Letter from London
Paul Finch, 19 April 2021
The Duke of Edinburgh was a modern from start to finish
Reports that the Duke of Edinburgh had designed modifications to a Land Rover, in order to provide the hearse for his own funeral, will have come as a surprise to the public, perhaps. But to anyone who has observed the history of his relationship to the world of design it won’t have been surprising at all, writes Paul Finch.
The Duke was a modern, with a profound interest in engineering, manufacture and science in general, similar in some ways to his predecessor as a significant consort, Prince Albert. Like Albert, the Duke was not only ahead of the game but was also interested in trying to bring about recognition for, and celebration of, great design and great designers.
He founded the Prince Philip Designers Prize in 1959, which ran for more than 50 years under the auspices of the UK Design Council. Originally called a prize for ‘elegant design’, its remit expanded over the years toa include the widest possible range of activities– the last prize awarded by the Duke himself, in 2011, was to the children’s book illustrator, Quentin Blake.
However, the world of product design featured strongly. For example, the 50th anniversary prize went to the designer of the Brompton fold-up bike, Andrew Ritchie; architects had an occasional look-in, notably Michael Hopkins and Norman Foster – because of their interest in the way things work, and the relationship of architectural and engineering design.
Unlike his eldest son, the Duke was reticent in public about architecture. His most notable formal contribution as a client was as chairman of the committee which oversaw the reconstruction of the substantial parts of Windsor Castle burned down in 1992 – with some minor exceptions restored in a Gothic spirit. It has never been clear to me whether his thoughts on the modernisation of other Royal properties, for example designs by the Cambridge architect David Roberts for Sandringham, were real projects or pipedreams.
One wonders if the Duke discussed architecture much with Prince Charles, or whether he might have felt more at home with the Cambridge architecture school alumnus Richard, Duke of Gloucester. One gets the impression that the Duke was more interested in functional ingenuity than aesthetic theory; the first winner of his design prize back in 1959 was Charles Longman, for the ingeniously minimalist Prestcold Packaway refrigerator, designed to fit into cramped kitchens. This sounds as relevant today as it did then, and not just in respect of warships.
Stop moaning and start designing
Entirely predictably, a group of built environment institutions (including the RIBA) has attacked government proposals making it easier to convert redundant buildings into housing. They claim it will ‘wreck the high street’, as though on-line shopping, let alone the pandemic, has not already done its work. Another phoney line is that retrofit and adaptive re-use will somehow create ‘slums of the future’, even though minimum standards in respect of size and light are part of the new proposals.
Relentless negativity is rarely the basis for sensible discussion about the future. You wonder why a creative profession such as architecture feels it needs to join in with groups who have little to offer in the way of ideas that might be unexpectedly beneficial. They assume new means bad. Designers, of all people, should be looking at how we might transform town centres on the basis of more residents, intensified environments, and the improvements these might generate.
The underlying problem which government policies are seeking to address is why, in a wealthy and prosperous country, we are apparently incapable of building enough housing for a growing population. One of the (minor) reasons for this is the reluctance of ‘built environment’ institutions to imagine that they might be part of the problem.
Endless moaning on their part makes this point all too eloquently.
Why London has a housing shortage
A perfectly well-designed riverside housing project prompted the state conservation body, Historic England, say the plans ‘would cause a high degree of less than substantial harm’. I am not making this up.