declared ,"I am an architect, therefore I do not build", meaning that the modern world was too benighted to produce good architecture. The prince managed to persuade him otherwise.

There were separate strands to his philosophy, not wholly intertwining. One was populist, arguing that most people liked old-looking buildings, so experts should not impose modernism against their wishes. Another was nostalgic, with a preference for English classical architecture of about 300 years ago. Another was mystical, arguing that there are deep harmonies in the universe which are reflected in the sort of buildings he liked.

Perspectives did not thrill the masses, and closed. Nor did students flock to the architecture school, which was restructured as the Prince's Foundation for the Built Environment, with a reduced emphasis on education. Meanwhile the prince's architectural court was subject to intrigues that would have delighted the Borgias. Fashion changed, architects became less hated, and a few more people than embittered professionals began to see that there was something wrong with the prince using his fame and status to intervene in debates which he possibly did not understand. Apart from Poundbury, the prince's influence seemed to shrink to the area around Buckingham Palace, where one of his pet architects, John Simpson, rebuilt the Queen's Gallery, and another, Liam O'Connor, designed the Commonwealth Memorial Gates as a reduced-scale version of Lutyens's monuments in New Delhi.

But Poundbury was his lifeline, and his biggest success. Here he was doing what he wanted with his own land rather than meddling in the affairs of others. Although Poundbury got the look – it is a medley of Georgian, Dorset cottage and pointy, Gothicky bits – it also embodied principles which went beyond his stylistic taste, and which were not so different from those of adversaries like Richard Rogers. It mixes uses, putting offices and workshops in among houses, rather than in separate zones. It mixes affordable housing with market housing, such that it is hard to tell the difference. It is built at higher density than typical suburbs, so that it consumes less land and encourages neighbourliness. It promotes pedestrian movement over driving.

Buyers liked it. It achieved above-average values, and properties appreciated. Its periphery is now a whirr of construction, as more and more homes are built to meet the demand to live there. Personally, it makes my flesh creep, with its winsome, confected quality, and with its paranoid insistence on conjuring a bygone world that never existed, which illusion is painfully punctured by the appearance of modern steel frames in the half-built buildings. As even one of the Prince's allies says: "You can't claim it is traditionally Dorset by any stretch of the imagination."

But I wouldn't live in Dorchester anyway, and I can see that it works, and that it is much better than the average housebuilders' wares. I can even see some charm in the winding lanes, now softened by well-established planting.

Similar ideas were applied on other Duchy of Cornwall properties, in places like Shepton Mallet and Midsomer Norton in Somerset. Meanwhile the foundation, repurposed as an advisory, thinktank sort of body, made itself more credible. Its chief executive, Hank Dittmar, was formerly a leading light of the American New Urbanism movement, which has been pumping out walkable, compact residential developments for some time. Its most famous work is Seaside, the holiday town in Florida where The Truman Show was shot. Under Labour the foundation talked the government-approved talk of sustainability, regeneration and public participation. It developed something called Enquiry by Design, where local residents and experts come together in workshops before plans for new development are completed: the idea is that local knowledge and wishes are incorporated into the final designs. The foundation won the attention of John Prescott, and advised on the planning of Upton, an extension of Northampton, on Poundbury-esque principles. Now, in Sunderland, Ayrshire, Swansea, Burnley and elsewhere, there are foundation-led plans in various stages of completion. The foundation has even been hired by the developers First Base, usually known for their use of contemporary design, to advise on a classical-looking development in a conservation area in Highbury, north London.

It has published a book called Tradition and Sustainability, and is building a prototype, called the Natural House, which aims to demonstrate that energy efficiency does not require modern-looking gadgets but can be achieved with something that looks like an approximation of an 1840s villa. The foundation has gone international, with projects in China, the Galapagos, and Haiti, the latter a plan in the heart of Port au Prince, which looks wildly optimistic in its serene orderliness.

The foundation apart, architects from the princely fold are doing well. Robert Adam, of Adam Architecture, has long been the most business-like of traditionalist architects and, having designed some projects for the Duchy of Cornwall, is now masterplanning an extension to Dover with a whopping 5,750 homes, and residential developments in Waterlooville and Aldershot. He also has a nice line in huge, brand new country houses, which he says reflects the fact that "London is a global city". His clients are "Russians, Indians, Middle Eastern: they want the English dream but they want to be able to do what they like with their house, which they can't do if it's old". Adam recently lost a planning inquiry into his enormous £20m Athlone House proposal in Hampstead, but has plenty more opportunities of a similar kind.

At Chelsea Barracks the prince had written a personal letter to the ruler of Qatar, as his family's property company Qatari Diar were owners of the site, urging him to abandon Richard Rogers's plans. His "heart sank" at the sight of what he called "a gigantic experiment with the very soul of our capital city". He punted an alternative scheme by Quinlan Terry, the doyen of modern classicists, and his son Francis. Ultimately the Terrys did not get the job, but Rogers was fired and a collaboration of Squire and Partners, Dixon Jones and the landscape architect Kim Wilkie, produced designs which aim to reproduce the virtues of Georgian and Victorian terraces and squares. This was a turning point, a moment of regime change. Lord Rogers's project would, if built, have been the fulfilment of years of campaigning and building influence with the likes of Ken Livingstone in order to realise his vision of the city. Its dumping, supported by Tories like the deputy mayor Kit Malthouse, marked the end of that particular era.

