Poundbury is an experimental new town devised by Prince of Wales. It was built near Dorchester in Dorset on land owned by the Duchy of Cornwall. Described as Â‘a pioneering example of urban developmentÂ’, Poundbury was built in accordance with the principals outlined in A Vision of Britain, Prince CharlesÂ’ infamous intervention into the world of architecture and town planning.
Poundbury is an experimental new town devised by the Prince of Wales. It was built near Dorchester in Dorset on land owned by the Duchy of Cornwall. Described as ‘a pioneering example of urban development’, Poundbury was built in accordance with the principals outlined in A Vision of Britain, Prince Charles’ infamous intervention into the world of architecture and town planning.
Prince Charles is an architectural aficionado. He runs The Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment, which provides consultancy and education services for large-scale urban development or regeneration projects. In 1984, Prince Charles described the proposed extension to the National Gallery as ‘a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend.’ In doing so, he spawned a derisory language of popular architectural criticism which expressed a sense that architecture had become alien to the general public.
In 1988, Prince Charles fronted a TV series entitled A Vision of Britain. This is a quote from the series:
'For far too long it seems to me, some planners and architects have consistently ignored the feelings and wishes of the mass of ordinary people in this country . . . To be concerned about the way people live, about the environment they inhabit and the kind of community that is created by that environment, should surely be one of the prime requirements of a really good architect.'
In 1987, West Dorset District Council selected Duchy land for the expansion of Dorchester. The Prince of Wales worked with the council to develop the plan. He appointed the architect and urban planner, Leon Krier, to prepare the overall plan for 400 acres. Krier is well known in Europe and America as a champion of traditional urban design. According to Poundbury’s official website, ‘The Duke of Cornwall’s desire to protect and sustain the natural environment is matched by his interest in the built environment and how it affects the quality of people’s lives. In looking to the future, The Duke believes that more should be done to create urban areas with a human scale that encourage a sense of community and pride of place.’
The development is built on a high-density urban pattern, rather than a suburban one - it’s intended as a full-scale town, not just a suburb. Like the New Towns of the past, the aim is to create an integrated community of shops, businesses, and a mix of private and social housing. Unlike New Towns, however, there is no zoning. The town-planning experiments of the 1960s demonstrated that the creation of distinct zones (commercial, residential etc.) has a detrimental impact on the built environment and impedes the growth of integrated communities.
Prince Charles is a vociferous critic of modern architecture. His own tastes are extremely conservative. Poundbury is a new town built in an old way. The architecture is designed in the traditional vernacular styles of Dorset and built with local materials. As stated on the official website, ‘The architecture at Poundbury is unashamedly traditional, using a variety of Dorset materials such as stone, slate and render. The architecture draws on the rich heritage of Dorset and, in particular, on the attractive streets of Dorchester itself.’
All architects work to a Building Code that regulates features such as roof angles and chimneys. Quality of design and workmanship is controlled by the Duchy through legally-binding Building Agreements with each developer.
In the centre, Pummery Square is dominated by the traditionally-styled Brownsword Hall. Built at a cost of £1 million, this was sponsored by the Greetings card entrepreneur Andrew Brownsword. The building was designed by John Simpson and based on early designs, particularly the market hall at Tetbury.
This is a block of shops called the Whistling Witch (2008). The design is reminiscent of Arts and Crafts architecture, particularly the work of CFA Voysey.
This is the Fire Station (2008). It can be described as third-hand architecture - it’s inspired by Georgian buildings that were in turn inspired by Greek temples. The pilasters and pediments evoke Greek temples, but the intervals are filled in with brick, sash windows and oiel de beouf windows. It looks like a doll’s house version of a Georgian building, but on a 1:1 scale.
In all of these buildings, the ‘character’ feels built in - it’s all a bit too forced. Many of the details are anachronistic. An example is bricked-up windows, a feature found on many Georgian buildings. People frequently filled in their windows to avoid paying the window tax that was in operation at the time. What began as a practical measure came to be seen as a characteristic trait of Georgian architecture, and at Poundbury is now reproduced as a stylistic detail.
Krier's plans have been criticised for mixing too many different continental styles and the use of non-local building materials, which are not consistent with the traditions of Dorchester. The gold-coloured gravel that covers the pavements is a real pain for buggies, bikes and any other non-road user.
Ultimately, the town feels like a pastiche of the Georgian township. Trying to keep the modern world at bay is not sustainable. The major problem seems to be at the centre where the public areas are totally devoid of life.
The website states, ‘The underlying principles are radical, in a mixed use development with employment opportunities and facilities alongside dwellings, integrated affordable housing and streets treated as the public realm where the car is subsidiary to the pedestrian.’ The project has similarities with the New Urbanism movement in America. Following New Urbanist principles, Poundbury is intended to reduce car dependency and encourage walking, cycling and public transport: ‘At Poundbury and Newquay one of the main ambitions is to create a sustainable community that is safer and healthier for its residents; where the pedestrian takes priority over the car; and where communities are mixed-use with workplaces integrated with housing, providing local jobs and community facilities.’ In fact, the streets are designed to be ‘deliberately inconvenient’ for cars.
All aspects of town planning are tightly controlled, with any alterations needing approval from the Duchy of Cornwall. This extends right down to signage which has good intentions, but the lack of visual clutter is feels bizarre: it's all a bit too tidy. It can be argued that the attempt to preserve the ‘character’ of Poundbury ensures that it has none. The townscape looks antiseptic and artificial. This is partly because we’re used to seeing Georgian buildings with a patina of age. Most buildings in these styles are hundreds of years old. At Poundbury, there is a distinct lack of patina - the wear and tear that makes a place look lived in. As a result it doesn’t seem real; it’s like a model village.
A town needs employment opportunities. There are around 60 small businesses in Poundbury, as well as a factory, Dorset Cereals, which employs 100 people. The factory makes muesli, porridge and cereal bars. There are a number of private organisations that control many aspects of local life. A group called Poundbury Business Friends controls the local business culture, operating like a benevolent cartel. Most of the shops, services and businesses are members. Common areas are maintained by a management company to which all residents belong. However, there are so few amenities in Poundbury that you would almost certainly have to go elsewhere to work and shop.
Prince Charles has no specialist knowledge of architecture and no accountability, but his privileged status gives him a platform from which to propound his views. He’s the ultimate gentleman amateur. His tastes are very conservative, favouring historicist architects like Quinlan Terry and Leon Krier. The building of Poundbury suggests a somewhat reactionary urge to arrest the development of architecture and suspend it in a perpetual Georgiana.
HRH Charles, Prince of Wales, A Vision of Britain: A Personal View of Architecture (Doubleday, 1989)
Leon Krier: Architecture: Choice or Fate (Andreas Papadakis Publishers, 1998)