Monsieur le Recteur, Monsieur le Chancelier, Monsieur le President, Monsieur le Vice President, Your Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen.
I need hardly say that it is a great honour to attend this gathering of such distinguished friends of the Société de Géographie and I could not have been more surprised or flattered when I learnt that you wished to confer upon me your Grande Médaille.
I was even more astonished, and touched, Monsieur le Recteur, that you wished to add the Médaille de la Chancellerie des Universités de Paris as well... Monsieur le Vice President, in his elegant address, has given you many reasons for these accolades. I can only defer to his greater wisdom!
In this most magnificent of cities - the city largely created by that great urban planner, Baron Haussman - at the centre of a region, the Ile de France, which is the home to the satellite towns project of the 1930’s, one of the most enduring and successful town planning projects in history, I certainly feel amongst friends.
If I may say so, it has been of immense comfort to discover that so many of you share my passion for re-generating a greater understanding of how we relate to our environment - physically, emotionally and spiritually - and of the vital need to re-balance our humanity (in other words, those often neglected cultural and historical roots that alone can provide a sense of meaning and belonging in an uncertain world) with the technological imperatives of our age.
I can only assume that you are doing me this great honour today because some of you have noticed what I have been trying to do over the past twenty years, or so, in terms of righting the balance and harmony that has been destroyed throughout the twentieth century - particularly in relation to the way in which we interact with our environment, whether built or natural.
All I have been attempting to do is to restore the lost habitat of our towns and cities, of our countryside and, indeed, of our very souls; to re-integrate what has been dis-integrated and fragmented and to emphasize the dangers of an obsession with the kind of clinical efficiency which extracts every last drop of intuitive cultural meaning from our lives and our surroundings.
Therefore, when we build with a focus on people, with an understanding of human scale and the continued relevance of a living tradition, what we create can so much more easily generate a sense of belonging - enriching the soul rather than impoverishing it.
After all, in this world of instant communications, jet aircraft and the video conference, why do people remain so attached to their village, their town, or their region? Why are so many people drawn to the more “organic” character of traditional settlements than what might be termed the “genetically engineered” and soulless developments of our contemporary world?
Why is it that so many architects and planners prefer to live in the remaining conservation areas of our cities - frequently in eighteenth century houses - or to have holiday homes in French, Italian or Spanish hill villages? Is it because, at the end of the day, the human soul actually needs the sense of harmony produced by attention to the timeless principles of proportion, scale and appropriateness of materials?
We are also, of course, attached to the conveniences of modern life. Perhaps, dare I say it, sometimes too much so.
When I wrote “A Vision of Britain” - translated into French as “Le Prince et la Cite” and already cited by Monsieur le Vice President - I mentioned the terrible example of the post-war redevelopment of Birmingham, its city centre “a monstrous concrete maze where only cars felt at home. People were bound to feel lost. Cars were placed above people and people were placed one above another on concrete shelves.”
And despite the many obvious mistakes of recent times, we still in our cities have a tendency to build grand, egotistical structures that not only bear little relevance or connection either to their function or their immediate environment, but which also seem to have an almost arrogant, adolescent disregard for the people who live and work in and around them.
It is a tragedy that we have lost that sense of humility and appropriateness - yes, and good manners too - which for centuries informed the syntax of building.
This is why it is so important that developments follow a set of principles or, indeed, a code, that ensures we create sustainable, balanced communities, rather than soulless and fragmented ghettoes condemned by architecture and planning to the margins of life.
And yet the current, conventional planning laws frequently militate against these principles, based as they are on the premise that the inherent features of traditional urbanism are somehow the work of the devil - features such as a range of tenures in a development, a mix of uses, the possibility for people to live and work without overdependence on their cars and a higher density of building.
All this would not, I think, strike most people as rocket science. And yet it represents a radical break from what has become the mainstream of architectural thought over the last eighty years.
During that time, much of the traditional knowledge about how the built environment helps communities evolve has been actively discarded. This has damaged and continues to damage our communities as it gives rise to disintegration, dislocation, disorder and dysfunction.
As Monsieur le Vice President has said, challenging the conventional approach has, of course, attracted a good deal of criticism, scepticism and cynicism. That is why, if I may say so, the award of the Grande Médaille today means so much to me. It means that my attempts to blend the best of the old with the best of the new and to re-introduce a sense of harmony, human scale and character into the built environment through the application of timeless principles based on traditional urbanism have been recognised.
When I first began to build a new settlement at Poundbury on Duchy of Cornwall land on the edge of a town called Dorchester, in Dorset, I was told that it would never work; that it would be too expensive; that you should not try to mix rich and poor in different tenures; that it would be uneconomic and, as yet another critic said, that it would become a rat-run for criminals.