The Chelsea Barracks Action Group, made up of local residents, were vociferous opponents of the Rogers scheme, and were delighted with the prince's actions. Now, however, they are disappointed that a change of style has not changed the fact that the proposed housing blocks are up to 100 feet high. "They will be regarded in history as the beginning of the end of our gracious English city," says the chair of the group, Georgine Thorburn, using prince-like language. She also says that the Qataris have "duped" the council. Alas for the group, unless Boris Johnson can be persuaded to intervene, her words come too late. In the latest version of prince-ism, the pragmatists have won over the mystics and true believers, which means that, as the prince himself inclines to the latter camp, his own input is diluted. His recent contribution to the mystic cause, a book called Harmony, failed to set the world on fire. Quinlan Terry, always the purest of the classicists, is doing perfectly well with country houses, buildings for Downing College, Cambridge, and occasional commercial work, but he is not shaping whole towns.

The Prince's Foundation, according to Elliot Lipton of developers First Base, "is very flexible. It has no preconceptions, which isn't what you might expect if you listened to their leader. They're very good at understanding real world trade-offs."

The foundation gets into bed with developers such as Wimpey in Westoe, South Shields, with the result that they achieve an arguably better version of usual Wimpey fare, rather than a radical alternative. Upton, the extension to Northampton, as Hank Dittmar acknowledges, is a partly compromised version of the original intentions. By being more pragmatic, the foundation gets less distinctive: plenty of others have put forward energy-efficient houses, and public consultation, and walkable, high-density communities. These ideas are "sort of the norm, mainstream", says Robert Adam. Works outside the princely sphere, like the Greenwich Millennium Village, and the Accordia development in Cambridge, put them into practice.

What remains distinctive is the look, the preference for a randomised variety of traditional styles, with Georgian and Country Cottage foremost among them. This is a source of strength, as a lot of people like this – according to Robert Adam, 70% prefer old-looking buildings to new. The competition, in the form of volume housebuilders' standard product, is largely poor. In combination, these factors are effective when it comes to reducing outrage at controversial plans, which, with continuous pressure of development in town and country, will continue to appear. Poundbury itself is the expansion of Dorchester into green fields, and many locals still object to it on those grounds. The Dover expansion, as Adam recognises, met strong opposition on the grounds of its size. The switch of styles got Chelsea Barracks through the planning system, to Georgine Thorburn's dismay.

Under the localism bill, communities and villages will have the power to draw up their own plans for development, in ways that benefit them. There is scepticism as to whether this will really happen, but if it does, communities will face the central problem of rural planning: how to reconcile the pressures for new development, the high values that housing can yield, the need for affordable new homes, and the preservation of villages. The models offered by the Prince's Foundation, with a combination of public consultation, and a style that tries to disguise that change has happened, will be attractive. Even if localised planning does not work, the palliative effect of traditionalist design will still be in demand.

I have long believed that the prince should keep his mouth shut rather than use his inherited status to give weight to views greater than his wisdom alone would merit. He should not change policies, lives and careers with the force of his name. Sometimes he might be right, sometimes wrong, but that is not the point. In 2009 the RIBA, ever masochists, invited him back for their 175th birthday. Sitting through his talk I felt growing rage at his tendentious nonsense – the demonstrably untrue statement that modernist architects were nature-haters, for example – and at the fact that no one was allowed to challenge him directly. He sallies forth to attack others then immediately takes shelter behind the dignity of his position. I also find depressing the idea that a modern house can be no better than a half-convincing photocopy of an old one, or that, as we live in a time when large windows are easy to achieve, we should build small, mean ones, as in Poundbury, just because they look old.

Yet he is entitled to do what he likes, within the constraints applied to any landowner, with his own property, and he and his associates have come up with ways of building new rural developments that have a certain logic. The range of alternative models is not abundant, and architects and developers who would do better should study the reasons for the appeal of the prince's way. As things stand, Poundbury is a glimpse of the future. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 21 2011

Chelsea Barracks redevelopment gets go-ahead

Plans approved by council two years after Qatari Diar withdrew planning application following intervention by Prince Charles

A multimillion pound redevelopment of Chelsea Barracks has been given the green light two years after the Prince of Wales intervened over plans for the site.

Westminster Council last night gave consent to an outline master plan for the scheme, which will see the 13-acre property turned into up to 448 houses and flats, a sports centre, shops and health centre.

The plans will be referred to the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, for approval before detailed designs are submitted, the council said.

The move comes after a row broke out between Prince Charles and Lord Rogers over a previous design by the award-winning architect for the site in west London.

In June 2009, developer Qatari Diar Real Estate withdrew its planning application for the prestigious site after the prince wrote to the chairman, the prime minister of Qatar, saying his "heart sank" when he saw the design.

Lord Rogers said Charles's determination to express his views on his design for the barracks was "wrong".

Following the withdrawal of the planning application, Qatari Diar's then-partner, the CPC Group, launched a high court action to get an early payment of £68.5m after the scheme's collapse, but the legal bid failed.

The architects behind the revised plans are Dixon Jones, Squire and Partners and Kim Wilkie.

Councillor Alastair Moss, chairman of the council's planning and city development committee, said: "Chelsea Barracks is the most significant residential development we have seen in Westminster in recent years.

"It is a world-class site in a historic part of the capital and it is vital that its redevelopment helps improve the area.

