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Sam Hall Kaplan

Princely and Less Regal Criticism

December 06, 1987|Sam Hall Kaplan

These are embarrassing times for the architecture profession, here and abroad.

In London, where I spent a recent month, the profession was quite red in the face defending itself from Prince Charles, who has assumed for himself the role of Britain's ad hoc architecture critic.

His Royal Highness the prince has been quite blunt in his public comments, denouncing what he feels is the profession's penchant for new and different designs that abuse their settings and ignore their users.

He has attacked, among other things, a proposed addition to the National Gallery of Art in London as "a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend"; a planned central city office building as "a giant glass stump," and a factory he was dedicating as "a high-tech version of a Victorian prison."

For his efforts, the prince has been accused of wielding an untutored, arbitrary royal veto.

"With a couple of words he can humble overmighty developers, thwart bureaucrats, and consign architects, if not to the Tower, then at least to oblivion," declared an editorial in a local architecture magazine. It added that the prince's interventions have been unfair and undemocratic, creating "a state of affairs that is undesirable . . . both architecturally and politically."

In a speech before the Royal Institute of British Architects, the prince offered no apologies for his predisposition "to throw a proverbial royal brick through the inviting plate glass of pompous professional pride." Instead, he challenged the profession to direct its energies not to impressing peers and critics but to designing buildings and reshaping cities to better serve their residents.

Answering the charge that he has become a disciple of a small group of architects resentful of the avant garde, the prince declared: "If I had sat at these people's feet as often as disciples are supposed to, then I would never manage to do anything else, and I would probably end up by developing architectural hemorrhoids."

While no supporter of monarchical powers, I must cheer what the prince has been saying and the storm he has stirred within the architecture profession and in the broader community. Behind the rhetoric is what I feel an honest appeal to the profession to be less ego involved in their designs and more sensitive to the needs of people and communities.

While Prince Charles has yet to throw a brick at the Los Angeles design scene, the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects has been dropping a few.

First, there were the 1987 design awards. The chapter invited three distinguished architects to serve as jurors, only to have them anoint a short list of mostly predictable designs, including projects in Japan, Hawaii and Minnesota and a few safely unbuilt.

It is not that the nine designs selected out of the 160 submitted did not deserve recognition at the local level. Most of them were quite inventive and engaging, and worthy of merit.

I just feel that the selections were an easy out by the jury. Some of the designs had won awards elsewhere, making them recognizable to anyone who scans the professional publications, as I presume the jurors do. A few other projects flaunted the widely publicized styles of their designers.

That jurors Thomas Beeby, Henry Cobb and Jorge Silvetti seemingly needed to demonstrate that they are well informed and modishly progressive is understandable. Peer pressure can be a powerful force in any profession, especially among its superstars. I also recognize that it is the prerogative of a jury to give as many or few awards in whatever categories it chooses.

However, I had hoped that the jurors would have broadened their vision of Los Angeles and given recognition to fresh designs that, within the constraints of a burgeoning cityscape, served the user and improved the community. For judicial balance, perhaps next year, the AIA can invite some user and community advocates to serve on the jury--and maybe Prince Charles?

Whether it was because of the arbitrariness of the awards, the fact that they already had been announced, or the $60 a person tab, that the local chapter of the AIA had to cancel its design awards dinner last month for lack of attendance had to be embarrassing to the profession.

Canceled along with the dinner was the initiation of the chapter of its Irving Gill lecture series. The featured speaker was to be New York Times architecture critic Paul Goldberger.

Undoubtedly the chapter would have liked to impress Goldberger in its bid for more recognition on the East Coast, where the movers and shakers of the national AIA reside.

Instead, the chapter dropped another brick on its foot, as it has in recent years, with the cancellation of a previous public lecture series, the demise of the City Room in Exposition Park where it was to hold exhibits, and allowing the usurpation of its house organ by a parochial clique.

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