Poundbury is "the town that Prince Charles built." Not surprisingly, given His Royal Highness's vocal campaign against modern architecture, British critics have been merciless in their ridicule of Poundbury's perceived shortcomings. "[A]n embarrassing anachronism as the new century dawns," wrote Hugh Aldersey-Williams in the New Statesman in 1999, when the project was still in its infancy. More recently, writing in The Observer, Stephen Bayley found Poundbury "fake, heartless, authoritarian and grimly cute," and Andy Spain, blogging onArchDaily, characterized it as "an over sanitised middle-class ghetto that has a whiff of resignation that there is nothing positive to live for so we must retreat to the past." Snide judgments made on the basis of seemingly fleeting visits.
What's the town really like? I spent six days there in September, frequenting its eateries, wandering its streets, and generally trying to experience the place as a resident might. Construction started 20 years ago, and while two decades is a short time in the life of a town, it's long enough for the newness to start to rub off. As I discovered, there is a lot more to Poundbury than meets the modernist critic's jaundiced eye. The place is neither anachronistic, nor utopian, nor elitist. Nor is it a middle-class ghetto. In fact, Poundbury embodies social, economic, and planning innovations that can only be called radical.
What struck me first was the unusual layout, a rabbit warren of dog-legged streets and crooked lanes, interspersed with many small squares—none of them actually square. Although confusing at first, after a day or two it's easy enough to find one's way around—much like navigating the center of a medieval town. Instead of a main street, shops, cafés, and a pub are scattered here and there. I had a beer at The Poet Laureate, which is named in honor of Ted Hughes. The outdoor tables spill out onto a square dominated by a market hall with fat columns shaped like milk bottles.
This particular village square is part of the first phase of Poundbury's construction, which was completed in 2001. The scale becomes larger and denser in the newer sections, which have rows of terrace houses, small apartment buildings, and office blocks. Poundbury is built on a hill, and the highest spot is occupied by Queen Mother Square, named in honor of the Prince's grandmother. The partially complete plaza is lined by four- and five-story office and residential buildings, and will soon have a 120-foot-tall campanile-like tower. But the impression of a small market town is maintained in the higgledy-piggledy street layout and in the resolutely traditional—that is to say, not-modernist—architecture.
The bright blue electric bus that swings by the square, on the other hand, is very modern indeed. POUNDBURY VIA TOWN CENTRE reads its destination board, a reminder that Poundbury is not a stand-alone community—this is not Celebration or Seaside—but an extension of Dorchester, a small county town of 20,000, set among the gently rolling hills of Dorset in southwest England.
For Dorchester residents, Poundbury is a new appendage on the edge of town, but for designers it is a demonstration of Prince Charles's ideas about architecture, which he first detailed in a 1988 BBC documentary, A Vision of Britain. That film, which was followed by a book of the same name, came four years after he had delivered the first of his anti-modernist broadsides, characterizing a proposed extension to London's National Gallery as a "monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend." In his book, Charles threw down the gauntlet: "We can build new developments which echo the familiar, attractive features of our regional vernacular styles," he wrote. "There are architects who can design with sensitivity and imagination so that people can live in more pleasant surroundings." Whence Poundbury.
How did the heir apparent become a real estate developer? You can blame Edward III. In the 14th century, the king established the Duchy of Cornwall, a land trust to benefit his eldest son, Edward, known as the Black Prince. The king cannily prevented the prince and his successors from touching the capital, and over the centuries the Duchy has done well, with a current worth of more than $1 billion. In 1987, Dorchester's local planning authority determined that the only open land that could accommodate the future growth needs of the town was 400 acres belonging to the Duchy. Under ordinary circumstances, as it had done in the past, the Duchy would have sold the land to be developed in a conventional manner. But because Charles, the 24th Duke of Cornwall, had such an interest in urbanism, with the town's consent, the Duchy took a more active role.
In 1988, after several false starts, Charles appointed the urban theorist and planner Léon Krier to prepare a master plan for an "urban village," a dense (15 to 20 dwellings per acre, instead of the usual 10 to 12), walkable, sustainable model for suburban development. Following a public consultation process, the local planning authority approved the concept, and five years later construction began.