"We should be proud of this scheme and the huge amount of effort put into it by all parties. The master plan has widespread support among local residents, community groups and businesses.

"It will also provide much needed new affordable housing on site and hundreds more affordable units across the city through the substantial contribution made to our affordable housing fund."

The development will include 123 affordable homes, with £78m being contributed to the council's affordable housing fund.

Green spaces, road layouts and landscaping details were also approved, and the Grade II listed chapel on the site would be maintained, the council said.

Chelsea Barracks was sold by the Ministry of Defence to Qatari Diar in 2007. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

February 14 2011

Awash with inspiration

Tate Britain's new show proves there's more to watercolours than pallid sunsets, but where are the happy amateurs?

Paint is basically coloured mud mixed with some sort of binder. Like cooking, it feels basic but the chemistry is complex. And like cooks, artists have very different attitudes to the stuff they use. Raid the fridge and make it up as you go along. Bung it on, straight out of the tube or the tin. Keep it fresh or cook it slow, get all fancy like Auguste Escoffier with lashings of cream, go molecular like Heston Blumenthal; play wild and counterintuitive, and be as magical as Ferran Adrià of El Bulli. Beware those artists too much into painting as fine dining.

You can make art out of anything. In the end you've either got it or you haven't. Technique will only get you so far, and Marshall McLuhan got it wrong: the medium is not the message. Watercolour, the subject of a new show at Tate Britain, is a great medium, but hey – compared to pokerwork or macramé, what isn't?

"Just add water," quips the catalogue. Just add an idea, and talent, is more like it. Watercolour – let's call it WC for short – is undoubtedly going to be a popular show. It is populist, at least. Prince Charles does it, Queen Victoria did it, medieval monks did it, botanists and naturalists do it, cartographers and war artists and thousands upon thousands – perhaps millions – of amateur artists are at it, too.

But watercolour has connotations: pallid things hanging in the parlour, amateur-hour sunsets, wintry reed-beds in a fenland dawn. As well as being relatively mess-free (unless you are me), it doesn't require much space or expense, and you can even do it outdoors. People like the paraphernalia too: the tin boxes with their shallow pans for mixing colour, the dinky tubes and little blocks of paint, the sable brushes and the nice papers, and a handy satchel and a stool to sit on. The Tate Britain show has lots of vitrines filled with watercolour materials, mullers for grinding your own, splattery old rusty paintboxes, JMW Turner's lucky painting towel (or somesuch), Queen Victoria's monogrammed tote bag. And some quite flagrant product-placement from artists' materials manufacturer Winsor & Newton. They are even selling watercolour kits in the gallery shop. Is this the shape of exhibitions to come, in these straitened times? Much of the art, too, comes from the Tate, the V&A, and other national collections. We are paying to see a lot of stuff we already own but, of course, you would never see it all together, and watercolours, in any case, are fragile things, and demand strict lighting conditions and controlled humidity levels. So, dear reader, do I.

But as soon as you start it can all get horribly painful. That isn't some nifty new wet-into-wet technique you're looking at, they're tears. You've got all the gear, but no idea. And this is why TV programmes such as Watercolour Challenge are so popular: it wasn't the joys of the medium that viewers loved to watch, it was the angst.

For all its associations in the British mind, watercolour can be as full-on, as detailed, as direct, as controlled and as free as any other medium. At its best it can be like painting with nothing, with vapour, with the body's secretions. My joke about tears was really no joke. There are Turners here that look like nothing more than a few casual brush-wipings as much as they do boats and weather, and others – a battle in an Alpine pass, for example – so detailed they must have taken weeks.

But time, effort and serious subject matter are no guarantee of anything. All those wretched Burne-Jones pictures, all those works illustrating method, all those old mills and Kentish hop gardens. The Tate show plays fast and loose with definitions of what watercolour is. Is a tempera and gold, 13th-century illuminated manuscript on vellum really a watercolour? Or a tinted, coloured-in map of the British Isles? When we come to recent art, things go completely out of whack. Twigs painted in enamel and gouache by Hayley Tompkins? An opaque, clotted canvas by Neal Tait? Watercolour here is the last thing on my mind. But the show does end wonderfully with Karla Black's Opportunities for Girls, a great crumpled swag of cellophane slung like a mad hammock from thread. It looks like a housepainter's discarded polythene sheet, covered with pink emulsion, slathered with Vaseline, shampoo, hair gel and toothpaste, some of which resists the paint applied over it. The whole thing is reminiscent of watercolour's effects – the translucency, the broken brushstrokes, the way that light passes through it.

The late Sandra Blow's canvas is a ghastly minor painting done big. If the show intended to nod at the kinds of abstraction influenced by American painting of the 1960s (Morris Louis, Helen Frankenthaler and others painted on canvas with acrylics in a way that seemed to up the ante of the watercolour tradition), why not chose a late 60s John Hoyland, a 70s Bert Irvin or a recent John McLean rather than this dreary thing? I am sure Tracey Emin is here because of her name, but there is a great group of watercolour and ink drawings by Lucia Nogueira – who understood how to use tentativeness as a positive quality, as well as full-on emphatic colour against the whiteness of the paper – and a group of Callum Innes works that are to do with veiling, and the way layering of colour affects the luminosity of watercolours, which all depend on how light passes through the paint and is reflected back at us.

