On March 20, Charles, Prince of Wales, and his wife, Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, will touch down in Louisville for a hectic day of royal hullabaloo. According to the Herald-Leader, “Prince Charles is expected to be the keynote speaker at a health symposium” and Camilla will “visit a food literacy project at a farm.” The trip marks the latest royal excursion to Louisville after Queen Elizabeth’s Kentucky Derby visit several years ago.
“Their Royal Highnesses will travel to Louisville, Kentucky where they will highlight the work being done by members of the local community and charitable organisations to protect, preserve and promote the health and well-being of the people of Louisville through community cohesion, clean air and food literacy initiatives,” according to a statement from the royal family.
But what will his royal highness think if our fair River City? He has, after all, made a name for himself as an arbiter of architectural taste and proper urbanism. Charles runs the Prince’s Foundation for Community Building, a “forum” that advocates for and educates about the value of traditional architecture and urbanism to create prosperous communities. According to the foundation, “Ultimately, The Prince believes more should be done to create urban areas that encourage a sense of community and pride of place, and which foster the well-being of those who live there and alleviate social problems.”
It’s a sort of English version of the Charter for the New Urbanism (CNU). And, in fact, Charles has been awarded that organization’s top honor, the Athena Medal, a distinction the Prince shares with Louisville’s late Grady Clay. And it appears the Prince might have some choice words about the state of urbanism in Louisville today.
In an essay called “Facing up to the future” published this year in the English magazine The Architect’s Journal, Prince Charles sets the record straight about his ideas on architecture and urbanism. His views have been controversial for dismissing modern architecture in favor of highly traditional design, but influential nonetheless given his position. From his essay:
As traditional thinking teaches, basing designs on the timeless universal principles expressed by Nature’s order enables the full scope of our humanity to be fulfilled, on the physical, communal, cultural and spiritual levels.
What has concerned me about the design and planning of so many modern built environments during the greater part of the 20th century is that these four interconnecting levels have been completely abandoned and ignored, to the extent that their rediscovery is seen as an exciting revelation. Emphasis has been placed purely on the functional with no integrated understanding of how the order of Nature informs the well-being of people. Hence, towns have been systematically broken down into zones with shopping and commercial zones sitting separately from the housing zones they serve, many of which look exactly the same, being made of the same industrialized materials wherever in the country they are built. And, with business parks and leisure centres built on urban fringes, the entire system only functions because of the car. The opportunities for fragmentation and isolation are everywhere.
Prince Charles minced no words: “We have to be mindful of the long-term consequences of what we construct in the public realm and, in its design, reclaim our humanity and our connection with Nature, both of which, because of the corporate rather than human way in which our urban spaces have been designed, have come under increasing threat.”
He went on to lay out ten principles that should govern design and urbanism, but looking closely at his ideals for city building, we can’t help but wonder, what will the Prince think of Louisville? In the principles, listed below, he discusses the importance of scale, following land development codes, putting the pedestrian first, and building with density and flexibility for the future. Noble goals that have not been strong points in this city over the past half century.
The good news is that Louisville is beginning to awaken to good urbanism and design, and most of the Prince’s list of principles are at least aspirations for Louisville, even if they aren’t always practiced. Here’s to hoping his presence here can help make some of these values stick.
Prince Charles’ ten principles for architecture and urbanism:
- Developments must respect the land. They should not be intrusive; they should be designed to fit within the landscape they occupy.
- Architecture is a language. We have to abide by the grammatical ground rules, otherwise dissonance and confusion abound. This is why a building code can be so valuable.
- Scale is also key. Not only should buildings relate to human proportions, they should correspond to the scale of the other buildings and elements around them. Too many of our towns have been spoiled by casually placed, oversized buildings of little distinction that carry no civic meaning.
- Harmony − the playing together of all parts. The look of each building should be in tune with its neighbours, which does not mean creating uniformity. Richness comes from diversity, as Nature demonstrates, but there must be coherence, which is often achieved by attention to details like the style of door cases, balconies, cornices and railings.
- The creation of well-designed enclosures. Rather than clusters of separate houses set at jagged angles, spaces that are bounded and enclosed by buildings are not only more visually satisfying, they encourage walking and feel safer.
- Materials also matter. In the UK, as elsewhere, we have become dependent upon bland, standardized building materials. There is much too much concrete, plastic cladding, aluminium, glass and steel employed, which lends a place no distinctive character. For buildings to look as if they belong, we need to draw on local building materials and regional traditional styles.
- Signs, lights and utilities. They can be easily overused. We should also bury as many wires as possible and limit signage. A lesson learned from Poundbury is that it is possible to rid the street of nearly all road signs by using ‘events’ like a bend, square or tree every 60-80 metres, which cause drivers to slow down naturally.
- The pedestrian must be at the centre of the design process. Streets must be reclaimed from the car.
- Density. Space is at a premium, but we do not have to resort to high-rise tower blocks which alienate and isolate. I believe there are far more communal benefits from terraces and the mansion block. You only have to consider the charm and beauty of a place like Kensington and Chelsea in London to see what I mean. It is often forgotten that this borough is the most densely populated one in London.
- Flexibility. Rigid, conventional planning and rules of road engineering render all the above instantly null and void, but I have found it is possible to build flexibility into schemes and I am pleased to say that many of the innovations we have tried out in the past 20 years are now reflected in national engineering guidance, such as The Manual For Streets.
[Top image: Prince Charles, left, and the Louisville skyline at night. (Matt Shiffler Photography / Flickr)]