The Prince of Wales sets out ten key principles for sustainable urban growth that values tradition
I was somewhat surprised to be asked by this magazine to explain why I consider traditional approaches and universal principles so important in the design of buildings and urban environments. It is heartening, I must say, that the magazine is encouraging a ‘Big Rethink’ because designing places according to the human scale and with Nature at the heart of the process has always been my central concern. The reason for that, I think, has too often been misunderstood …
I have lost count of the times I have been accused of wanting to turn the clock back to some Golden Age. Nothing could be further from my mind. My concern is the future. We face the terrifying prospect by 2050 of another three billion people on this planet needing to be housed, and architects and urban designers have an enormous role to play in responding to this challenge. We have to work out now how we will create resilient, truly sustainable and human-scale urban environments that are land-efficient, use low-carbon materials and do not depend so completely upon the car. However, for these places to enhance the quality of people’s lives and strengthen the bonds of community, we have to reconnect with those traditional approaches and techniques honed over thousands of years which, only in the 20th century, were seen as ‘old-fashioned’ and of no use in a progressive modern age. It is time to take a more mature view.
I say this because those universal principles are expressed in the order of Nature, which can never be ‘old- fashioned’. Nature is only ever of paramount contemporary importance and, although we think we can, we ignore the order of Nature at our peril. It exists for good reason.
‘By 2050 another three billion people will need to be housed, and architects and urban designers have an enormous role to play in responding to this challenge’
Nature’s order is not simple. It is complex, deeply interconnected and innately beautiful − a fact worth pondering. It is curious that we do not have to ‘think’ about finding a rose beautiful; it simply is, and I would suggest this is because we feel an immediate, intuitive resonance with its form and pattern. This is much the same experience when we stand beneath a rose window in a High Gothic cathedral. Those who created such structures in medieval Europe sought to produce physical manifestations of the Divine order of the universe − in short, a model of Heaven on Earth − and to do so they derived their designs from Nature’s geometry which, for all its beauty and diversity, begins with one simple action: the division of a single circle.
The circle is an age-old symbol of unity and out of that key relationship between the point and the line comes a multiplicity of shapes and patterns. There is seemingly limitless diversity, but it is directly bound at every turn by its reference to the point at the centre, the origin of the circle. In this way, rose windows are truly original works of art. They are an expression of the origin of things − the creative principle which, in the world’s sacred traditions, is called the Divine. Traditional art and architecture are the product of this perception, symbolising the fact that everything in the manifest world is connected. This is why such patterning is referred to as ‘sacred’ geometry. Not because it creates windows in churches, but because it displays the order which is sacred to all things. Consider the fact that no two snowflakes are ever the same, and yet each is held together by the same sixfold geometry.
This is why I have placed such importance on the teaching of geometry at my School of Traditional Arts. This ‘spiritual mathematics’, which Plato called one of the universal languages of humanity, is a precise ‘grammar of harmony’ and time and again I have found it communicates directly to people by resonating with their true being.
It was fascinating, for instance, to hear recently of an event at the British Museum, called ‘Meeting of Minds’, where an audience of high-profile designers and creative directors was introduced to this geometry by one of the staff at my School of Traditional Arts. Many said afterwards that simply using a compass and drawing with a pencil for the first time since they were at school made a remarkable impression, but it was when they were shown the practical side of pattern making that they started to get the point. They learnt how complex, intricate patterns can be constructed from a square derived from a circle. The tutor deliberately allowed them to become confused in this process so that they found no sense in what they were doing until, suddenly, they saw the patterns emerge. It was apparently a breathtaking moment of realisation and, judging from the feedback, many were overwhelmed by what they discovered. One wrote it had been a ‘perception-changing experience’ and reported there had been discussion into the night about the implications of looking at the world in this way. Several asked if the tutor would run similar sessions for their entire studios and one said he now realized why he had always been so moved by a cathedral mentioned in the subsequent talk. ‘I suddenly saw it is all about the numbers, it is all about Nature.’
One senior executive from a very well-known corporation said she had realized with some dread that her company’s brand new headquarters, still under construction, were unlikely to work. The original cluster of buildings resembled a series of village centres that had grown organically as the company expanded. But these had been bulldozed away and in their place a vast, open-plan office complex was being constructed which did not have community at the heart of its purpose. She saw that the old arrangement had been key to producing the company’s immensely creative process of development and design. Only one local architect had pointed this out, but his ‘old-fashioned’ idea of creating a new series of interconnected hubs had been overruled by the corporate desire for an ‘iconic’ building that would reflect the company’s success. Time will tell who was right.