The work is being carried out by a variety of regional builders working with local and London-based architects, each of whom has been given a restricted number of dwellings in any one contract to promote architectural variety. Peterjohn Smyth was the coordinating architect for the project's first phase, and Ben Pentreath is managing the current phase. Architecturally, there is nothing here that would be out of place in the pre-war center of any provincial British town: Brick and stucco boxes with slate or clay-tile roofs and occasional flint panels, a scattering of Georgian and Regency revival townhouses, the occasional larger classical pile, and many buildings that are what one can only call "generic traditional."
The market hall with the milk bottle columns was designed by the prominent classicist, John Simpson; the office blocks on Queen Mother Square are the work of Quinlan and Francis Terry; and an Arts & Crafts nursing home is designed by James Gorst. I liked Simpson's market hall; and the Terrys' classical office building, while a little standoffish, has a marvelous cupola. On the other hand, the fire station struck me as particularly heavy-handed; Mey House, designed by Barbara Weiss Architects, is altogether too self-important for an office building; and some of the larger residences veer dangerously close to McMansion territory.
Of course, the last is a relative judgment: The largest house at Poundbury is smaller than the median size of new houses in America (2,400 square feet), and an upscale Georgian revival terrace house in Woodlands Crescent squeezes four bedrooms into only 1,400 square feet. This particular crescent of 38 virtually identical houses, designed by Pentreath, merely hints at its 18th-century roots, and seems to me to strike exactly the right architectural note.
Despite the picturesque street layout, Krier's approach is not simply scenographic: It embodies the theories of the 19th-century Viennese architect and planner, Camillo Sitte. Sitte believed that the old cities which people admired were not happy accidents but were in fact designed according to principles no less specific than in the other arts. In Der Städtebaunach seinen künstlerischen Grundsätzen (1889), translated into English as The Art of Building Cities, Sitte provided a detailed urban design analysis of streets and squares in old Italian and northern European cities. "Modern city planning completely reverses the proper relationship between built-up area and open space," Sitte wrote. "In former times the open spaces—streets and plazas—were designed to have an enclosed character for a definite effect. Today we normally begin by parcelling out building sites, and whatever is left over is turned into streets and plazas."
Poundbury's Sitte-esqe roots are visible in its compact plan. Only 250 of the 400 acres are to be urbanized; the unbuilt space is concentrated at the edges, a green swathe of playing fields, allotment gardens, and pastures with grazing sheep. Krier has learned another lesson from Sitte: the value of accidental events. "We set up rigid systems, and then grow fearful of deviating from them by as much as a hair’s breadth," Sitte wrote, bemoaning that city planning had become a branch of engineering in which formulaic solutions were rigorously applied. For Sitte—and Krier—planning is an art, and in art rules may be broken.
For example, in Poundbury, buildings generally come up to the sidewalk, but some have projecting stoops. Occasionally there are planting beds between the building and the sidewalk; sometimes a narrow garden, occasionally a deep garden. In a few cases, a building projects over the sidewalk to form an arcade. Simon Conibear, Poundbury's development manager, characterized Krier's planning to me as "80 percent harmony and 20 percent discord."
In Poundbury, the layout of the buildings predetermines the road pattern, not vice versa. Roads are merely a way of getting around, not an armature within which buildings must tightly fit, as is the case with most planned communities. The first time I heard Krier lecture, many years ago, he talked mainly about parking. Krier's point was that whereas the principles of sound urban design were all known long ago—and did not need to be reinvented—the great challenge for the modern city planner was how to accommodate the automobile.
This is as true in Britain as elsewhere: More than 77 percent of households currently own at least one car, and the ownership rate continues to increase. Krier's solution is not to banish cars to the periphery, or to separate them from pedestrians. In Poundbury, automobiles are everywhere: The interiors of the blocks have parking courts with open-air stalls, car ports, and garages; there is parallel and head-in street parking, and some of the apartment buildings integrate on-grade protected parking. But it didn't feel as if the cars had taken over. For example, although several cars were parked in front of The Poet Laureate, the little square didn't resemble a parking lot. There were no white lines, no signage—people parked willy-nilly, where they wanted. On Saturday night the square was full of cars, but on Monday morning it turned back into an empty plaza.
Poundbury may not have a "pedestrian zone," but in a real sense the entire town is a pedestrian zone. It's up to the drivers to adjust to the built realm, not vice versa, for Poundbury calms traffic with a vengeance. In fact, there have yet to be any accidents, Conibear told me. "The street layout is deliberately chaotic," he said. "There are blind bends, no signage, not even stop signs. We also use the '70-meter event' rule—that is, every 70 meters something happens to slow the cars down."
Poundbury is less than half-finished, with a current population of about 2,000 residents. Forty percent are retirees, typical for this area since southwest England is Britain's Arizona. Flats and small houses sell for £100,000 to £200,000 ($160,000 to $320,000), while large freestanding houses command in excess of £500,000 ($800,000). These are high prices in a region where the median gross annual pay is £25,000 ($40,000).
Yet Poundbury is not a middle-class ghetto: more than a third of the dwellings qualify as affordable housing. The majority is social housing, owned by charitable trusts and rented to low-income tenants, but there is also shared-equity housing, which allows qualifying buyers to purchase a share in a home, even if they cannot afford a mortgage on the full market value. What is unusual in Poundbury is that the affordable housing is "pepper potted"—that is, scattered, and it is similar in appearance to its neighbors. It's hard to get a complete picture of how well this works during a brief visit, although by all accounts, there is little social mixing between the two groups.
Another innovation at Poundbury is the embrace of mixed use, which is more extensive here than in most planned communities I've visited. Not only are the ground floors of many residential and office buildings devoted to commercial uses such as shops and cafés, there are medical clinics, professional offices for lawyers and accountants, garden centers, veterinarians, travel agents, and even a funeral home. There is also light industry: a large shed-like building at the bottom of a village green is a chocolate factory; a breakfast cereal manufacturing plant stands across the street from elegant townhouses; a low brick building with arched windows was until recently occupied by an electronics factory. The key to introducing industrial buildings on residential streets, says Conibear, is to make sure that they are built before the housing; residents accept a fait accompli, but they strongly resist the introduction of nonresidential uses after the fact. In all, Poundbury currently has an impressive 136 businesses generating 1,600 jobs—nearly one per resident.
I asked my landlady what her neighbors thought about Poundbury. "Not everyone likes it," she said. "Some people think it looks like a movie set." Although Poundbury is a commercial project—the Duchy is emphatically not a charity—the execution is of high quality: tight graphic control over signage, crunchy pea gravel instead of expanses of bare asphalt, granite blocks not paint stripes to denote parking stalls. Walking about town, I am also struck by what is missing: intrusive commercial signs, gimcrack construction, and the plastic vulgarity that pervades even the historic center of Dorchester. I suppose to some that makes it a movie set. But the allusion is surely also prompted by the revivalist styles of the architecture, the very thing that sets off the critics.
In an article in Building Design in which he excoriated the traditional appearance of the architecture, Crispin Kelly asked: "If Poundbury's 1759 date stamp is not to our taste, do we have better pattern books of our own to promote to the punters ... ?" I think the date stamp is more like 1940, but it's a good question. What would be a modernist pattern book?
The stylistic free-for-all that has produced Dubai and Doha is surely not the answer. On the strength of 1920s-era neighborhoods I've seen in Oslo and Tel Aviv, I can almost imagine an International Style–revival Poundbury, although, as Los Angeles' Getty Center decisively shows, white walls and pipe railings only get you so far. Individual modernist buildings have always looked good in the natural landscape—Fallingwater, the Glass House, the Sydney Opera House—or when surrounded by traditional buildings—think of Paris' Pompidou Centre, Lloyd's of London, the Bilbao Guggenheim Museum. But modernism has been notably deficient in creating an urban fabric. The modernist palette is simply too restricted—or perhaps not restricted enough. There is either too much repetition or too much variety, too much standardization or too little.
It seems to me that Poundbury could quite happily absorb a wider stylistic range, although neither Krier nor any of the architects I spoke to mentioned this possibility. But for the moment the imposition of an architectural code that favors tradition is understandable. The reason for "leaning on the past" is not nostalgia or lack of imagination, but rather the recognition that the established vernacular offers the best chance for creating the nuanced variety and shadings of difference that produce a coherent urban environment and a recognizable sense of place.