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In Wales with the POW - The Case for (And Against) Beauty and Harmony

09/07/2013 12:09 BST | Updated 06/09/2013 10:12 BST

I met Prince Charles recently in Wales. Joined by my colleague, journalist-historian Hywel Williams, the two of us were invited to meet the Prince of Wales at Coed Darcy, where a small group of guests had been invited to see how Neath Port Talbot council, BP, the Welsh assembly and developers St Modwen are trying to turn one of Europe's biggest brownfield sites into a healthy, flourishing community. In the end the village -- which is being built on a site vacated in the late 1990s by an oil refinery owned by BP - will comprise 4,000 homes, four new schools and a range of community facilities. The development in south Wales is supported by Prince Charles through his Prince's Trust Foundation. The entire effort is impressive.

We were also invited there to discuss briefly with the POW the work of the Legatum Institute and its approach to comprehensive prosperity. The Institute's signature product, the Prosperity Index, endeavours to assess the wellbeing of nations around the world according to dimensions such as governance, health, education, social capital, entrepreneurship and opportunity, safety and security. This kind of research is all part of the so-called "Beyond-GDP" debate which may have once sounded a bit squishy, but is becoming an increasingly important area of social science research. The POW started getting all this early on. In a 2009 speech he argued:

"I must say, I find it baffling that we still consider 'whole-istic' thinking to be a kind of alternative New Age therapy when, in fact, to see things in the round and take account of the impact upon the whole is the only effective way of addressing the many, seemingly intractable problems we now face ... More and more of the world's problems seem interconnected, so it would be wise, would it not, to consider ... the wider implications of our actions rather than constantly narrowing our focus and reducing our ambitions down to the one element and its one outcome."

Of course, one of Prince Charles's chief "holistic" preoccupations has been with the state of contemporary architecture. He has been enmeshed for years now in a fairly ferocious debate between so-called classicists (traditionalists), of which the POW is said to be a proponent, and modernists, represented by a number of architects considered to be some of the most innovative and forward thinking of our time.

In fact, Prince Charles has contended that the popular terms of references are misleading. He favours in any case a more organic, bottom-up, integrative and community-sensitive approach to architecture, a style, he notes, that can be found in both traditional and modern work. Ditto the opposite.

No matter how you describe it, there's a rather large tension between two approaches. Michael Taylor, senior partner of Hopkins Architects, the firm that was responsible for the "modernist " Olympic Velodrome -- said to be shaped like a Pringles potato chip -- finds it, for example, "a strange notion that only one style or approach should prevail."

I agree.

I'm currently reading Otto Friedrich's "City of Nets: a Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940s," which is the story, among other things, of those extraordinary artists, thinkers and innovators --Thomas Mann, Billy Wilder, Albert Einstein, Salvador Dali and others -- who fled totalitarianism and war in Europe to make their home, at least for a time, in Southern California. This was an exceptionally dynamic place and period. And what a mess; a class of cultures in more ways than one, with no one side prevailing.

Viennese composer Arnold Schoenberg, then a professor at UCLA, was offended by an MGM production chief who failed utterly, in Schoenberg's view, to grasp the differences between serious music and the frivolous, dull stuff of most Hollywood films. The MGM executive was, for his part, baffled by Schoenberg's haughty insistence that in any collaboration with the studio the composer would have to have full control over everything -- music, dialogue and the work of the actors.

Playwright Bertolt Brecht yearned to replicate the success in LA that he had once enjoyed in Berlin. He struggled mightily in the Hollywood rough and tumble, writing bitterly: "seeking a living, I am told: Show us what you're made of/Lay it on the table!/Deliver the Goods!/Say something to inspire us! ... Make yourself useful/Deliver the goods!"

Igor Stravinsky was dismayed when he learned how his "Rite of Spring " had been hacked up by Walt Disney for the sound track of "Fantasia." In a studio private showing someone offered the composer a copy of the score. When Stravinsky replied that he had his own, he was stunned to hear, " But it is all changed." As for Disney's illustrations? They were "an unresisting imbecility," in Stravinsky's words.

Philip Glass's new opera, "The Perfect American," deals with the ruthless and soulless commercialisation of culture through the life and work of Walt Disney. The musical work is based on the unflattering fictional portrait of Disney in Peter Stephan Jungk's novel of the same name. The opera is not uninteresting, the music in any case. But one of the reasons the work as a whole leaves me cold is the wooden presentation we get of Disney. It works as a polemic, I suppose, but otherwise feels disappointingly inauthentic, one dimensional and dull. Those creatives who came to Hollywood in the 30s and 40s were not so simple either.

Stravinsky frowned at the payment offered to use his music for "Fantasia," but was too busy with personal problems in France at the time to haggle. Brecht wanted enough money to feel prosperous, and to move into a larger house in Santa Monica. Schoenberg demanded double the offered fee to write a sound track for MGM. All fine by me.

Free societies flourish on (civilised) conflict and contradiction, disagreement, ambiguity and loads of untidiness. We're allowed to be human, and complex.

That's why, in the struggle between so-called traditionalists and modernists, between the creatives and the commercialists, the environmentalists and free marketeers, I say let no side fully prevail. That's democracy and pluralism, in all its frustrating inelegance. Absolutists and utopians need not apply.

For the Prince of Wales and his campaign to get us away from the mechanical, the detached, the over-intellectualised and over-specialised, I say count me in. And count our lucky stars that we have opponents, some of them exceptionally thoughtful and gifted, with whom we will argue -- and compromise -- one hopes, for a very long time.