A macaque, drawn by an anonymous 19th-century Cantonese artist, is one of the most beautiful and alive things here. The wide-eyed monkey stares back at us, as puzzled and curious as we are of it. William MacGillivray's osprey is an ornithological marvel (the artist collaborated with wildlife artist John James Audubon), but lacks any of the liveliness of the monkey. There's a lot of boring botany, and Welsh landscapes that look like the Middle East, and topographic views of the Middle East that might as well be Wales. The whole show maunders on in fits and starts. It is good to see neo-romantic works by the likes of Eric Ravilious and John Piper, but they are not as good or individual as Edward Burra or Paul Nash.

Watercolour – for its portability, its speed, its range as a medium – was, and in part still is, a useful tool for the war artist. The camera doesn't always win. Royal Engineer and amateur artist Eric Taylor's watercolour Human Wreckage at Belsen Concentration Camp is unsettling not only because of what it depicts (piles of the dead and dying), but because it is such a wretched record of such a wretched subject. His little painting is very moving, in a way that says as much about the artist being overwhelmed by what he saw. You need to be a Goya, who wrote on one of his Disasters of War etchings "I saw this".

A French soldier eviscerated by a sabre at the battle of Waterloo, with a great ball of entrails seething from his stomach, by surgeon Charles Bell, who reworked a drawing after the battle in 1815 is a frightening, horrible image. The surgical portraits of soldiers with awful facial wounds incurred in the trenches of the first world war, recording their wounds and the pioneering attempts at facial reconstruction, never lose sight of the humanity of their subjects. Weirdly, the thinness of the paint really helps. None of these images are about the best way to do running water, or mist on the mountain, or fronds of weeping willow.

Celebrating a medium seems such an odd thing to do nowadays. What this show needed was someone like Jeremy Deller to investigate and compile a folk archive of the amateur watercolour, and how it relates to so-called serious art. Amateurs are serious, too. Some professionals are too serious for their own good.

Watercolour is at Tate Britain, London SW1, 16 February to 21 August. Details: 020-7887 8888. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2011 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

October 20 2010

Browned off

It has been designed by Jean Nouvel – but the brown glass walls of this new London shopping centre jar with its City surroundings

One New Change is likely to be called many names in its lifetime, not all of them complimentary. An enormous shopping and office complex thumped down to the immediate east of St Paul's Cathedral in the City of London, it has been designed by French architect Jean Nouvel.

Though Nouvel's bright red Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens made a colourful splash this summer, the architect is not particularly well known in Britain, and this is his first permanent building here. Some of his very best work – like the diaphanous Fondation Cartier and the mesmerising Institut du Monde Arabe with its hi-tech play on traditional Arabic designs, both in Paris – are truly captivating structures. However, One New Change is a very different beast.

The Prince of Wales, who believes the Luftwaffe did less damage to London than modern architects, has been sniping at One New Change since 2005, when he wrote to the developers, Land Securities, hoping to get Nouvel off the job and have him replaced by one of his "traditionalist" chappies. He failed, and One New Change looks like the kind of building that will cause controversy. The computer images on Nouvel's website, especially those showing it lit up at night, are seductive in a cinematic way. They make the building shine darkly, as if it were some unexpected meteorite or giant jewel glinting from the City streets. The reality, in the grey light of London, is far more sombre than this, if not exactly prosaic.

It's already known as the "stealth building" for two good reasons. First, this low, wide £500m behemoth, with its three floors of shops and five floors of offices, has muscled its way into the City while – remarkably – being all but invisible from just a few streets away. Second, its design – or, at least, its faceted facade or skin – really does have something of the look of a US Air Force Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit, or stealth bomber, whose folded surface makes it virtually invisible to radar.

However, it's the colours of this bulky new arrival that truly startle. Instead of the military shades of grey one might expect, One New Change is sheathed in acres of largely opaque brown glass. For many centuries the Square Mile has been an enclave of largely white, grey and black buildings with discreet splashes of red brick or marble. Brown? No sir.

In fact, though Land Securities would never admit it – still less the team of architects led by Richard Rogers who chose Nouvel's design in an open competition held in 2003 – the role of One New Change may be to shock. Squeezing such a big building into the City has been a bit like pouring a heavyweight boxer into a city boy's suit. And, rather like a bespoke three-piece, while the exterior of the Nouvel building is essentially formal, its cruise-ship shiny, shop-lined interior is as flash as a loud silk lining.

The big idea is that the building appears to be a single block of material with passageways or "streets" carved through it, so that it feels like at least four separate, yet connected, buildings, turning around a central atrium. These "streets" are lined with shops and cafes, and have sloping walls. The biggest of them leads from the heart of One New Change to St Paul's Cathedral, framing studied views of Wren's enduring monument.

When you reach the atrium, a glass "panoramic" lift takes you up to a zig-zag, sixth-floor roof terrace. Whatever you make of the building as a whole, the experience of standing up here, so close to Wren's haunting dome, is undeniably moving and exciting. "You feel you can reach out and touch St Paul's," says Nouvel. It's true. Sitting here outside the rooftop cafe will be one of the most inspiring everyday experiences the City can offer.

There is little doubt that when it opens next Thursday, One New Change will be jam-packed with City workers and tourists. How can it go wrong? Nouvel sounds so very convincing when he says that "the design of One New Change is about enriching the City with a new sort of modernity. It is a contemporary building which will set up a dialogue with St Paul's and the neighbouring buildings. The design is calm and deferential to St Paul's and provides a unique opportunity to bring the public into the site."

