Archive for June, 2010

What Judge Geoffry Vos called Prince Charles’ intervention in the Chelsea Barracks project. As I understand it, Chelsea Barracks was a £3 billion development project undertaken by a pair of companies, one owned by or with close links to the Qatari government. Prince Charles wrote to the Prime Minister of Qatar expressing his disapproval with the design and suggesting an alternative design – His Royal Highness is a critic of modern architecture and even had a preferred architect for Chelsea Barracks (Quinlan Terry). Prince Charles also happens to be friends with members of the Qatari royal family, with whom he may have discussed his disapproval of the Chelsea Barracks project the BBC reported.

Plans for Chelsea Barracks by Richard Rogers (left) and Quinlan Terry (right).

Essentially, he circumvented the planning process writing a strongly disapproving letter – explaining to the Qatari PM how his “heart sank” when he saw the proposed designs and of the need for “old-fashioned virtues in planning, design and construction”. The Qatari company pulled out of the project a month later. The partner company in the development sued its Qatari co-developer for breach of contract and today won the case, no compensation but an application for damages will be reviewed by the courts later. (BBC)

For me, two points emerge from this episode.

The first concerns Prince Charles’ heaping scorn on modern architecture. The fact is many professional architects do not share the Prince’s strident stance against modern architecture. He once joked that at least when the German Luftwaffe knocked down buildings it did not replace them with anything more offensive than rubble (Guardian). The Prince writes in his letter that the Chelsea Barracks design needed to be worthy of its position near the Royal Hospital, architecture had abandoned old-fashioned values in ways comparable to the bankers. He decries the “destruction” of parts of London with “one more ‘Brutalist’ development after another.”

I tend to be very suspicious of the hyperventilating and moral panic the Prince is peddling. Let’s take a look at the architect behind the design the Prince rubbished, Richard Rogers. Lord Rogers’ past projects is a tour through recent architecture history: the Pompidou Center, Lloyd’s Building, Millennium Dome, Heathrow Terminal 5, Tower 3 of the new World Trade Center. In addition to being made a life peer he has also received the Légion d’honneur and the Pritzker – architecture’s Nobel Prize equivalent.

Honestly, I’m not desperately in love with each and every one of his buildings, and the fact that Lord Rogers is much honored does not make him unquestionable – but I can see that the body of his work does amount to brilliance; I left some pretty impressive stuff out, the Senedd and him being the first architect to deliver the Reith Lectures for instance. The key point on architecture is that I don’t want to live in a world of never ending 19th century Georgian quads and columns. Innovation in architecture is nothing to fear. And unlike Prince Charles, I don’t want to see bricked up windows unless the building was actually subject to the window tax, see Poundbury. Like Schnittke’s Stille Nacht, architecture can be abstract and challenging even, must we all live and work in Disney-esque Poundbury?

The second point, perhaps obligatory for an American living in the UK: Why monarchy? Were Prince Charles just Charles Windsor his letter would have to stand on its merits. Who knows, perhaps he would be an eminent architecture critic, scholar, or architect himself. But being first in line to the throne and future head of state – His (eventual) Britannic Majesty’s negative reviews of Lord Roger’s design for Chelsea Barracks apparently carried weight.

Separating the head of state from the head of government is a good idea, designating someone to do the ceremonial duties is not in and of itself problematic. An elected figurehead, like Germany’s president, has legitimacy and a mechanism in place to be held accountable. In fact, German President Horst Köhler resigned in May over remarks he made about German foreign policy (Der Spiegel). Perhaps if the US separated the ceremonial from the political in the presidency people would expect less Superman super-powered Barrack Obama and more politician, plain human Barrack Obama.

Introduce the hereditary principle into the head of state mix, and accountability problems abound. From whence does Prince Charles get legitimacy for intervening in particular development projects? The Prince’s office had previously commented that, “the Prince of Wales, like anybody else, has the right to express his opinion.” (Independent) The problem is, Prince Charles is not just “like anybody else”, merely expressing an opinion on a £3 billion development project. He has a role in officially representing the UK. And in this case he appears to have short-circuited the normal process for considering developments. There’s a difference between wielding influence as a public intellectual because you’ve earned the respect of your colleagues and the public over a lifelong career on the one side and wielding influence bestowed by medieval privilege and Salic law.


