A speech by HRH The Prince of Wales at the Sustainable Cities for a Better Life seminar, Venice, Italy

28/04/2009

A speech by HRH The Prince of Wales at the Sustainable Cities for a Better Life seminar, Venice, Italy


Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am most touched that you should have thought of taking such a risk in inviting me to join you today to discuss regeneration. As you know far better than me, this city - rightly regarded as one of the most beautiful in the world - and which it is always such a joy to visit - cannot subsist on its beauty alone. The industrial base which underpinned success in the Twentieth Century cannot transfer itself, unadapted, to the Twenty-First Century. It is, if I may say so, how that adaptation finds its practical expression that will help to define the city in this new century. I would argue that it is possible to redevelop post-industrial areas such as the Venice lagoon in a way which recalls Venice's reputation as a pinnacle of achievement in building cities, demonstrating the rich variety of expression in the built environment that comes from a place that has evolved over time, with reference to both a living tradition and an openness to learning from cultural and natural influences. This does not mean the creation of some sort of "historical theme park" characterised by pastiche buildings which simply mimic what has gone before. Rather, I believe that it means identifying the underlying principles of Venice's glories, bringing them into the modern age to blend the best of old and new and using this "pattern book" to inform what is built in future.

The subject you are discussing today is thus a very important one not only here, but all over the world, since dealing with our industrial legacy in a way that enhances both our natural environment and makes vibrant, healthy new communities is a global problem. Regeneration of brownfield sites in particular is an area of great interest in both our countries. In my own country over sixty per cent of all new development happens on brownfield or formerly used sites, many of them former industrial sites such as the ones you are discussing today. I am so pleased that we have the opportunity to share experiences on this subject with one another today, and I do hope you won't mind too much if I mention some of the work that I have been doing in this area over the past twenty-five years or so. Perhaps, after all, that may be why you have invited me to this seminar in the first place!

As you will hear in more detail later today, my Foundation for the Built Environment tries to improve the quality of people's lives by teaching and practising timeless and ecological ways of planning, designing and building.  In our educational programmes, as well as our project-based learning, my Foundation is demonstrating that by concentrating on the way settlements have been affected by local conditions and shaped by building traditions and local materials, modern day projects can use that time-tested adaptation to place and climate to meet the challenges of sustainability we face today.

My Foundation's work in live projects ranges from historic city cores, such as Lincoln and Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter, to outer London town centres such as Walthamstow, as well assisting with the design of urban extensions across the country. We have been engaged in major brownfield regeneration projects in Wales, where we are working with BP and a developer to remediate a heavily contaminated site and to also develop the former national oil refinery at Llandarcy as an urban village and to redevelop BP's former Swansea docks as a new university science and research campus.  In addition, my Foundation has also worked with partners at the Westoe Colliery in the Northeast of England to remake this former industrial site as a mixed-use neighbourhood.  This work is resulting in both exemplars and new planning and design tools, and therefore I hope you will find contributions from my Foundation of real interest during this seminar.

To view heritage as a living thing by finding new uses for old buildings and planning proactively in heritage areas has long been a concern of mine.  A few years ago I formed my own Regeneration Trust, which brought together two charities of mine which have contributed to the rich heritage conversation in the U.K. for some time - The Phoenix Trust and Regeneration through Heritage. The Prince's Regeneration Trust undertakes activities in pursuit of the preservation, regeneration and re-use of large sites and buildings of architectural or heritage value that are at risk.

My Regeneration Trust has been looking at how to re-use buildings that are valuable to the country's heritage, as well as to the communities of which they are a part, and how to encourage sympathetic development of the areas surrounding them, both as an advisor and, occasionally, as a developer.  Projects such as Anchor Mill in Paisley, Stanley Mills in Perthshire, as well as ongoing work with former Defence and hospital sites around the country, all demonstrate the value of thinking creatively about how to adapt and reuse such buildings by approaching the development in a much more holistic way.

In building new development in or near historic towns, cities or landscapes, it is of great importance to do so with an eye on the past as well as an eye on the future.  Ever since I could no longer bear the destructive, Brutalist vandalism that was taking place in the U.K. under the guise of development and decided to confront these issues by writing "A Vision of Britain", nearly twenty five years ago, I have been working on a series of principles for building better places.  Together with my Regeneration Trust and my Foundation, as well as in my own development in the South of England at Poundbury, with the Duchy of Cornwall, I have been trying to put these principles into practice - although I have to say it has not all been plain sailing by any means!

If I may, and because I suspect that is why you have been kind enough to ask me here, I would like to share a few thoughts with you about the ways in which we can build new buildings in old places, distilled from twenty five years of experience.  It seems to me that the following ideas might conceivably be worth following up:

Firstly - recognition that sustainability means building for the long term - one hundred years, rather than twenty years; an end to the throwaway society and what is rapidly becoming a throwaway planet.

Secondly - because of this, building in an adaptable and flexible manner, reassessing and reusing existing buildings wherever possible;

Thirdly - building in a manner that fits the place, in terms of materials used, proportion and layouts and climate, ecology and building practices;

Fourthly - building beautifully, in a manner that builds upon tradition, evolving it in response to present challenges and utilising present day resources and techniques;

And, finally, understanding the purpose of a building or group of buildings within the hierarchy of the buildings around it and responding with an appropriate building type and design.  Doing this often implies composition of a harmonious whole, rather than the erection of singular objects of architectural or corporate will.
   
