Internet Explorer 11 is not supported

For optimal browsing, we recommend Chrome, Firefox or Safari browsers.

Can Britain’s ‘New Urbanist’ King Mold His Country’s Landscape?

As Prince of Wales, Charles had a lot to say about architecture and planning. But there are things that princes can do that monarchs might not be able to.

Royal visit to Cornwall
In 2018, the Prince of Wales (2nd right) met local residents in Nansledan, an extension to the Cornish coastal town of Newquay built on Duchy of Cornwall land, which embodies the principles of architecture and urban planning championed by Charles.
(Andrew Matthews/PA Wire/PA Images)
Not much has been said about it so far, but the United Kingdom has acquired a monarch who is, odd as it may seem, a largely self-taught New Urbanist planner.

Charles III, as Prince of Wales and sovereign of the fabulously wealthy Duchy of Cornwall, was the driving force behind the creation of a mixed-use development in Dorchester, on the Cornwall coast. He has been a serious player in the planning for six other projects on vacant land in various parts of Britain. He used his influence, or so it was widely believed, to squelch architectural plans for a new Royal Opera House and for the redevelopment of the venerable Chelsea Barracks.

But it is not these modest interventions that brought Charles his planning reputation. It was the things he said in public about modern architecture.

All of this began in 1984, when the prince startled a Royal Institute of British Architects dinner by describing a proposed addition to the National Gallery as “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend.”

His architectural comments during the following years, as carefully documented by Kriston Capps of CityLab, were equally incendiary. The prince called a new library in the city of Birmingham “a place where books were incinerated, not kept.” He described the newly constructed Royal National Theater as “a clever way of building a nuclear power station in the middle of London.”

As the years have passed, Charles has gone into great detail to tell the public both what he opposes and what he favors. In his book A Vision of Britain, which accompanied a 1989 BBC television program on the subject, he wrote that “for a long time I have felt strongly about the wanton destruction that has taken place in our country in the name of progress; about the sheer unadulterated ugliness and mediocrity of public and commercial buildings.”

Charles declaimed eloquently about the need to respect nature, history and classicism in public buildings; to involve ordinary citizens in the planning process rather than dictating to them; to use decorative features such as spires and domes to give buildings a physical dignity that uplifted the spirits of anyone who saw them; and to replace segregated zoning with mixed-use zoning codes, promoted by the New Urbanist movement, that fostered diversity and community. He maintained frequent contact with the major New Urbanist thinkers.

Charles has continued to press his ideas right up to the recent past. “Designing places according to the human scale and with nature at the heart of the process has always been my central concern,” he wrote in The Architectural Review in 2014. “We ignore the order of nature at our peril. … Basing designs on the timeless universal principles expressed by nature’s order enables the full scope of our humanity to be fulfilled.”

NOW HE IS KING. His accession brings up the important questions of how much of his architectural and planning program he will be able to implement, and how much impact this will have on the country over which he now reigns.

Perhaps less than one might imagine. The architectural diatribes of the prince angered quite a few critics, and not merely modern architects. But they were generally accepted. Monarchs are not expected to speak out that way on any controversial subject, and certainly his predecessor, Elizabeth II, rarely did.

The architect Andrés Duany, according to Kriston Capps, once told Charles that “kings are remembered for what they build.” But it matters a great deal what sort of kings they are, and what sort of rules prevail in the kingdoms they inherit.

Certainly previous royal personages in Britain have dabbled in architecture, sometimes more than dabbled. George IV was instrumental in the creation of Regent Street, one of London’s few meticulously planned commercial thoroughfares. Prince Albert was involved in the design and construction of the Crystal Palace at the 1851 international exhibition. George V spearheaded improvement in the slum neighborhood of Lambeth, in London’s South End.
The Crystal Palace
Prince Albert was involved in the design and construction of the Crystal Palace for the 1851 international exhibition.
But all of these royals did their planning before becoming king, or without serving as king at all. George IV did his work as prince regent, before he mounted the throne. George V worked on Lambeth when he was Prince of Wales. Albert was prince consort and a member of the royal family only by marriage. None of them threw their planning weight around from the highest seat of power.