The public will come anyway, such will be the allure of yet another branch of Topshop, H&M and Banana Republic, another outlet of Nando's and Eat; how can they resist a new Gordon Ramsay restaurant or Barbacoa, the latest culinary venture by Jamie Oliver and Adam Perry Lang? There are some independent shops, yet these are swamped by the big chains. Meanwhile, any new building on this site – good, bad or indifferent – would inevitably set up a dialogue with St Paul's. This mighty landmark can never be ignored, and the buildings around it must say something to their majestic neighbour if only to the effect that they don't care what it or anyone else feels about the way they look.

There goes the neighbourhood

Two big questions need to be asked about One New Change. One is whether the City of London should follow the path of every other British city centre; the other is whether Nouvel's stealthily bombastic design is the right neighbour for St Paul's. For me, it seems a little sad that the City is unable to follow its own star. Until very recently, it had retained its own special character. Here, a largely medieval street pattern adorned with fairytale names like Threadneedle Street and Pudding Lane is matched with secret, shoulder-wide alleys leading to quietly angelic churches, venerable pubs, ancient livery companies, and even the odd surviving independent shop with some half-remembered name, such as Shivelights and Shadowtackle or Dombey and Son. All this packed into the legendary Square Mile, between monuments to Mammon as traditional as the Bank of England and as a radical as the Gherkin, the up-and-coming Cheesegrater and all the other new towers with equally potty nicknames.

Certainly there have been fine places to shop in the City in the form of covered markets (such as Leadenhall Market, in the shadow of Richard Rogers's Lloyds Building), as well as the noble 1844 Royal Exchange alongside the Bank of England. Yet the City has remained aloof, or simply remote, from the wave of malls inundating Britain.

A cheeky wink to Wren

Until it was demolished to make way for the Nouvel building, St Paul's did have a good, and modest, neighbour in the guise of No 1 New Change, a Portland stone and red-brick office complex designed for the Bank of England by Victor Heal. Completed in 1960, this cautious and polite building was much mocked. And, yet, for all its conservative nature, Heal's building was a careful foil to St Paul's. Where Heal nodded politely to Wren, Nouvel winks at him cheekily as if saying: "Come on, grandpa; get down with the bling, and get shopping."

Assuming the Heal building had to go, I would never have recommended replacing it with the kind of Kentucky Fried Georgian buildings facing the north and west fronts of St Paul's in Paternoster Square. Creatures of the 1990s, these were – mostly – every bit as wrong here as One New Change is. Ultimately, St Paul's was best set off by the tight clusters of streets and buildings that stood almost within touching distance of its Portland stone walls until blitzed by the Luftwaffe. I suppose that today's big-shot developers could never make their money by creating a contemporary take on narrow streets and small independent shops and cafes; because of this, St Paul's was bound to be faced by a building as big as One New Change.

For me, though, it would make no difference whether or not One New Change had been designed by Frank Gehry or Alvaro Siza, or by today's equivalent (should they exist) of Wren or Hawksmoor. It just seems a shame to see the City of London go the way of all other cities. The heavily marketed idea that you can reach out and touch St Paul's from a funky new "stealth" shopping mall is not reward enough for robbing the City of what passes for its soul. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 29 2010

'I defend people against property developers'

Prince's private secretary claims he opposed modernist design out of duty to make ordinary people's views heard

It is an unlikely claim for a prince who enjoys a £17m private annual income and employs 16 gardeners but Clarence House today said that Prince Charles believes it is his duty to defend "ordinary people" against profiteering property developers.

The claim was made as part of a fightback following a high court ruling that appeared to check the prince's ability to intervene in major planning decisions.

A judge ruled last week that the prince's campaign against the design of a redevelopment of the Chelsea barracks in London was "unwelcome". The judgment sparked criticism that Charles had overstepped his constitutional role by secretly lobbying at the highest levels against planning applications he disliked.

Today Sir Michael Peat, the prince's private secretary, claimed Charles opposed Lord Rogers' £3bn modernist designs because "it is part of the Prince of Wales' role and duty to make sure the views of ordinary people that might not otherwise be heard receive some exposure".

The prince wrote privately to Qatar's prime minister voicing his opposition to the plans for apartments on the Qatari-owned land. But far from acting in his own interests against designs, "he was only writing to the Qataris because he was asked to do so [by local residents]", Peat claimed. The emirate's state-owned developer scrapped the scheme after Charles had proposed an alternative design by Quinlan Terry, a classical architect he admires.

"For many developers, hearing the views of local residents is very unexpected and unwelcome," said Peat. "They are there just wanting to make money."

The claim that Charles is duty-bound to stand up for ordinary people's interests in disputes with major property developers came as it was announced that the prince earned a record £17.2m last year from the Duchy of Cornwall, a professionally managed £664m property empire run solely to fund his lifestyle which has been criticised for failing to listen to the views of its tenants on new developments.

"It is frustrating to hear he thinks he is on the side of ordinary people against developers, because villagers and the parish council here have sent him dozens of letters over the last few years," said Jane Giddins, parish council chairwoman at Newton St Loe, a duchy-owned village near Bath, where the duchy has been planning 2,000 new homes on neighbouring fields.