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To quote the famous tut-tutting of the Queen’s private secretary. This trio of (NSFW) videos is good fun all the same.

Like PhD Comics, but with an edge: Have you read Sein und Zeit? (via Quick Study)

The first time I saw this video I thought it was from a comedy sketch show. It had to be a critique of the perspective it portrays. How could they mean this in earnest? Quick Study comments, “Another reminder that the miraculous thing about Anti-Intellectualism in American Life is that Hofstadter kept it to one volume.”

Finally, the Tory-LibDem budget reminded me of this video from before the elections. “But there’s some things the proles won’t like!” We’ll see in the autumn spending review. (via the Third Estate)

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Pretty much sums up the emergency budget presented by George Osborne today. The Chancellor of the Exchequer presented a budget with occasional concern for the well being of low earners, but these measures to soften the impact of the new government’s budget ultimately don’t amount to much at all. Over the next four years the Tory-LibDem government plans to find £40 billion more in tax rises and spending cuts to reduce the deficit than Labour – Labour was already planning £73 billion in measures over the next four years to reduce the deficit (Guardian).

Having already axed the Child Trust Fund, the coalition government plans a rise in the regressive Value Added Tax (from 17.5% to 20%), £11 billion in cuts to benefits and tax credits, and (mustn’t forget to reward big business) tax cuts to corporations, a 1% reduction in the corporate tax rate each year for four years.

Any hope that the LibDems would attenuate the Tories’ voracious appetite for cutting the state to the detriment of the most vulnerable is well and truly over. Yes, there are tweaks here and there – the two year public sector pay freeze won’t impact workers earning under £21,000, the child tax credit will increase, big banks face a new levy, and capital gains tax (disproportionately paid by the wealthy) is rising from 18% to 28%.

But altogether, putting a little velvet on a sledgehammer doesn’t soften the blow. The 180 degree turn by the LibDems on VAT is particularly galling. During the campaign the LibDems decried the “Tory VAT Bombshell” warning voters they’d “Pay £389 more a year in VAT under the Conservatives.” The poster campaign was announced with great fanfare by LibDem leader, now Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg. Weeks later, LibDems are supporting a VAT rise that disproportionately impacts pensioners and the poor – having specifically identified VAT as “the most regressive tax”. Who said that? Some obscure local LibDem official? No, Simon Hughes, deputy leader of the LibDems identified VAT rises for what they are last week (BBC). How regressive is VAT? “The richest 10% pay one in every 25 pounds of their income in VAT; the poorest 10% pay one in every seven pounds as VAT.” (Next Left)

In addition to putting up “the most regressive tax”, the government is demolishing some important supports for the welfare of the less well off. Over the next four years, the government plans to cut 25%, on average, from departmental budgets, only health and international development are protected from these savage cuts. Details of the services and programs to be cut will come in the autumn spending review, but the picture looks bleak for those on lower incomes who depend on public services.

George Osborne today argued to the Commons that his budget was “tough but fair”. Government services and benefits cuts to families and tax cuts to corporations, Osborne met his goal of being tough, but falls wide of the mark on fairness. We finally have come to the meaning of the Big Society, the Tory leadership’s Big Idea during the elections. Cutting the size of the state and hoping for civil society to wave a magic wand and take up the slack. Unfortunately, civil society can’t magically make up for the brutality of a government abdicating its responsibilities to the welfare of the least well off. Just last week in line with Tory plans for £6 billion in spending cuts this year (which the LibDems campaigned against just weeks ago, like VAT they’ve done a complete reversal) a £450 million new hospital in the north of England was canceled. Yes, the £25 million for a new Stonehenge visitor’ center also in that round of cuts may be disposable, but the people of North Tees and Hartlepool are surely going to miss that cancelled hospital (C4 News). I don’t see the big society scrambling to build a new hospital.

Perhaps this attitude to taxes and public spending is typisch Tory, it certainly is not progressive public policy. And this budget stands as another utter betrayal of any voters credulous enough to entrust their public services to the LibDems. Bitterly disappointed by the government’s cancellation of a loan to a local business (BBC), a Sheffield voter remarked, we have long memories.

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