The one British king who fancied himself a planner during his actual reign was George III. He employed an architectural tutor and spent much of his free time as king producing sketches of buildings. But sketches were about all they amounted to; the Georgian building style that bears his name largely took shape before he was even born.

TO FIND RULERS WHO CHANGED THE FACE OF THEIR REALMS, one generally has to look to autocrats who wielded power unilaterally, whether they were called kings, emperors, czars or something else. The Emperor Napoleon III of France is the textbook example. Concluding that the narrow, crooked and crowded streets of Paris were an insult to a modern empire, he commissioned Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann to rebuild the city almost entirely, demolishing working-class streets and neighborhoods and replacing them with the spacious boulevards that have defined Paris ever since.

Dictators like to build, and they like what they build to be grandiose. Stalin was a classicist who believed that imposing architecture served to reinforce the power of his Soviet regime. And he got a lot of it done, notably the Moscow subway system that holds up as an aesthetic marvel nearly a century after its completion. Hitler’s megalomaniacal design ideas also tilted toward the classical: He ordered Albert Speer to create a gargantuan stadium for sports and entertainment, built along Roman lines and rising 200 feet in height, with a capacity of 405,000 in five tiered decks of seats. Fortunately it was never built.

There are a few examples of nondictatorial governments undertaking major urban planning projects. Brazil built an entirely new capital city, Brasilia, in the 1950s under President Juscelino Kubitschek, and India’s Jawaharlal Nehru created the regional capital of Chandigarh essentially from scratch. But these are outliers. The urban planning undertaken by states is almost always the work of autocrats.

IT GOES WITHOUT SAYING that no leader in this country has done what the autocrats did or tried to do, but we have elected a few aspiring architects. Thomas Jefferson is the one all of us remember, not just for his private residence at Monticello but for the campus of the University of Virginia and the state Capitol in Richmond. Jefferson was an architect all his life, and he was a builder, not just a dreamer, but his most famous buildings were built when he was out of office, either before or after his presidency.

There is one striking modern example in this country: the re-creation of the New York state Capitol complex in Albany under Gov. Nelson Rockefeller in the 1960s. Rockefeller wielded as much one-man authority as any American governor in the 20th century during his 14 years in office, and he had a lifelong interest in architecture and design. The result was the Empire State Mall, a 98-acre collection of government skyscrapers and windswept plazas whose construction displaced more than 5 percent of the city’s population. Rockefeller’s creation was derided almost from the beginning as a sterile modernist/brutalist monstrosity entirely out of scale with its small-city location, and the criticism has never abated.

Rockefeller’s project was the exact opposite of what King Charles wants to do. The new British monarch wants to foster traditional villages, neighborhoods and commercial districts that restore a sense of human scale to urban areas that he believes have lost their sense of scale and community in the years since World War II. In a very limited way, he has already done some of that. The interesting question is whether he can do more.

His development at Poundbury, in Dorset, is not an accomplishment to dismiss. When it is completed in the next four years, Kriston Capps reports, it will be a mixed-use development containing more than 1,000 residences and nearly 200 businesses “arranged along terraced boulevards lined by columns and colonnades.” Several other projects have been envisioned along the same lines. Charles has also been instrumental in long-delayed plans to build a development of 4,000 residences at Newquay, along the Cornwall coast.

Some of this work is likely to continue now that Charles is king, although his most important source of funding, the Duchy of Cornwall, now passes to his son William, the new Prince of Wales. What Charles III won’t be able to do is issue the broadsides and write the polemics that have had more influence on British architecture and planning than anything he has actually developed. Kings don’t do that sort of thing. That is a crowning irony of his accession.
Alan Ehrenhalt is a contributing editor for Governing. He served for 19 years as executive editor of Governing Magazine. He can be reached at
From Our Partners