RIBA President Sunand Prasad's introduction to the 2009 RIBA Trust Annual Lecture
Your Royal Highnesses, Ladies and Gentlemen
A huge welcome to the RIBA’s 175th Anniversary Annual Lecture to be given tonight by HRH the Prince of Wales. We are grateful to Gleeds and to their Director Richard Steer for their generous support for this series of talks.
The RIBA’s Royal Charter commits the institutions to the “advancement of Architecture and the promotion of the acquisition of the knowledge of the Arts and Sciences connected therewith”. It was granted in 1837 by William IV who, as it happens, was the last sovereign of Britain to choose a prime minister contrary to the will of Parliament, which he did in 1834 the year of founding of the Institute. The RIBA came into being in interesting times and the times today are as interesting as they have ever been.
In fulsome commitment to our charter we today promote architecture for its immense contribution to the quality of people’s lives – not only to support our daily activities and business but as part of our culture and civilisation as it affects the emotional and spiritual aspects of our lives. In these respects the architecture of the past sets us a stiff challenge. Not only in terms of commodity, firmness and delight, but also adventure – I think of Wells Cathedral, of Sinan’s Sulemaniye Mosque, Bunelleschi’s Duomo, Akbar’s Fathepur Sikri, Sanaa in the Yemen, the Great Mosque of Djenne in Mali, Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace Utzon’s Sidney Opera House. Away from the monuments the world over we can see and learn from vernacular architecture perfectly suited to everyday life and also immensely resilient to change and adaptation. Naming authors does not matter because these buildings and places are products of cultures developed and refined over centuries by the imaginations and efforts of thousands of people.
Modern architecture at its best has demonstrated an equal capacity to provide commodity firmness and delight, a strong spirit of adventure and discovery and now also a consciousness of the limits of the Earth’s resources. But we must admit that we all got some things horribly wrong in designing cities and neighbourhoods – in particular we bungled their reconstruction or construction after the war, largely because of the supremacy we accorded to the car – sort of a car-bungle you might say: car-bungles defacing whole tracts of cities.
The first critiques of the bad effects of 20thC planning orthodoxy were made by urbanists and architects like Jane Jacobs, Lewis Mumford and Team Ten, now almost half a century ago. The critiques of modernism emerged from within modernism and have become widely accepted, though practice on the ground has proved harder to change: witness for example, crude highway design, and inattention to place making.
A lot has happened in the 25 years since the Prince last spoke at an RIBA occasion. Contemporary architecture in all its diversity including the many approaches to modernism has attracted more and more popular interest. It is not yet the norm but there are many examples of excellent planning and design of neighbourhoods that begin the match the ambitions of the path finding report by Lord Rogers of Riverside: Towards and Urban Renaissance and the work of the Prince’s Foundation. At the same time the full extent of the threat to human civilization from climate change and the degradation of the natural environment has become apparent.
The RIBA is passionately for high quality of design of our buildings and places, because it better supports our lives and lifts our spirits. It has helped to show that design quality is not simply a matter of opinion and has pushed it up the political agenda. But there are still too many threats to design quality, for example from short-sighted policies on procurement and an inability of private and public clients to take a long term view. That is something on which we want to make common cause with the Prince and the Prince’s foundation: quality independent of style; quality supported by genuine engagement of people in the design of their settlements and neighbourhoods.
All that will count for nothing unless we confront the threat of climate change and gather as large as possible a coalition of the willing to reduce and then eliminate the emission of greenhouse gases in a sustainable way. The RIBA has focused hard on action and design to mitigate and adapt to climate change and has endorsed the principle of contraction and convergence to guide an international climate change treaty. Despite our public disagreements, we are very pleased that Prince Charles has shown such clear leadership on sustainability and climate change. As he has pointed out we have less than a hundred months to act – and you might all reflect that it is 500 months to the end of 2050 by when we have to have stabilised atmospheric concentrations of greenhouses gases this side of the tipping point. And if we don’t do that any discussion of style will be far, far more academic a matter even than it is now.
Ladies and gentlemen I am delighted to invite to the lectern His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales.