Okay, so I don’t actually hate Poundbury.
The title is there for rhetorical effect I’m afraid, so if you were hoping for an amusing anti-Poundbury rant you’re in the wrong blog. I’m sure it’s a great place to live, convenient for both central Dorchester and easy to get to other places, lots of trees, always seems clean and vandal free, designed to encourage walking and cycling rather than driving. Apparently there are rules about what colour you can paint your front door, but for Poundbury-ens that’s probably a small inconvenience though from what I read on the Internet the gravel paths are. My grievence with Poundbury isn’t it’s existence, or even how the individual buildings look, it’s the fact that the whole place is built so completely to match HRH’s Vision of Britain that it fails to look like a real English village. It lacks the modernism he so fervently detests, but it goes so far the other way that it even has false windows the sort which used to be found in the days before the window tax. It’s a film set, it’s a pastiche. You ever watch cult TV show The Prisoner? That’s sort of how it feels to me when I drive through it.
Housing the population has a long history as an issue, especially when you need to deal with an influx of people into an area and has frequently been approached by the building of estates, or sometimes entire towns. Swindon has The Railway Village , built to house workers in the GWR works. It’s very victorian and quite a tourist attraction. Then after the first war you get Garden Cities like Letchworth and Welwyn, then post WW2 we got the New Towns like Harlow housing the bombed out from the cities. It’s not a UK only thing, mass housing projects are a feature of the Europe and the US too. Anywhere you need to house your workforce, or just an increasing population, people have commissioned and built places like this. So I’m not knocking the concept of Poundbury one bit. Where I think it went wrong is that it’s not, I think, really about housing an increasing population or a mobile workforce, but about somehow proving that you can build mass housing in some kind of traditional manner.
It is according to The Guardian about being a ‘vibrant place to work as well as live – like a traditional English town centre’. But English town centres do not spring fully formed from the head of a member of the royal family, they develop over hundreds of years as buildings are put up, torn down, fall down or burn down, get rebuilt, altered, knocked together, divided up, change use, etc. This is how real town centres develop, over time and as their use changes. Look at any real English town centre and you’ll see a huge difference in building ages and styles, you’ll see old fashioned shop fronts, brand new ones made to look old, and ultra-modern ones scarfed onto the front of old ones. You’ll see a riot of colours and design. You’ll see everything you don’t see in Poundbury.
It’s fashionable, among many people, not just among some members of the Royal Family, to decry modern architecture as though there is something intrinsically (or even somehow, morally) wrong with it, as though the failings of the brutalist estates are inherent in the very concept of them. They did fail in many ways, but that had as much to do with poor mainteance and management by the authorities as the design. To say that the dark alleys between the blocks made people feel unsafe is ridiculous as a criticism of the estates when traditional English town centres have loads of alleys and paths in them; is a 20th century concrete alley somehow more dangerous than an 18th century dirt one? But we’ve learned a lot about managing and designing estates over the past few decades, so why isn’t Poundbury an ultra modern place, incorporating the latest materials in exiting modern designs managed in the light of all the mistakes made in post war projects?
It seems to me that the desire to produce new housing has become mixed up with the Prince’s desire to create his vision of what a traditional English town should be like. So Dorchester wound up not with a new community which has grown organically and is full of buildings which learned, as Stuart Brand put it, nor full of buildings which say clearly when they were built and which fit in with 21st century design and technology, but with a rather boring pastiche which, because of the controls on what can happen there, will always remain more one man’s dream than a real place.