"We have only ever received replies from the Duchy of Cornwall, fobbing us off. People in this village are at best bemused and at worst feel let down by His Royal Highness. No one can understand why he has not been listening."

Opponents of his interventions believe the prince cannot claim to represent ordinary people because he cannot be held accountable by them.

"Any individual who feels strongly about representing the people should stand for election," Lord Rogers said last night. "There is a carefully organised democratic system of electing councillors who appoint planning officers and there is a process which allows the public to hold open meetings where they can air their feelings. All of that happened over the four years' planning process for Chelsea barracks."

Peat said Charles only intervened on Chelsea barracks after local residents approached him about their concerns.

"They had commissioned Quinlan Terry to propose an alternative design which they sent to the Prince of Wales," said Peat. "They asked him to do what he could to ensure their views received exposure. Their views represented the views of the majority. They asked whether he might be able to raise the issue with the Qataris and so he did."

But Charles' letter to the Qatari prime minister on 1 March 2009 contains no reference to any local opposition to the scheme or anyone asking him to write on their behalf. Charles told Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jaber Al Thani he was writing because "quite frankly, my heart sank when I saw the plans". He indicated he was motivated by personal concerns, saying: "For the entire duration of my life we have had to witness the destruction of so many parts of London, with one more 'brutalist' development after another."

Even though the existence of the prince's letter decrying the scheme only emerged in full in a high court dispute between the developers after the designs were scrapped, Peat denied the prince was trying to secretly undermine the project.

"He wasn't writing and expressing views that were private and weren't in the public domain," he said. "He was representing what the local residents were saying all along, so it was well-aired."

Campaigners for a democratically elected head of state said the royal household's claim that the prince has a duty to get involved in planning breaches constitutional principles.

"The role he is making for himself contradicts a well-established constitutional principle that the monarch and the heir to the throne keep out of politics, and that includes planning, for the very good reason that they are not accountable," said Graham Smith, campaigns director of Republic.

"It also appears he is only the people's representative when it coincides with his own views. Someone genuinely representing ordinary people would do so regardless of his personal views." © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 20 2010

Prince Charles, disgusted of Windsor

By meddling in the Chelsea barracks affair, the heir to the British throne has made himself an issue, weakening his own credibility and possibly that of the monarchy as a whole

There are two easily exaggerated ways of interpreting the Prince of Wales's role in the Chelsea barracks development row – and then there's the truth. But the truth is bad enough.

Exaggeration number one is to pretend that nothing of any consequence happened when the heir to the British throne lobbied the Qatari royal family against a Richard Rogers design for a major London development he disliked and then became embroiled in detailed negotiations which included further lobbying to outflank the planning process. Prince Charles's defenders claim the activities, which have been revealed in emails in a high court case, are legitimate campaigning that anyone who feels strongly about such developments might undertake. Such an intervention, though, is hardly an everyday matter – as the prince's anxiety to avoid publicity about the affair underscores. All of us may have the right to make objections to developments we dislike. But a royal objector is infinitely more equal than others.

Equally exaggerated, though, is the pretence that this is the thin end of a large constitutional wedge. This argument casts the prince as an incorrigible interventionist whose concerns about Richard Rogers's architecture, though serious enough in themselves, are an outrider for an extensive conservative agenda which would be given fuller rein if and when the prince ascends the throne. If the prince has no intention of living within the planning rules on the Chelsea barracks while he is heir, goes the argument, think what he might get up to when, unlike most elderly Disgusteds of Windsor, the full prerogative monarchical powers of the late 17th century constitutional settlement are conferred upon him. The problem with this argument is that he simply wouldn't dare. But, if he did, he wouldn't last five minutes.

So is there no problem in the Chelsea barracks affair beyond the fact – undoubtedly an irksome one to those involved – of a titled reactionary interfering in the cityscape and by doing so putting some developers out of pocket? Actually, no, even though this intervention in the London built environment is hardly a small one, or the first of its kind.

The larger issue is that the prince is a meddler. This doesn't mean (probably) that he is keen to press his friend David Cameron to cut this or that project, appoint this or that minister or amend this or that bill, let alone that he regards the prospect of a Labour government as utterly ghastly, although he probably does. The problem is that he has made himself an issue. Whether this merely weakens his own credibility or that of the monarchy as a whole, it is further evidence of someone who is simply not well fitted to the role in which fortune has cast him. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 17 2010

Revealed: Prince Charles lobbied City Hall

Disclosure raises questions over whether the prince abused his constitutional position

The Prince of Wales's interference in public projects was under fresh scrutiny tonight when confidential emails obtained by the Guardian revealed he lobbied the deputy mayor of London against plans for the £3bn Chelsea barracks site.

The documents were released to the paper by the high court, which has been hearing a dispute over the scrapping of the development designed by Lord Rogers. They show that before democratically elected planners were due to decide on whether to grant planning permission, Charles briefed Sir Simon Milton, the official in charge of planning in the capital, about his concerns.

The disclosure raises questions over whether the prince abused his constitutional position by using his influence to distort the planning process.

The 19 emails between senior staff of the Qatari royal family's development firm, Qatari Diar, provide a detailed picture of the impact of the prince's intervention, as the executives first consider dismissing his objections and then decide to co-operate amid fears of causing the emirate international embarrassment.

Clarence House has previously admitted that Charles complained about the proposals to leading members of the Qatari royal family, whose development firm, Qatari Diar, was undertaking the scheme. But this is the first time evidence has emerged that he personally intervened with public officials with direct influence over the project's fate.