Well...I think that after ten years we can demonstrate - as the English saying goes - that the “proof is in the pudding!” Not only do all sorts of people now come to see what it is like, but people are queuing up to live there. The realisation that mixed-use communities are the way of the future and that zoned development is becoming a thing of the past has now entered mainstream thought and even made its way into Government planning guidance in the United Kingdom. But there is still a long way to go.
That is why I created my Foundation for the Built Environment some thirteen years ago. My original aim was to provide a refuge for those who, like me, were in despair at the wholesale destruction of architectural and fine art education and who wished to pass on to a new generation the knowledge of those priceless traditions that had provided a link between successive generations for thousands of years.
Trying to break a conventional mould is a painful experience, but my Foundation seeks to reintroduce the vital human element into the understanding of the built environment, now so dominated by a mechanistic approach.
At Poundbury, for instance, the entire masterplan was based upon placing the pedestrian, and not the car, at the centre of the design - as a result this automatically creates natural traffic-calming measures.
At present my Foundation is also working with other partners in the field of urban regeneration on some twenty different schemes, in particular on a classic brownfield site in the heart of industrial South West Wales where we hope to demonstrate a more sustainable approach for the future.
Of course, building well is not enough. We must also ensure that we protect the heritage we already possess. As you are only too aware here in Paris, the sensitive redevelopment of heritage buildings can make a crucial contribution to regenerating an area and putting pride back into local communities.
The Phoenix Trust, another part of my Foundation, does exceptional work in this area, with a well-established role in the preservation and conversion of large derelict, historic sites - from redundant textile mills to military barracks, to nineteenth century mental hospitals.
My experience is that many people are irresistibly drawn to live in such places by the quality and, most importantly, the sheer character of the environment. My personal belief is that we also owe it to the numberless unknown craftsmen, whose skill, dedication and pride built these remarkable places in the first place, to honour their lifetime contributions by preserving and finding new uses for their great buildings.
As you may have heard, my passion for the conservation of our built heritage extends equally to our countryside. I happen to believe that our countryside helps to define our identity as a nation, but all of you will know that it is increasingly under threat in our crowded Europe. I think it was M. Herve Gaymard, the French Minister of Agriculture, who said recently at the Oxford Farming Conference that: “Agriculture is at the origin of social life, whether seen from a historical, cultural or economic point of view.”
I could not agree more, and yet according to a 1999 report even here in France - which Shakespeare’s Henry V called “the best garden of the world” - two farms close every hour. In the same way as in our cities, if we want to sustain the land and the landscape, we must start by finding ways to sustain the rural communities whose tireless enterprise and care have shaped and maintained them for generations.
The drive for ever-greater efficiency sometimes seems to become an end in itself and, what is more, at the expense of our precious landscape, which is why I have become an ardent defender of the family farm, be it in the United Kingdom, India or, for that matter, France.
After all, why is it, do you think, that so many people from Britain visit France for their holidays? It can’t be because of extra “efficiency” or the latest mono-cultural agri-industrial biotechnological techniques - it must be because they are taking full advantage of your remarkable scenery, the villages, the wine, the food and the whole unique cultural ambience of France.
Thanks to the skill of generations of French farming families, the land is managed to suit the climate, the geography and the natural conditions. The result is a landscape and a rural culture which is the envy of the world.
And yet this has not been created by some mono-cultural factory farming system, but according to the techniques of traditional management regimes developed over hundreds of years in harmony with Nature in order to produce food and wine in a way that transforms life itself into an irreplaceable art form of its own.
Yet even here in France, this extraordinary inheritance is under threat. For example, the agricultural intensification of recent years in Brittany has led to levels of pollution unheard of before. And more visibly, the thick tarry oil now washing up on the beaches of France’s Atlantic coast, adding to the devastation already caused in Spain, is an appropriately black and stinking reminder of the consequences of a single failure in our technological society.
The American sage and author, Wendell Berry, says that so-called “industrial accidents” should be looked on as the revenge of Nature. He points out that Nature is necessarily party to all our enterprises and that she imposes conditions of her own.
In 1989, he said that Nature is plainly telling us: “If you put the fates of whole communities or cities or regions or ecosystems at risk in single ships or factories or power plants, then I will furnish the drunk or the fool or the imbecile who will make the necessary small mistake.”
Well, I am in no position to know what caused the ineptly-named “Prestige” to sink, but my heart goes out to the coastal communities who will live with the consequences for years to come.
Monsieur le Recteur, it is a sober note on which to finish. But I believe with all my heart and soul - and I hope that this is one reason why the Société de Géographie and the Sorbonne have seen fit to honour me today - that if we do not recognise our sacred duty towards the Earth; if we fail to understand that true sustainability depends on accepting certain limits to human ambition and working more in harmony with the mysterious processes of Nature, then we face a social and natural catastrophe of unimaginable proportions. We can avoid such disaster. But we should perhaps occasionally eschew pure information for its own sake and learn to be wise."