Prince Charles Redefines Originality
In a small brick building in East London, in a school developed by His Royal Highness The Prince of Wales, students from around the world are giving new life to a set of artistic principles that have been nearly lost.
By TODD OPPENHEIMER
In 2005, when Dr. Khaled Azzam, a British-trained architect, took a trip back to his native country of Egypt, he had little idea of the profound experience that awaited him. Six years earlier, Azzam had been chosen to lead one of The Prince of Wales’ numerous charitable endeavors—The School of Traditional Arts, based in London. By that time, 13 years after its founding, the school was beginning to get international recognition for an unusually sophisticated approach to the study of art.
The school’s coursework, which can lead to a Masters degree, began with studies of the history and nature of ancient arts such as oil painting, ceramic tile work, wood carving and marquetry (a form of wood inlay), stained glass, jewelry, frescoes, and traditional construction techniques for furniture and buildings. But it also took a step beyond the surface of those traditions, by exploring the roots of design itself.
Most of nature’s creations—not only flowers and leaves, but also stars, seashells, crystals, honeycombs, even apple cores—exhibit a symmetry that cannot be fully appreciated without an understanding of geometry.
In the process of its investigations, the school discovered what amounted to a lost treasure trove of guiding principles. In virtually every art form the faculty and students explored (which, because of the school’s former ties, came mostly from the old Islamic societies of the Mideast), they found centuries of artistic creativity that derived from geometry.
The tenets of geometry were of course defined long ago, most famously by the Greek mathematician Euclid in 300 B.C. By that time, however, the Egyptians had been practicing geometric principles for thousands of years—not only in well-known achievements such as the pyramids, but also in the designs used for their homes, temples, and various works of art.
That distinguished history is much of what Azzam expected to find when he returned to Egypt, on a quest to visit with Egypt’s modern-day master artisans. Once he met these artisans, however, he realized their work had taken a very different turn. The artisans still made beautiful items—carefully inlayed doors; wooden screens with open, latticed patterns; intricately tiled walls; and various other decorative arts. While the work clearly took patience, a keen eye, and solid skill with one’s hands, Azzam saw no life in their creations. “They were static,” he recalls. “They hadn’t changed in generations. They were frozen.”
As Azzam spent time with the artisans, he began to understand why their work was in such a deep freeze. First, he learned that their custom was to essentially copy the work of the old masters who had come before them, and served as their mentors. After examining the new works more closely, Azzam noticed that in many of these pieces the geometry was off. “They had just repeated the mistakes their grandfather made,” he said. It soon became clear that, despite their skill, the artisans no longer had much understanding of the geometric principles that first inspired Islam’s iconic works of art. So, as diplomatically as he could, Azzam proceeded to teach the old masters a bit of math.
Some weeks later, one of the artisans approached Azzam excitedly, to tell him about a wooden screen he’d just made. “For the first time in 25 years I did something new!” the artisan said. Azzam’s reaction: “That broke my heart.”
In the following years, largely because of encounters like this, Azzam and his colleagues developed several schools of traditional arts outside the U.K., where the study of geometrical design principles are at the heart of the schools’ curriculum. Their reasoning behind this effort stems from a highly uncommon interpretation, at least in today’s world, of what the word “originality” means.
“For us, a work of originality is not creating something that no one has done before,” says Lisa DeLong, who manages the school’s outreach efforts. “It’s about going to the origins of that craft.” To explain, DeLong suggested imagining a design that’s based on a lotus blossom. “The point is not to show a new way to draw a Lotus,” she told me. “It’s to ask yourself, what is the essence of lotus-ness?”
The answer, it turns out, has a great deal to do with geometry, since most of nature’s creations—not only flowers and leaves, but also stars, seashells, crystals, pine cones and pineapples, snowflakes, honeycombs, even apple cores—exhibit a symmetry that cannot be fully appreciated without an understanding of geometry. Those symmetries, school leaders believe, illustrate a kind of beauty that is both universal and eternal. And for ultimate originality, Azzam argues, “if you can go back to our common origin, it’s even more powerful.”
While this interpretation of originality might sound like a semantic trick invented for marketing purposes, there are reasons to suggest that the school is onto something. First, think about the meaning of the word “originality.” In earlier times, such as those Shakespeare lived in, originality had nothing to do with novelty; it was linked instead to classical ideas. But today, if you look for definitions of originality, you’ll find no connections to the classical, or even to the word “origin.” Modern dictionaries now see originality as meaning nothing more than a search for the new. Second, consider the world that existed when the concept of originality was born. Because ancient artists were surrounded by a non-digital culture that was far simpler than ours, they lived much closer to nature’s original designs than we generally do; whenever they sought inspiration, their primary source was the natural world they saw virtually everywhere. And third, since ancient peoples tended to be far more religious than we are, the beauty they found in nature was widely viewed as sacred. This led to yet another principle in traditional arts—the concept of “sacred proportions.”