These principles apply whether building anew or adapting existing buildings.  We all need to consider the meaning of heritage and recognize that sustainability is achieved by creating buildings that people will both want to use, and be able to use efficiently, because they are essentially more adaptable a hundred years hence.  Local communities would probably be with us, as my Foundation so often finds around the world, when sitting down and consulting them in a structured way in insisting that local distinctiveness must flourish and traditional craft skills re-discovered and incorporated in new buildings as well as old; that true and timeless methods of building are exploited for not only the beauty they create, but also the environmental benefits they offer.

In this regard, I shall be particularly interested to visit a truly exemplary social housing project carried out by the Venice in Peril Fund when I leave here this afternoon.  At the San Giobbe House, the Fund has been able to demonstrate that a vernacular house could be made habitable to modern standards but at no greater cost than conventional modern projects.  Great efforts have been made to keep the original terrazzo floors, window frames and doors and to use lime plaster.  All this is of vital importance because it is far more environmentally sustainable to retain and re-use such materials than to discard them and replace with less sustainable synthetic materials that invariably do not last and contain great amounts of embodied energy.  Not only that, but those who live in such houses greatly appreciate these restored and retained features.  Surely, it is time we responded to their feelings for the character of such surroundings?

In those places where more ambitious urban development is appropriate, there are principles of planning which, again, can make sure new development is adding value to communities in this Country.  Well-designed public spaces, a mix of shops and services within walking distance, values of hierarchy, legibility and proportion, integration of high-quality private and affordable social housing - by incorporating these qualities, and by putting the pedestrian once again at the centre of the design process, and not the car (as has happened throughout the Twentieth Century), we are applying the lessons tradition teaches us about how better neighbourhood design improves the lives of those who live in them.

A well made place is one in balance, and therefore healthy, which reflects the timeless patterns of Nature and harmony.  Indeed, whenever I visit informal slum settlements, such as, for example, Dharavi in Mumbai in 2003, I find an underlying, intuitive grammar of design - walkable, mixed use, adapted to local climate and materials - that comes from the human instinct and yet is conspicuously absent from the faceless slab blocks that are still being built to warehouse the poor around the world, despite their failure in so many developed economies in past decades.  For far too long, throughout the Twentieth Century, we have seen what has become a conventional pattern of development that brutally opposes the human spirit and is contrary to our innate instincts because it treats people as if they, too, were machines which can be incorporated into a mechanistic ideology.  This gigantic social and environmental experiment has gone on long enough and has been found wanting in every respect.  It is manifestly unsustainable in the context of the critical challenges we face in the Twenty First Century.  So, can we build in a way that reflects the timeless quality and resilience of vernacular settlements, yet improves living standards and accommodates the anticipated flood of migrants to urban areas this century?

As some of you may possibly know, my Foundation has pioneered the use of the Enquiry by Design process, which seeks to place people at the heart of any design or plan.  At the very outset, it brings together a cross-section of the community in order to draw up long term plans based firmly on consensus and sound local knowledge.  I believe that such early engagement with the community and other stakeholders leads to greater certainty in the planning process which, in turn, both accelerates individual projects and ensures more sympathetic and organic developments that are in tune with the human spirit.  
To ensure that developments are sympathetic and contextual, my Foundation places great store on understanding and analyzing the essential DNA of a place to help inform a new development in terms of urban layout, massing, materials and local vernacular building patterns.  My Foundation has demonstrated this principle through the use of Pattern Books, which are founded upon rigorous analysis of existing qualities.  The use of local materials in new development not only reduces embodied energy, which is important in itself from a carbon reduction point of view, but also strengthens local identity, while generating employment and investment.
 
And do you notice how no-one ever dares talk about beauty nowadays?  As if it was some kind of unmentionable, communicable disease!  Is this because, along with so much else, it has become subsumed under the stifling blanket of moral relativism?  And yet, surely, when you think about it carefully, beauty is actually at the heart of genuine sustainability?  Sustainable places are places that are loved and, because they are loved, are cared for, maintained, sustained.  Venice is a classic example, of course.  Its value is inestimable - and it is built according to a universal, tried and tested "grammar" of harmony, proportion and human scale.  The moment we throw the book of grammar away - because it is considered irrelevant in the modern world - we end up, as in the case of written language and its teaching, with incoherence, confusion and uglification.

Such an approach can be a viable and manifestly better alternative to the kind of soulless buildings and monocultural developments that have mushroomed all over the world, in the process destroying ancient cultures and the rich living traditions of architecture associated with them.  So, along with the destruction of biodiversity and the spread of standardisation we also have the destruction of cultural diversity.  To take this approach forward, however, we will need to blend the latest techniques and discoveries to produce what I can only call 'integrated urbanism' and an 'eco-vernacular' - an urbanism and architecture that can still reflect our cultural and geographic identity and can continue to tell the great human story of an enduring connection with Nature and her underlying patterns.

This is a great challenge for all of us, and I am so glad that you have gathered together on this occasion in an effort to build tomorrow's heritage today.

Web design by Surge Solutions