Why I Hate Poundbury

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.

Modern house in traditional setting – why not here

Checking out Dezeen (one of my favourite sites) the other day I saw this item on a startling modern new house built in Norway – Villa Wot is a Brick Cuboid..

What impressed me, along with how much I was taken by the house itself, was the fact that it’s not like the other ones in the street, in fact it says in the article “The plot in the Tåsen neighbourhood to the north of the city centre is surrounded by traditional timber-clad houses from the 1930s” which it clearly is in the photos. Villa Wot is just not like it’s neigbours, and why the hell should it be? I know I’ve blogged about the aspic nature of the UK’s attitude to building design before but I want to revisit it in the context of this because it’s just not the sort of thing which happens here. Here it’s all about homes fitting in, and even if the planners would let you build something very different somehow people opt for not doing so.

It’s all so exemplified by the Prince of Wales famous comment about one of the proposed extensions to the National Gallery being a “monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend”, which for some reason seems to have contributed to the proposed design being scrapped Now I’m not denying that HRH had, and continues to have, the same right to comment as any other citizen; unlike some people I don’t think his role in our society should mean he can’t express an opinion on whatever he likes. I don’t agree with him, heck I don’t agree with the idea of a Prince of Wales, but I reckon he shouldn’t have been slated for having said it. What he said seems to have struck a chord deep in the society of the UK which believes that somehow modern is something which has it’s place…and that place isn’t where anybody seems to be! Buildings have to fit in with other buildings in a supposed harmonious whole.  Which brings me to, and I give myself the same rights as HRH here, to his own driven development of Poundbury outside Dorchester. Dear God what a place, it’s one of the most soul devoid places I’ve ever seen. It’s like being in ‘The Prisoner’ only somewhere less imaginative. There’s nothing wrong with any of the individual buildings (though the huge building visible from the Dorchester bypass always seems to me like something Albert Speer might have designed if he’d lived in rural Britain) but it’s all just so clearly a one-hit pastiche of the sort of towns which develop over years and which have far more variety of building types than HRH possibly thinks they do. Historically we didn’t do this, houses were built in whatever style the builders were comfortable doing: now we worry about them fitting in rather than being visually interesting and a pleasure to live in. When they had the huge fire at Hampton Court Palace they spend lots of time and money lovingly recreating it the way it was before: Christopher Wren would have pulled it down and built something new. 

We’re busy building houses in the UK, though not as many as we need, and they’re very much out of the HRH school of thought. They’re very much like every other house built for years. Is the house-buying public really so locked into this view, and they are pretty much like the pictures of houses kids learn to draw at nursery, that they wouldn’t buy something different? The modernist estates which grew up after the war weren’t bad in themselves, the flats were big and the buildings were striking in their own way. What let them down was that they were built to a price which sometimes wasn’t high, and then run by councils who both penny-pinched and didn’t really care about them. If they’d had the money spent on them, and on-site staff who cared, and they had mixed communities, then they might well have worked. I suspect none of this helped modernism in the UK, but I’m sure loads of young aspiring professionals would be more than happy to consider modernist housing if only people built it.

Which brings me back to Villa Wot, which sits among 1930s homes and looks nothing like them: and you know what? It doesn’t matter. Just because every other house in a street looks the same there isn’t the slightest reason that one can’t put something very different in an empty space should one appear. It doesn’t matter that it’s a similar house, it just has to be a good house: a house which would make a good home. 

‘Modern Architecture’ – yes please

I live in the Cotswolds, don’t get me wrong it’s lovely round here and visiting Americans say that this is how they all imagine England to look. We’ve got a mill pond and a market square and lots of buildings in that honey coloured stone dating back decades if not centuries. It’s lovely.

But does that mean we can only have buildings like that? Cotswold stone buildings look how they do because they’re made of cotswold stone, you know, the stuff they mine all round here. Real rocks, dug out of real geological seams and used to build real houses because for centuries that was the easiest building material if you wanted something more substantial than wood, straw and cow poo. Now all the buildings are made out of reconstituted block which in my more generous moments I think are made of cement and cotswold stone dust and in my more realistic ones are made of cement and some colouring. Not only that but all the new building is designed to look like older building, to blend in because that’s how the buildings of the cotswolds are supposed to look, because it’s the look of the thing. But actually it’s just making the place look a bit like a model village with hundreds of pastiche buildings. They look okay, but as yet another development goes up in the same colour and with the same mock georgianesque porch and mock dry stone wall round the garden I rather long for something which makes me go ‘holy shit that’s breathtaking’.

There’s no need for ‘vernacular’ building now, we can source a whole range of materials pretty much anywhere, we don’t have to opt for local stone any more…let alone something from a block factory somewhere shipped here by lorry in the right colour. I’m not saying that we need a huge and looming example of 60s brutalism, or a tube-covered hi-tech edifice, or a soaring bit of homage to the International style – but could we have something original and interesting? There’s a lovely estate of luxury second homes (designed by Phillipe Starcke no less) nearby which are non-intrusive but not remotely pastiche cotswolds. Okay they’re really expensive and not at all ‘affordable’ housing, but why can’t we have this sort of imagination and design in all the new building in the district? Why can’t we have a combination of glass and steel and some stonework in the cotswold colour to provide some context?

Why can’t we have something new?