One morning, I got a chance to watch Tom Bree, who teaches geometry at the school, explain these connections to his students. The class, called “Imperial Measures,” explored how and where certain measurements exist in nature. As a way to frame the day’s discussion, Bree was working through some of his many geometric charts, which were organized in a series of overlays. The charts contained an almost infinite interplay between lines, circles, and squares of various sizes—all drawn from the natural world, and all ripe for artistic interpretation. “That’s a lot of what sacred art is about,” he said. “You’re being reminded of the beauty that the human eye can’t see through the beauty that the eye can see.”
In Bree’s opinion, computers, especially their graphic design programs, are ill-equipped to address these ideas, primarily because they can’t incorporate the imperfections of the human hand. “Thank goodness it’s not perfect,” he told the class. “The hand brings out all kinds of beautiful things that you can’t see with a computer.” Why? Because a machine “is not breathing.” Not surprisingly, there are no computer labs at The School of Traditional Arts.
At one point during my visit to the school, I got a chance to talk with Mark Tiitinen, a young Finnish artist who grew up in Australia. That morning, in search of ideas for a new design, Tiitinen was going back through the pile of sketchbooks he had accumulated during the course of his studies. The books were full of charcoal sketches depicting various pieces of religious iconography, mostly drawn from famous paintings, doorways, stained glass windows, and other classical designs we’ve all seen in countless churches, museums, and other historic buildings. Most of his drawings included plots he had made with a ruler and a compass, which helped him see how geometry had informed these works. During his studies of iconography, Tiitinen said, “I found the geometry frees you.”
Tiitinen’s observation speaks to a point the school is emphatic about—that the study of classical forms doesn’t stifle creativity; it feeds it. When Azzam first joined Prince Charles’ endeavors, as a Senior Tutor at The Prince of Wales’ Institute of Architecture, he sensed something was awry in the institute’s curriculum. There was a tendency, much like the habits of the Egyptian artisans he met, to merely imitate great architectural works of the past. “We had become too classical,” he told me. Change was not easy without violating historical principles. And there was nowhere to turn for guidance. “We had no masters anymore,” Azzam said.
Now, in his role as Director of The School for Traditional Arts, Azzam encourages both staff and students to look backward more deeply, “to learn the core principles of techniques and materials.” (“We are the real deconstructionists,” Azzam told me at one point, half in jest. What he meant was that unlike modern deconstructionists, who use today’s insights to dismantle hidden biases in literary classics, the school is “really looking backward,” taking apart old works of art in order to reveal their essences.)
The school’s studies in these directions have given its directors a theory about why traditional designs fall out of favor. In their view, it isn’t out of an inherent need for something new, it’s simply because almost no one adapts the universal principles behind art to changing times and tastes.
To learn how to make such adaptations, students at the school all begin their studies by drawing the same traditional designs. This lays their artistic foundation—or, as Azzam puts it, “They’re all tuning themselves to the same chords.” Once those chords are mastered, they can start to innovate as well-trained musicians do—improvising in ways that have depth, history, meaning, and emotional power. DeLong likes to use the metaphor of writing to explain this process. Studying the geometric structure behind classical art, she says, gives students “a visual vocabulary.” And a large vocabulary inevitably opens up more avenues of expression.
As obvious as it may sound to emphasize these foundations in art, they have become nearly absent from the curricula in many schools that teach design. Several leading architects I’ve spoken with told me that geometric principles get only cursory discussion in schools of architecture these days. Even in more multi-disciplinary art programs, like those taught at the venerated Rhode Island School of Design, geometry appears nowhere in its curriculum on the history of art and design.
These gaps can have crippling effects. For many students these days, DeLong says, “Historical inspirations have become invisible to them.” This leads to impoverished imaginations and potentially stunted careers—as well as mediocre buildings and works of art that the rest of us must endure.
While we obviously live in a more crowded, complex world than we used to, it also seems obvious to Prince Charles that there is a lot of opportunity in borrowing a bit more from the past.
