British Architecture School Causes Royal Stir

Article excerpt

In a dim attic office in St. James's Palace, plans are afoot for the Prince of Wales's second annual Summer School in Civil Architecture, which will begin Saturday. This program, Prince Charles' most recent attempt to erase what he sees as the blot of modernism on the British cityscape, has provoked a good deal of media attention and something akin to hysteria among architects.

Supporters hope the school will reintroduce the beauty and civility lost since the introduction of modernist architecture. Opponents, mostly modernist architects, fear that the prince's intervention has put a hex on their efforts to grab important building contracts in the United Kingdom.

In an age of computers, professors of architecture disdain a return to the old-fashioned life drawing and crafts training that form the basis of the summer school curriculum.

The opening session of the school on the campus of Oxford University last summer was veiled in the kind of secrecy that other countries reserve for the development of strategic weapons. Lecturers were pledged not to speak to the press as a condition of employment; all but a few reporters were refused access to the site, and the only press release was an application-form blurb by Prince Charles extolling "civil architecture."

This year, with a new director, Brian Hanson, who is also the prince's "secretary in architecture," the tone is calmer. The aim is to consolidate last year's experiments into a program exploring the spiritual dimension of architecture, an idea the prince's men formulate as "man the builder."

At stake, as the Prince of Wales sees it, are the livability and traditional look of British cities, the degeneration of which during this second Elizabethan Age has become a cause of national alarm.

Over the past six years, the prince's speeches have delighted the public, and in the process have turned the British design profession on its head. Architecture is now discussed with the passion reserved in the United States for baseball.

The problem, in the prince's view, is that the public has lost faith in the profession. One of his chief architectural advisers, Leon Krier, puts it this way: "People want beauty around them, and everywhere they are denied it."

The 25 young men and women in last year's session, who came from Britain, America and Europe, set out to instruct themselves in this popular idea of beauty. Two-thirds of them were architects; the rest were civil engineers, artists, craftsmen and builders.

They spent five weeks at Magdalen College in Oxford and the British School in Rome, visiting sites and receiving lectures and studio instruction. They practiced the time-honored but by now unfashionable techniques of life drawing, and constructed an architectural order of columns from 19th-century pattern books. They watched as their capitals were cut into stone, and then drew the stone, switching back and forth between two- and three-dimensional conception, the essence of the architectural task.

Working only from documents, they designed a row house to replace a modernist misfit in an Oxford street, then learned the necessity of modifying their designs after visiting the site and talking to the residents. …