What kind of King will Charles be?
OPINION: For the best clue to how he might reign as monarch, look at his taste in architecture
For the first time in most of our living memory, we have a new monarch.
During her long reign, Queen Elizabeth II represented stability, heritage and the status quo, and her image as monarch was what mattered most.
In her lifetime, she gave only a handful of interviews. The British public built its image of her personality mainly from photographs – there are quite a few; after all, she was one of the most photographed individuals in history. And from the odd news story describing her reaction to something; her alleged comments about Brexit, in January 2019, was a notable example.
Charles is a very different matter. Much has been written about Charles as a “meddling King” (including a London and Broadway play dramatising this) and about his general unpopularity. But, as I argue in my book ‘Running the Family Firm’, one of the most interesting ways for us to think about what kind of king Charles will be is to look at his very own toy town: Poundbury, in Dorset.
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Poundbury: privilege and power
Poundbury, a 400-acre “urban extension” to the town of Dorchester, is built on Duchy of Cornwall land (Charles being Duke of Cornwall when heir apparent). It is a space where all of Charles’s infamous interventions – into architecture, agriculture, science, healthcare, ecology, religion and horticulture – play out in material form.
Housing about 4,000 people, it seems to be designed as Charles’s utopia: a perfect community untainted by the horrors of modernism, which he has long despised. If you search online for Poundbury, one of the top suggested hits is: “Is Poundbury fake?” If you’ve been there, you’ll understand why the question is asked.
The use of facades is a central preoccupation. When I visited, the nostalgic peristyle of the so-called ‘Poundbury Village Stores’ actually housed a branch of the supermarket Budgens. Gas pipes and ventilation systems are hidden by gargoyles or intricate decorations.
Poundbury seems to be designed as Charles’s utopia: a perfect community untainted by the horrors of modernism
Modernist style challenges the hereditary privilege on which Charles relies. It evokes socialist sensibilities by making the relations of production visible – there are no hidden vestibules or staircases for servants, as were popular in Victorian architecture; or gargoyles concealing pipework. No wonder it’s not welcome in Poundbury.
Journalist Owen Hatherley argued in ‘Militant Modernism’ that Charles “abolish[es] the future in simulation of a fantasy past”. It’s true that he seems to want to re-create a traditional landed society, without taking into account that for most people this meant uninhabitable housing, starvation and preventable death. And this is largely because Charles has never had to suffer any of these things.
While Elizabeth II’s reign was peppered with stories of her living a “simple life”, just like an ‘ordinary person’, Poundbury suggests that Charles’s idea of simplicity is quite different.
Queen Mother’s Square, in the centre of Poundbury, is particularly revealing. It is dominated by royal references. Kings Point House, the largest building, houses a Waitrose, the upmarket British supermarket brand. This sits next to the luxury apartments in the Royal Pavilion.
Strathmore House – more posh flats and named after the Queen Mother’s father, the Earl of Strathmore – is the most visually imposing building on the square. It’s based on Buckingham Palace, a rather odd look for rural Dorset. There’s also The Duchess of Cornwall Inn, modelled on London’s Ritz Hotel, and finally a statue of the Queen Mother, which doubles as a mini roundabout.
Spatial references to past and present royals are commonplace in road or building names, but their meanings become more obvious in Poundbury’s context. Royalty’s position at the epicentre of Poundbury can be interpreted as Charles considering royalty to be at the epicentre of Britain – whereas, in reality, it is politically marginal.
In his 1989 book ‘A Vision of Britain’, Charles detailed his anti-modernist architectural stance and raised the issue of the hierarchy of buildings in terms of height and embellishment. He used anti-vernacular language to position religion and state at society’s centre: “We raise to heaven that which is valuable to us: emblems of faith, enlightenment or government.”
He approves of churches and historic buildings such as the Tower of London dominating the skyline, but not high-rise social housing, office blocks or corporate skyscrapers. This positions secular, aristocratic or royal figures as class dominators. As the centre of Poundbury, Queen Mother’s Square does much the same thing.
A monarchy of contradictions
Charles’s ideology reflects neo-feudalist High Toryism and traditionalist conservatism. It is concerned with maintaining a landed society by privileging social hierarchies, as well as championing environmental concerns, agrarianism, ruralism, localism and strong community ties.
Yet, simultaneously, the Duchy of Cornwall has been described in a TV documentary commissioned by Buckingham Palace as a multi-million pound “business empire”. Charles might espouse anti-modernism, but he seems happy for the Duchy to reap financial rewards.
In many ways, Poundbury is a metaphor for the monarchy. It might be a traditional, feudalist, imperialist institution, but it has deep connections to modern corporate power. It centres its own power through coronations, jubilees and weddings while downplaying its influence on politics.
Considering Charles has built this contradiction in toy town form, it seems the monarchy will continue in much the same way as before – just with a more vocal figure at its helm.
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