Richard Rogers vs. Prince Charles: Again

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The British architect recently won the Stirling Prize, Britain’s highest architectural honor. But was the prize meant as a way for U.K. modern architects to give the finger to Rogers’ prime antagonist — and theirs — Prince Charles? Sort of like an Obama Peace Prize that’s a shot at George Bush? Rogers won’t hear of it, but it’s hard not to see it that way.

To recap: Earlier this year Prince Charles stepped in at the last minute to object to a design by Rogers’ firm of a London apartment project being developed by a company headed by members of the royal family of Qatar. Charles wrote personally to the prime minister of Qatar, another royal, to say the Rogers design was too modern to be built on a site so close to Christopher Wren’s 17th-century Chelsea Hospital. By June Rogers was off the job and the British architectural establishment, or at least those parts of it sympathetic to modern architecture, was up in arms.

The Rogers win this year was something of a surprise, partly because his nominated project was fairly modest. Maggie’s Centres are a network of cancer patient support facilities in the U.K. They’re dedicated to the memory of the late Maggie Keswick Jencks, who got the idea for them after a particularly dismal hospital stay. Her husband was Charles Jencks, the well known architectural writer. His connections in the design world have helped to bring a lot of big names to the little projects — Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid and Rem Koolhaas, among others — in the process making the Maggie’s Centres one of the most consistently adventurous architectural clients in Britain.

Judging from photographs on the website of Rogers’ firm, his edition of Maggie’s Center is a fairly simple structure. In the Times of London this morning Rogers called it “fairly Japanese”. Tom Dyckhoff of the Times described it well.

It’s essentially a traditional Japanese wooden-framed post and beam villa, topped by a floating roof — albeit in steel — and dotted with intimate spaces and hidden courtyard gardens subdivided not by paper shoji screens, but glass and wooden walls.

That sounds nice enough, but not like something in the league of, say, the Barajas Airport in Madrid, the much more substantial project for which Rogers won the Stirling three years ago.

So even if this year’s Stirling was meant as much to recognize the Maggie’s Centres in general as it was to honor Rogers’ particular version, I’m still thinking the judges knew perfectly well that by giving it to Rogers they would be sticking it to Charles.

UPDATE: Over at the architecture & design website structureHUB they’ve come to the same conclusion.