Alongside our infatuation with the trendy, or perhaps in response to it, there seems to be a rising interest in traditional crafts. In many corners of the developed world, one can now find a new generation of artisans who are baking bread, forging knives, growing their own food, fermenting sauerkraut, sewing their own clothes, the list goes on and on. Part of what fuels these rediscovered passions, Azzam believes, is the pleasure of working with old, simple tools. “People are looking for something real,” he says. “They need and want things with a provenance. And old tools come with an amazing story, an authentic story.”
To fill this need, The Prince’s Foundation has launched several programs over the years to bring back some of the trades that were once mainstays of the British economy—and of British culture. In 2006, it established a Building Craft Program to revive traditional skills such as woodwork, stonemasonry, blacksmithing, brick work, roof thatching, as well as traditional approaches to architecture. (It also offers a separate Building Arts Programme, which adds studies in glasswork, ceramics, painting, carving, metalwork, and sculpture.) Then, in 2014, the foundation started teaching a new generation to weave, knit, sew, and embroider the fine textiles that once brought Britain some renown.
When the Future Textiles program started, manufacturing in this industry had of course long since departed for Asia, yet old pillars of the U.K.’s expertise in this trade were still around. “We lost a lot of manufacturing, but we didn’t lose the luxury industries, especially with fabric,” says Jacqueline Farrell, Education Director for The Prince’s Foundation at Dumfries House. “The infrastructure is still here.” One example is Scotland’s MYB Textiles mill, which Farrell says is the world’s oldest Nottingham lace mill still in operation.
Although the textile program is still young, Farrell is already seeing demand for her graduates. Before COVID struck, wages for their skills were starting at £10 an hour (around $12) in rural areas, and running up to £40 (or $50) an hour at a London atelier. One trend that has helped matters: the growing realization that off-shoring manufacturing ends up costing more—not only in expenses but also in quality, to say nothing of environmental costs—than keeping manufacturing at home, despite the higher labor costs. (For more on this topic, see our article, “How Does America Re-Shore Skills That Are Disappearing?”)
Similar positive results have emerged from the foundation’s Building Craft Program, which requires an intensive, eight-month course of study. The school has found that within three months of graduating, some 90 percent of its alumni are either employed or engaged in further study in traditional construction. And 10 years later, 80 percent are still working in their chosen fields. And it’s a good thing they are. Simon Sadinsky, Executive Director of The Prince’s Foundation, told me there are six million buildings in the U.K. that were built before 1919, many of them increasingly in need of repair. Meanwhile, a significant number of heritage crafts specialists are nearing retirement; and, Sadinsky said, most of them are making no effort to pass on their skills.
To give some of these skills, and our communities in general, a long-term future, Prince Charles has developed several other intensive programs to teach builders, architects, engineers, and city planners the principles of sustainable development. The courses require two years of study, some overseas, culminating in Masters degrees. Classes often focus on traditional building methods that draw on local materials and designs: stonework wherever possible instead of steel; using bales of leftover straw instead of newly cut wood (for more on this topic, see our story about the benefits of straw bale construction); walls made of mud or local clay instead of sheetrock, cement, or glass; roofs thatched with wheat stalks instead of being covered with toxic asphalt tiles; and urban designs that encourage mass transit, walking, and gathering instead of driving in isolation.
In many areas of the world, homes and communities designed with these approaches have stood the test of time for millenia. While we obviously live in a more crowded, complex world than we used to, it also seems obvious to Prince Charles that there is a lot of opportunity in borrowing a bit more from the past.
Reflecting on all this information, I couldn’t help wondering about the notion of cultural continuity, and what sort of future it had in today’s restless, homogenized, novelty-obsessed world. Then, just as I was leaving The School of Traditional Arts, Lisa DeLong stopped me outside one of the classrooms. She wanted to show me a work of art hanging nearby, done a few years earlier by an Italian student named Delfina Bottesini. After visiting the Alhambra, the legendary palace the Islamists built in the 13th century in southern Spain, Bottesini was inspired to create a piece that echoed a floral design she’d seen on a tiled wall in the palace. The palace’s tiles were cut and laid in a fluid, curvilinear pattern common to Islamic designs of the period. Bottesini wanted to honor this design but add some of her own vision.
Because of her studies at the school, Bottesini understood the geometry behind the tile pattern. So she used those principles to create a different design, somewhat reminiscent of M.C. Escher’s optical illusions, which cast the flower’s petals in a whole new light. As I studied her piece, awed by the almost invisible transitions Bottesini had created, DeLong smiled. “So,” she said, “you get both versions of the word original here.”