In an internal email placed before the court, a Qatari Diar consultant told a senior executive at the company: "The PoW has briefed the dep mayor, Sir Simon Milton, which means that the mayor's office now know that the PoW is going to intervene and that in turn means it is almost certain the Westminster planners know as well."

The court previously heard that a senior Qatari Diar executive had deleted emails referring to the prince and his private secretary, Sir Michael Peat, from the company's Doha server. Following a court order, copies were found on a London-based server.

Campaigners for transparency over the prince's influence have seized on the revelation and called for full disclosure of all his lobbying activities.

A spokeswoman for Milton tonight confirmed that Charles did discuss the project with him at Poundbury, the Prince's neo-Georgian new town in Dorset. "Simon Milton recalls being introduced to His Royal Highness at a reception at which he was the principal guest and they had a brief exchange about architecture, during which the Prince of Wales referred to Chelsea Barracks," she said. "At that time Mr Milton was on the receiving end of many representations both for and against the scheme, which he then relayed to officers in the planning decisions unit, as he would for any major planning application to be considered by the mayor."

The prince's spokesman said the two men discussed "sustainable urbanism".

"The Prince of Wales asks senior people to Poundbury twice a year for presentations about the project and sustainable urbanism generally and a tour of the site," he said. "The Prince of Wales will have spoken to him at a reception for the guests, in a group with others, for about three or four minutes, in the same way that he speaks to all the guests."

The revelation suggest that Charles went further than was previously understood in his bid to undermine a scheme which he reportedly told the Qatari prime minister was unsympathetic and unsuitable for the prime central London site.

"Clarence House has claimed there was no lobbying going on, but this suggests otherwise," said Graham Smith, campaign manager for Republic, which campaigns for an elected head of state.

"Prince Charles has to be made accountable for what he is doing and we need full disclosure about his influence on public policy."

Following the scrapping of the Rogers scheme, the Qataris, who bought the Chelsea barracks site for almost £1bn, have worked with the prince's architectural advisers to draw up new plans with a different set of architects.

The high court case pits Qatari Diar against the company of Monaco property magnate Christian Candy, the Qataris' former development partner. Candy claims Qatari Diar owes him up to £81m which would have been paid had the scheme been granted planning consent. His lawyers argue that the Qataris breached their contract by withdrawing the application on the order of the emir. Qatari Diar argues it was withdrawn because of planning and commercial concerns. One email details a meeting in London between Qatari Diar's director of investment, John Ward, and the prince's private secretary, Sir Michael Peat, which reveals that Peat told Ward "that if the current planning application was to be pursued, QD would still be at risk from a refusal of planning permission by the politicians at Westminster and/or the mayor of London".

The minutes also show that a key architectural adviser to the prince, Andrew Hamilton, the development director at Poundbury, had spoken about the scheme to Milton and Kit Malthouse, also a deputy mayor of London.

Peat reported that "the prince was very unhappy that the matter had become public" after his letter to the Qataris emerged in the press. He also cautioned against the prince's own architectural advisers approaching Westminster directly about alternative, more traditional designs while the existing planning application remained live, "since this would suggest the personal involvement of the prince".

In an apparent attempt to undermine the effect of any planning decision in favour of the Lord Rogers designs, Peat told the Qataris that Charles "might press His Excellency [the Qatari prime minister] for a private view on whether or not the scheme would be pursued if indeed it is supported by Westminster".

The correspondence also reveals that Ward believed the prince's opposition, if made public, would probably lead to a planning refusal, "causing QD to lose financially but more importantly could be considered a major embarrassment to Qatar".

As a result they decided they must get Charles to "agree to the general gist of development" even if he would not support the architecture. © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 14 2010

Chelsea Barracks witnesses accused of perjury

Developer CPC Group accuses site owners Qatari Diar of deliberate removal of 19 emails involving Prince Charles and lying about involvement of emir

Witnesses lied under oath to cover up Prince Charles's influence over designs for the £3bn redevelopment of Chelsea barracks, while a senior aide to the Qatari royal family, owners of the site, deliberately deleted emails on the prince's involvement, the high court heard.

Mr Justice Vos was told that John Ward, the managing director of Qatari Diar — the Qatar royal family's development arm, which bought the prime London site — deleted 19 emails that referred to either the Prince of Wales or Sir Michael Peat, his private secretary.

Witnesses from Qatari Diar also "concocted an untrue story" to cover up the role of the prince and the Qatari emir, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, in the cancellation of the modernist housing project and lied to the judge, the court heard. Among those accused were Ghanim bin Saad al-Saad, the global chief executive of Qatari Diar.

Lawyers for Qatari Diar denied any cover-up and insisted the allegations were entirely unjustified. They said the allegations were effectively a claim that the Qataris perverted the course of justice.

The allegations are the latest twist in a court battle that pits Christian Candy, a London developer, against Qatari Diar, his former development partner on the barracks project.

The case centres on whether the Qataris abandoned the planning application drawn up by the firm of modernist architect Lord Rogers because of planning considerations or because Prince Charles complained about it directly to the emir and his wife one evening at Clarence House. If it was the latter, Candy's company, CPC Group, argues it is owed up to £81m by Qatari Diar.

