Raised eyebrows greeted the Prince of Wales's decision to appoint an archaeologist as saviour of his beleaguered Institute of Architecture. Kam Patel reports on Richard Hodges, the prince's rumbustious rebel
It feels a little incongruous to interview the new spokesman of the Prince of Wales's traditionalist challenge to architecture in a building designed by that arch-modernist Norman Foster.
Richard Hodges, one of Britain's leading archaeologists, is just weeks into his role as head of the troubled Institute of Architecture, launched in 1992 to offer an alternative, classical vision of British architecture and to flesh out Prince Charles's provocative attacks, in the 1980s, on postmodern buildings.
Maybe the metal-clad Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts at the University of East Anglia is not the most suitable backdrop for our interview. Sure enough, Hodges soon embarks on a rumbustious critique of Foster's construction, not quite up to Charles's "monstrous carbuncle" description of the proposed extension to the National Gallery in 1984, but pretty vigorous nonetheless. He complains about the lack of a conventional reception area, the rate at which the building guzzles energy and the lack of space for research groups. But, walking around, there is admiration for those bits where the architect has conjured up, in Hodges' words, a "spirit of place". The arcing walkway of the underground extension with its slanting slabs of glass set flush against a green lawn attracts particular praise.
The charming and languid Hodges, professor of visual arts at the University of East Anglia, is open about the Prince's beleaguered project. Last year the institute was badly hit by its failure to achieve validation for part II of the three-part seven-year process of qualifying as an architect from the Royal Institute of British Architects. Why Riba found the course wanting has not been made public. But rumours implicate the institute's failure to teach modern architectural history, its dearth of recognised academics and uncertainty caused by changes in leadership.
Two months ago, the Prince of Wales sacked the governing council. So what was Charles's reaction when Hodges said he would take over only if the Prince made a clean sweep? Hodges hesitates: "I didn't say that. He knew if he was going to take me on, we'd have to have changes. But all the council members understood the prince's decision. There was not one word of dissent." So getting rid of the council was the prince's idea, then? "Well, the idea emanated from one or two of us, let's put it that way," he concedes, laughing.
Might the institute have fared better as some sort of lobby organisation charged with disseminating the prince's concerns? Was entering the world of academia and validation a big mistake? Hodges pauses. Members of the previous administration, he says, "had no idea. They worked with a romantic zeal having, frankly, come from a lobby-kind of environment. And I think everybody involved felt that the 'lobbying' activity was by far the most important that might be undertaken, really enabling the built environment to be changed." But, for reasons not clear to him, the council decided to cast the institute in a more educational mould. "And once they decided upon that route they got themselves into one helluva situation because they had never had a senior academic involved - I am the first one."
The project, says Hodges, was undertaken with little comprehension of the sweeping changes taking place in higher education, coupled with a disastrous failure to "grasp that the world of architecture was changing dramatically, catastrophically because of the 1990-93 recession that tormented so many architects. That is perhaps why the institute's mission seemed so out of kilter with academia and the real world."
He says the Riba validation issue has been blown up into a drama. "There are many people who say that Riba has a hidden agenda, that it has a vendetta against the Prince of Wales. This is pure rubbish. Riba has been very sensible, careful and responsible." But "if criticism has to be levelled anywhere, it has to be said that the institute's council allowed itself to enter all this without recognising the magnitude of what it was bringing on itself."
No time has been lost in trying to sort out the situation. The failure to teach modern architectural history, one of Riba's concerns, has been remedied: the history of contemporary architecture will have a place in the new curriculum. Then there is the thorny issue of how the institute perceives the relationship between craft and technology, another worry for the Riba validators. I try to prompt Hodges on this but he interrupts: "I know what your question is leading on to and in ten years' time you will be ashamed to even think of asking it." Ouch, I've had my knuckles rapped, though I'm not yet sure what for.
Hodges goes on to argue that energy costs will rocket, forcing the issue of sustainability up the political agenda. "In that context, sure we can afford one Sainsbury building, we can afford it as a design motif, if you like, and I am all for that. But for popular house building, for rebuilding our city centres, there is a need to be aware of sustainability. And many of the materials you need to use for a sustainable future require skills which are being lost, such as carpentry. Yet it is transparent that in ten to 15 years' time, timber structures, for instance, will be enormously important. The purpose of the institute is to emphasise such issues and say that there are alternative ways to build."