I have no doubt this will seem a very esoteric argument to some architects working on the front line in the ‘real world’, but what I am describing here is an approach to design based upon the crystalline analysis of the working of Nature. ‘Putting the human being at the centre of the design process’ goes beyond seeing people as pedestrians. As traditional thinking teaches, basing designs on the timeless universal principles expressed by Nature’s order enables the full scope of our humanity to be fulfilled, on the physical, communal, cultural and spiritual levels.
What has concerned me about the design and planning of so many modern built environments during the greater part of the 20th century is that these four interconnecting levels have been completely abandoned and ignored, to the extent that their rediscovery is seen as an exciting revelation. Emphasis has been placed purely on the functional with no integrated understanding of how the order of Nature informs the well-being of people. Hence, towns have been systematically broken down into zones with shopping and commercial zones sitting separately from the housing zones they serve, many of which look exactly the same, being made of the same industrialized materials wherever in the country they are built. And, with business parks and leisure centres built on urban fringes, the entire system only functions because of the car. The opportunities for fragmentation and isolation are everywhere.
This is why my Foundation for Building Community places such importance upon ‘the street’ and the need for them to be laid out in a legible, interconnected network with the pedestrian at the heart of the design process. The aim is for walkable, legible urban centres where mixed-income housing, shops, business premises and leisure facilities fit together. This creates surprise and variety in a mix that is unified by an underlying coherence. The use of local materials is critical, as is a masterplan that is based upon a region’s distinctive traditional architectural ‘signature’. In this way a development does not just follow the dictates of fashion which, by definition, can often appear worn-out and less than appropriate over time. Instead it seeks to create a settlement with a local identity and a strong sense of place; one that engenders integrated communities where people can enjoy a sense of shared pride in where they live.
In order to do this, the masterplan must accord to 10 important geometric principles (see below). This approach does not deny the benefits and convenience that our modern technology brings. Far from it, the aim is to mix the best of the old with the best of the new. All I am suggesting is that the new alone is not enough. We have to be mindful of the long-term consequences of what we construct in the public realm and, in its design, reclaim our humanity and our connection with Nature, both of which, because of the corporate rather than human way in which our urban spaces have been designed, have come under increasing threat. To counter this, I believe we have to revisit the learning that for so long has been embedded in traditional approaches to design, simply because they are so rooted in our own connection with Nature’s patterns and processes. As we face so many critical challenges in the years ahead, these approaches are crying out to be brought back to the forefront of contemporary practice.
Developments must respect the land. They should not be intrusive; they should be designed to fit within the landscape they occupy.
Architecture is a language. We have to abide by the grammatical ground rules, otherwise dissonance and confusion abound. This is why a building code can be so valuable.
Scale is also key. Not only should buildings relate to human proportions, they should correspond to the scale of the other buildings and elements around them. Too many of our towns have been spoiled by casually placed, oversized buildings of little distinction that carry no civic meaning.
Harmony − the playing together of all parts. The look of each building should be in tune with its neighbours, which does not mean creating uniformity. Richness comes from diversity, as Nature demonstrates, but there must be coherence, which is often achieved by attention to details like the style of door cases, balconies, cornices and railings.
The creation of well-designed enclosures. Rather than clusters of separate houses set at jagged angles, spaces that are bounded and enclosed by buildings are not only more visually satisfying, they encourage walking and feel safer.
Materials also matter. In the UK, as elsewhere, we have become dependent upon bland, standardized building materials. There is much too much concrete, plastic cladding, aluminium, glass and steel employed, which lends a place no distinctive character. For buildings to look as if they belong, we need to draw on local building materials and regional traditional styles.
Signs, lights and utilities. They can be easily overused. We should also bury as many wires as possible and limit signage. A lesson learned from Poundbury is that it is possible to rid the street of nearly all road signs by using ‘events’ like a bend, square or tree every 60-80 metres, which cause drivers to slow down naturally.
The pedestrian must be at the centre of the design process. Streets must be reclaimed from the car.
Density. Space is at a premium, but we do not have to resort to high-rise tower blocks which alienate and isolate. I believe there are far more communal benefits from terraces and the mansion block. You only have to consider the charm and beauty of a place like Kensington and Chelsea in London to see what I mean. It is often forgotten that this borough is the most densely populated one in London.
Flexibility. Rigid, conventional planning and rules of road engineering render all the above instantly null and void, but I have found it is possible to build flexibility into schemes and I am pleased to say that many of the innovations we have tried out in the past 20 years are now reflected in national engineering guidance, such as The Manual For Streets.