The Great Debate: Campaigns and Conflicts in London in the 1980s

Christie, Robyn

Ngā Pūtahitanga / Crossings: A Joint Conference of SAHANZ and the Australasian UHPH Group

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In 1984 HM King Charles III, then HRH The Prince of Wales, gave the infamous speech to the RIBA in which he was critical of a proposed new extension to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. The fervour unleashed in the press signified a unique moment when architecture, conservation, planning and development became a much – and still – talked about part of the public discourse in Britain. Conservation theory had dictated since its early guidelines of practice that new additions to historic works should be clearly distinguished from their original host or the existing environment. Historicism, imitating the existing architecture within an urban setting was taboo, a notion that went back to Ruskin and the anti-scrape lobby of Morris. Unravelling the events of the 1980s, however, reveals that the desire to copy past forms as a means of retaining the past maintained an ongoing and strong legacy. It had become a method of seeking refuge from the failures of modernism and the divergence between traditional and modern forms, language and techniques. Openly acknowledged that modernism was anti- historic and anti-urban, classicism and medieval towns and forms offered the example of outdoor rooms and a predominance of solids over voids. For the then Prince and his many followers, including vast members of the public, the use of a traditional architectural style as infill in a classically inspired building setting was “good” design practice. At this point, ironically, the retreat to historicism also comprised not only mimicking traditional details but also their playful reinterpretation through an esoteric postmodernism. But the topic of new into old had become confused: the critical issue was one of urban design and not the language of infill architecture. Three case studies within the historic core of the City of London, the basis of criticism in Charles’ speeches of 1984 and 1987, will be explored through the popular press in order to understand their lessons and relevance to the complexity of current contemporary conflicts in historic urban areas.