I hastily say that I was not trying to question the importance of energy conservation, the value of craftsmanship or the need for a profound respect for materials. "No," says Hodges. "Will we all be like William Morris? That's what you were trying to get at." We both laugh, with my mind, at least, conjuring up ghastly wallpaper designs. Hodges continues: "I am certain we should respect William Morris, but what I am not saying is that we should all make buildings out of traditional materials that look like 19th-century buildings. We should be thinking about using traditional materials in a modern context. And I have been clear with our students that it would be folly for us to forget glass and steel. They must recognise that they exist - but within the context of sustainability."
So has the institute made a difference? Hardly any of the millennium projects - the South Bank development and the Millennium Dome, for instance - embody the kind of architecture being espoused by the prince. Hodges snorts and says he would like to see The Times running an opinion poll on such projects. "I bet most of them would get the thumbs-down. What ordinary people want are not Ferris wheels but well-designed schools and the rebuilding of inner cities. Up and down the country, most money being spent on construction is on buildings that underline the prince's views but they never get reported."
The prince's choice of an archaeologist puzzled some observers. But there are parallels between the late 20th-century worlds of archaeology and architecture. Big archaeological projects require putting teams together, finding resources and presenting the excavated site to the public. Hodges also points to his seven-year directorship of the British School of Rome, which involved running a library, a hostel, lectures and a gallery.
In his own field he is dismayed by what he sees as a move towards viewing archaeological sites in "mechanistic" terms, with locations being reduced to a mass of ruins over which huge steel covers are placed. There are many such sites around the Mediterranean through which thousands of people pass. For Hodges, the steel covers destroy the spirit of discovery and of the original landscape: "They are like huge sheds. When one looks at the past and the present, one is seeking some sort of spirit of place - that is what turns people on. And what the Prince of Wales is getting at is that aesthetic truth. He is looking for a recognition that as placemakers we are not unequal to the needs of that spirit, that we understand it. It shouldn't be our objective to just stick a bloody great tin roof over a site, it should be to bring to that place some sense of its history." He cites London's King's Cross railway station as an architectural metaphor for such a challenge: "It's obvious that the original frontage is magnificent and yet somebody's stuck a bloody great kiosk across it like some post-communist dilapidation unit. I mean, why? " Hodges admires Richard Rogers and Norman Foster, but adds: "They belong to a chapter of history from which we have to learn. They belong to what I suspect will become to be seen as a postcolonial legacy before there was the recognition of globalisation and the rise of concern over resources. As placemakers they are undeniably great achievers. But how many Rogers and Foster buildings are there? I am afraid to say to the world of architecture that they are pop stars, albeit fantastic pop stars of whom we should be proud. But we have to recognise that reality is different for the overwhelming majority of the population."
He is confident that when Riba sends its validation team back to the institute, it will give the course the green light. But how important is that to him? "Well, I'll be candid. If I had been the founding director years ago I would not have gone to Riba. I would have thought about what on earth we were doing, what sort of validation we were after and from whom. But now we have embarked on this it would be a grave discourtesy to say: 'Oh, bugger off, we are not interested in you.' The institute should have reflected more on why it was seeking this validation because it was inevitable it was going to lead to difficulties."
For Hodges the rejection of official sanction is not new. Despite his success as an archaeologist he never joined the Institute of Field Archaeologists. "I asked myself what relevance does the body have? It was going to make me pay an awful lot of money so that I could hear about gender politics and deconstructing sites. What I didn't hear about was professional standards that were going to help develop my community in a changing society."
Once the institute has achieved accreditation from Riba, it will consider its future direction. But "I suspect that in ten years' time, if the institute flies in the way I am projecting, Riba will need us much more than we need them simply because we will have taken the shakers and movers with us and tried to create a larger context for the world of architecture. If the institute has had a failing it is that it's had a sense of time warp about it. It damn well won't now."