He speaks the unfashionable truth

HRH The Prince of Wales with Tony Juniper and Ian Skelly
Harper Collins, 2010, 330 pp., $29.99 hardcover

Urbanists have long admired Prince Charles as the developer of new urban Poundbury, a town extension of Dorchester, England. He has also earned respect for his bold and blunt critiques of modernist architecture — including the notorious 1984 comparison of a proposed addition to the British Museum to “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much loved and elegant friend.”

But Charles’s architecture and land development exploits are but an offshoot of his worldview — explained at length in his new book, Harmony: A New Way of Looking at Our World. The book, which deals extensively with the built environment as well as deeper, related concepts, is of interest to urbanists.

Harmony reveals the Prince of Wales as something of a sustainability renaissance man. It also underscores Charles’s credibility — not as a member of the royal family, that only accounts for fame; but because he has accomplished so much in realms well beyond what’s expected of an heir to the throne. With no decrease in income or yields for farmers, Charles says, the world’s agriculture could be converted to more organic, sustainable methods while absorbing 40 percent of carbon emissions. If it came from an environmentalist who has little personal experience with agriculture, such a claim might be dismissed by readers.

But Charles is an early, successful, adopter of organic farming methods. He saw to the transformation of his 1,000-acre Duchy Home Farm from conventional to organic methods in the 1980s, when such a move was considered flaky. “The decision was controversial, and I have to say that back then not many people could see the sense of my plan. But times have changed a bit,” Charles writes.

Harmony is a catalogue of environmental crises and sustainability solutions, and Charles spends a few paragraphs describing crop rotation methods and animal husbandry at his farm. But he doesn’t spend too long covering any one thing in this wide-ranging book. In the built environment realm, Charles describes how “the system of segmenting cities and their suburbs, putting development in their own zones,” has made us dependent on automobiles and oil. “So we set in place a long-term dependence upon something which is a finite resource; one that, in the near future, is expected by many experts to be in shorter supply,” he writes, adding, “Zonal development risks loss of social cohesion.”

These are not novel thoughts among new urbanists, but the source is unique. Charles may be the only world leader who has personally built a commercially successful, mixed-use, walkable neighborhood. As the book reveals, Charles was advised that Poundbury would be financially disastrous — it now has 1,800 residents and is proceeding apace. “Poundbury has proven to be commercially very successful,” says Charles.

Prior to launching this project, Charles made a bold move: he hired Leon Krier as the urban designer. You won’t find Krier mentioned in Harmony — that doesn’t seem unfair; the book covers enough ground to justify omitting such details. Yet no ordinary developer would have hired Krier, an architectural theorist who had no experience planning a real place. The move turned out to be brilliant. Poundbury has no zoning — but the real charm of the development is that the streets and public spaces use urban form rather than regulation to control traffic. It is a forerunner of the recently popular “shared space” street designs.

Squares and streets are designed to have a more timeless, traditional proportion, Charles explains. He describes “moments when a road suddenly turns into a square, sometimes wide, sometimes narrow. A rule closely observed is to make sure that there is always some sort of structural event at regular intervals. It could be a fountain, a tree or a bench, but the combination of this varying shape to the roadways and surprise events results in drivers naturally going slowly.”

Poundbury is beautifully detailed — kind of like Harmony. Charles hires good help. Tony Juniper and Ian Skelly are credited as coauthors, and no doubt they did a lot of the heavy lifting. But the book is a class act — it feels good in your hands. The paper is very high quality. The photographs are stunning.

The tactile comfort is in contrast with the thrust of the book, which is radical. “This is a call to revolution,” Charles says, in the first sentence. He is not talking about political revolution, but rather about overturning the path that Western civilization has taken since the 16th Century. Charles rails against an approach that he traces from the Scientific Revolution, developed further in the Industrial Revolution, and culminating in Modernism — an approach that he calls “mechanistic.” This way seeks understanding by breaking down things into their component parts, rather than seeing them in a “whole-istic” way. It focuses on specialized knowledge and what can be measured. An example is a near-religious belief in the growth of gross domestic product, or GDP, which has taken hold since such measuring was universally applied after World War II.

“I grew up in this era and have seen the vast changes that have occurred in society as a result of what has become our obsession with endless economic expansion,” Charles says. GDP does not measure the quality of people’s relationships, the pleasantness and security of their neighborhoods, how happy we are, or whether our lives are fulfilling, he explains. In order for people to contribute most to economic success, as measured by GDP, Charles says “they might drive everywhere in a huge, energy-wasting car and then buy a new one every year. They might also buy vast quantities of unnecessary consumer goods, waste much of their food rather than eat it, and, after retirement, die a lingering death preceded by years of dependence and expensive, life-extending drugs.” The problem, Charles notes, is that growth in wealth as measured in resource consumption is considered a wholly positive thing.

Charles acknowledges that the mechanistic way has brought huge benefits. Ancient societies were “cruel and inhuman … ravaged by plagues and diseases … life expectancy was short.” But the Age of Reason has also codified a plundering of nature, and the bill for centuries of that pursuit is now coming due, he says. “I feel it is now time to face the undeniable conclusion that we are currently on course for a massive and rapid ecological decline,” says Charles, in a decidedly uncheery tone. He decries the “endless prevaricating by finding one skeptical excuse after another.”

The answer, says the prince, is to combine our scientific sophistication with a reawakening to harmony, wisdom, and a close relationship with nature — the kind that is found in traditional societies. Above all, he says, we must give up consumerism, which can never entirely be satisfied, in favor of community, which can. I don’t know how much of an impact Charles’s book will have. Many of the more mystical and spiritual parts of the book will be scoffed at or dismissed. As Charles writes, “It is a sad fact of history that humanity will never wake up to the dangers until the crisis actually hits us between the eyes. Until then, vest interests stave off the warnings by shooting the messenger or destroying the sanctuary that holds the wisdom of the heart.”

Harmony deserves to be taken seriously. The book offers a valuable correction to the obsessive specialization and reductivism of modern science, by an author who is willing to endure ridicule time and time again to tell the unfashionable truth.