A palace revolution for the 21st century

Revamping Buckingham Palace as a showcase for British design would yield major benefits for UK plc – and the royal family, says Tom Karen

In the 19th century, Britain was the world’s unquestioned superpower, with the largest navy and merchant marine, the greatest railway builders, the boldest engineers and the biggest textile industry. And Prince Albert busied himself transforming a piece of Kensington to give London and the country a great cultural centre, with the Victoria & Albert Museum, the Royal Albert Hall, the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum and the Royal College of Art. And Buckingham Palace reflected the grandeur of the time.

All that is in the past now. Some people even question if Britain can really call itself ’Great’ any longer, with its manufacturing industry – or what’s left of it – from cars to chocolate, in foreign hands. However, it isn’t all Tesco and indifferent new houses now, there is much good left in the old country with a particularly bright scene in art, design and architecture.

Britain’s creatives are much appreciated around the world, and often do more work abroad than they do at home.

Designers received a form of royal blessing last year. Prince Philip, a stalwart patron of design, made the elegant gesture of inviting designers to Buckingham Palace for the 50th ceremony of his Designers Prize late last year. Past winners were also invited.

On entering the palace, you can’t help being impressed by the scale of the place, the precious artefacts and furniture – with lots of immaculately dressed flunkeys greeting you at every turn. Then there is the huge room we were ushered into after the awards presentation, with dark portraits all the way up the wall – a bit like the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition, but less fun. The overwhelming impression is of a museum mired in the glory days of Queen Victoria, with little changed since then.

This brings me to the point of this whole story: is this a good moment to update Buckingham Palace, to bring it into the 21st century and introduce work by living practitioners? And could this be done for 2012, Olympic year, the Cultural Olympiad and the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee?
There was a time when rulers surrounded themselves with the best artists, architects, craftsmen, playwrights and philosophers of the day.

nly dictators build monuments to glorify themselves nowadays, but there is still a case for a monarch to patronise the best creative people of their day and give their work suitable exposure.

The world’s heads of state and other people of consequence climb the stairs of Buckingham Palace, and it would be so desirable if they could be dazzled by, say, a large David Hockney painting of the Yorkshire countryside, a few cast iron figures by Antony Gormley adopting various poses (perhaps a little Angel of the South?), a vase or two by Grayson Perry, some chairs (or a new throne, perhaps?) by Jasper Morrison, even a Banksy might be sneaked in – all showcased by a bold lighting scheme in a newly decorated setting with carpets of fresh design.
It is at this point that you come unstuck: it is notoriously difficult to sell a new idea to anyone unless they have already warmed to it or been persuaded that the idea is theirs anyway.

The Queen, understandably, feels more comfortable in a ’traditional’ setting. Admittedly, Prince Philip has shown a genuine interest in design, but he is wary of rocking the royal boat beyond that. Our Prime Minister is most unlikely to introduce such a subject into his weekly briefing meetings. Is there a trusted individual who could ’drip, drip’ new ideas for the palace to the royals? There are bodies that would make a hash of things (think Department for Culture, Media and Sport). Perhaps a hopeful route would be for a magazine with the right gravitas to launch a competition inviting proposals for a Buckingham Palace facelift. Packaged with flair and tact, this might just have a small impact and start the ball rolling.

Our creative people are likely to welcome an opportunity to showcase their best ideas. It would also be a shop window for British culture and help the royals to be seen in a favourable light. So, is anyone ready to stick their neck out?

A young person I put these ideas to said why not build a new, modern palace? Now that would really put the cat among the pigeons (or the lions among the unicorns).

By royal appointment…

My bit of Prince Philip’s Special Commendation was for being ’responsible for some of the most iconic British products of the 20th century’. Better still, Prince Philip insisted on buying a show car (pictured), the Reliant Scimitar GTS, which we designed and built at Ogle for Triplex, and running it until he found it made him too conspicuous

Tom Karen is a designer

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