Qatari Diar insists no instruction to withdraw was issued by the emir. It withdrew the application on the eve of a consent hearing at Westminster city council after the prince voiced his dislike of the design.

Evidence of the deleted emails and of 41 other documents emerged today — more than two weeks after the court finished hearing evidence in the case.

Qatari Diar admitted that it had not searched an email server in its London office during pre-trial evidence gathering. Following a court order, emails containing references to the prince and his most senior aide that had been deleted by Ward from the server in the firm's Doha office were then found and placed before Vos on Friday.

"It looks on the face of it that whenever he spotted a reference to the Prince of Wales he deleted the email," said Lord Grabiner QC, representing CPC.

He said that Ward deleted 24 emails, all but five of which referred to Prince Charles or Peat.

Grabiner said his actions appeared to be "a deliberate distortion of relevant emails by Qatari Diar".

"The court should infer that Mr Ward deliberately deleted sensitive emails in order to prevent their disclosure. This was a determined effort by Mr Ward to delete what he believed would damage Qatari Diar's case."

Joe Smouha QC, representing Qatari Diar, said the new documents "do not add anything material to the evidential position as it was at the conclusion of the trial".

He said that far from being covered up, the deleted emails would have been available as they would have been held on their recipients' servers.

Smouha said they had not been released earlier partly because "the disclosure of electronic documents [in court] is never a perfect process".

Grabiner said that executives at Qatari Diar knew all along about the emir's involvement but had given evidence in court that the withdrawal of the planning application was triggered by other causes.

"All those witnesses lied to your lordship when they gave evidence. They were motivated by concern to conceal what actually happened to protect Qatari Diar and the emir to enable them to avoid paying the money under the contract. It was a political decision not permitted under the terms of the contract."

One email released to the court from Qatari Diar's then public relations consultant, Christopher Joll, shows he believed that the scheme had been withdrawn on the emir's orders.

Alluding to press reports that Qatari Diar wanted to get the "warring factions" around the table he said: "The media seized on [this] as a thinly coded signal that the scheme is being withdrawn which it is, on the instructions of the Emir, but no one outside Candy & Candy and Qatari Diar knows that is the reason."

The judgment is due to be handed down by early July, Vos said.

Analysis: 'Absolute power', the public good, and the reach of royal influence

Anyone dropping into Court 57 at the Royal Courts of Justice over the past month has been granted a peek into two of the world's most opaque powerbrokers: the Prince of Wales, who wields the influence of the British monarchy from the stucco splendour of Clarence House, and the emir of Qatar, whose oil- and gas-rich nation this week emerged as the biggest international property investor in the world.

The Chelsea Barracks case, on the face of it, is a contract dispute between property developers – the emirate's investment arm, Qatari Diar, and the Monaco-based developer Christian Candy. It hinges on the extent to which the emir and the prince were instrumental in halting the £3bn project. But it also sheds light on how royals use their clout when it comes to matters of public interest.

The court heard how Prince Charles plotted a "fight to the finish" campaign to block architecture he didn't like, scrawled handwritten notes to Qatari royals, and would lobby anyone with the influence to have the project halted.

Aides to Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani spoke of the Qatari ruler's "absolute power" and the court heard how the emir "went mental" when he thought he may have offended the design sensibilities of a fellow royal – a claim that emerged from a process of Chinese whispers, according to lawyers for Qatari Diar.

It also emerged that the emir stood aloof from even his most senior officials, speaking to the chief executive of Qatari Diar only five times in the past six months and then for no more than 15 minutes in meetings arranged by appointment through the manager of his private office.

The Qataris bought the site for almost £1bn from the Ministry of Defence, but concerns about the project within the two royal households were more of a diplomatic than commercial nature.

"Many would be eternally grateful to Your Excellency if Qatari Diar Real Estate Investment could bequeath a unique and enduring legacy to London," Charles wrote to the Qatari PM after first seeing the original modernist plans. He underlined the words "eternally" and "enduring".

The Qataris were also concerned about the project's legacy. Ghanim bin Saad al Saad, the global chief executive of Qatari Diar who oversees projects for the state-owned firm, told the court: "My aim was to protect the project from delays and the reputation of the state of Qatar."

Candy's company, CPC Group, argues it was a meeting between Charles and the emir that triggered the scrapping. One spring evening last year the prince received the emir and his second wife at Clarence House. A note of the meeting by the prince's private secretary, Sir Michael Peat, revealed "the emir was surprised by [the architect Lord Richard] Rogers' designs for Chelsea Barracks and said that he would have them changed". It was Candy – whose sometimes coarse language and directness in his business dealings became clear in court – who said the Prince had "pissed in [the emir's] ear".

What happened next is disputed. Candy said the emir "went mental at Ghanim, telling him how awful the design was and to withdraw ASAP". The court also heard the Qataris "floundered" at the prince's intervention and the emir's reaction. Not so, said al Saad, insisting the emir was not involved in the decision to withdraw.

Despite the insights from court 57, there is a gap in the court papers that looks unlikely to be filled. No correspondence relating to Clarence House and the emir has emerged for between 11 and 15 May, the five days after the prince met the emir.ends © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

Older posts are this way If this message doesn't go away, click anywhere on the page to continue loading posts.
Could not load more posts
Maybe Soup is currently being updated? I'll try again automatically in a few seconds...
Just a second, loading more posts...
You've reached the end.
Get rid of the ads (sfw)

Don't be the product, buy the product!