Listen to this article
Poundbury, the Prince of Wales’s urban development on the edge of Dorchester, in the far west of England, turned 20 this year. To celebrate, the prince hosted a gathering on Friday for the many people who have worked there for him: Robert Adam, Quinlan Terry, John Simpson, Craig Hamilton, and a host of lesser-known names.
Classical architects form a curious-looking crowd, in old tweed and pinstripes, bow ties and brogues. Like them, Poundbury is clothed in a language of tradition that makes it easy for the world of contemporary taste to dismiss: stone cottages, Georgian townhouses; office buildings and supermarkets dressed with pilasters and pediments; gently curving streets that to the passing eye are a curious simulacrum of historical Dorset towns. Poundbury presents an architecture that tries so hard to be inoffensive, that it is fascinating to watch how offended its critics can get. Too often, the debate is not allowed to pass beyond the veneer of appearance. But under the surface, something revolutionary has been happening here, and it has little to do with architecture at all.
The project was conceived 25 years ago, when West Dorset District Council allocated land to the west of Dorchester for a new housing development. The 400-acre site is part of the Duchy of Cornwall, the estate established in 1337 to provide an income for the heir to the throne. Already firmly involved in the architectural debate, the prince engaged in 1988 the renowned architect Léon Krier to develop a master plan for Poundbury, with property developer Andrew Hamilton brought in to inject commercial reality and steer the project forward day-to-day. Construction began in October 1993 (I designed my first buildings there three years later and have been increasingly involved over the past decade). Today, with Krier and Hamilton still at the helm, Poundbury is home to 2,500 people and 1,660 employees working in 140 businesses. When completed, the development will house about 5,000 people – an increase of one quarter in the population of Dorchester.
The statistics are impressive. Although many such schemes are planned, Poundbury is the only new housing development of its scale in the UK or the US, outside of a major city, to have successfully delivered this sort of mixed-use: jobs and business integrally built up alongside houses. It is radical in a world that is a disintegration of office parks and leisure centres, industrial estates and cul-de-sac housing, where cars are the only way to get between them and the environment has been sacrificed for the convenience of driving.
There is a poetry to this land of the bypass and service station, if you seek it: chronicled in brilliant books such as Edgelands: Journeys into England’s True Wilderness, by Michael Symmons Roberts and Paul Farley. But for those, like Krier, interested in sustainability for the long-term, breaking the grip of our auto-driven planning is crucial. He is not anti-car so much as anti-car dependency – to have a choice whether to drive or not; something which inhabitants of any historic town enjoy without a thought, but a luxury barely on offer for those buying a new home in the isolated suburban housing tracts of the US, Europe or westernising Asia.
Without Krier’s vision, it is unlikely these narrow streets would be lined as they are today with offices, shops, cafés and small workshops. When the development began, it was hard to understand how crucial the mix would prove in creating a sense of place. The businesses have proved symbiotic; the pub picks up lunchtime trade from the factories, whose workers can drop their children in the nursery next door; and so on. Simon Conibear, development manager, is particularly proud of the array of small businesses. “We provide opportunity for affordable commercial space – less than £10,000 per year, typically, below the business rates threshold – so that individuals can do what they always wanted to do,” he says, “ . . . not making a fortune, perhaps, but where else in the world could you do this? Town centres are too expensive, business parks too remote, and suburbs don’t have such places.” Lessons examined 20 years ago in Krier’s plan have influenced the way people think about the redevelopment of cities as a whole. The mixed-use streets and squares of London’s new Kings Cross were planned, with Allies & Morrison, by Demetri Porphyrios, who has worked with Krier and for the prince for years. And while the Poundbury pioneers were boutique, major employers are arriving. Waitrose opened last year in Queen Mother Square, which in 2015 will be completed with new apartment buildings, a tower, a hotel and restaurants, to form the long-term heart of the settlement.
The prince’s early efforts to incorporate social housing were similarly radical. From the start, he wanted social housing to be integrated throughout and made visually indistinguishable from private houses. For decades, housebuilding in the UK has tended to deliver bland monocultures, council estates and executive homes on the edge of towns and villages. In its small way, Poundbury stems that tide. Initially, the prince met resistance: the housebuilders feared for sales; the Guinness Trust, which owns many of the social homes, feared that the layout would be difficult to manage. But it worked. Today, 35 per cent of the houses are social; house sales have not been dented, and Poundbury is the largest Guinness estate in Britain that does not need an on-site manager. Guinness also has a rare instance, here, of property that is appreciating in value. The model pioneered in Poundbury is now adopted central government policy, whereby all developers are required to provide social and key-worker housing on site, rather than sweeping it elsewhere.
The newest innovation happened most quietly of all. On October 11 last year the first biogas from the Poundbury anaerobic digester was injected into the National Grid. The plant, adjacent to the housing and an integral part of the development plan as a whole, takes local slurry, food and farm waste and converts it into enough clean gas to supply the entire settlement. It is carbon-neutral, visually sensitive and commercially viable, and it is no surprise, given the history of Poundbury, that the prince’s biogas operation is the first such commercial plant in the UK.
This is the Poundbury paradox: clothed in historical trappings but deeply innovative at its core. The intellectual contradictions invoked are multiple, but are part of the zeitgeist. Grayson Perry’s current BBC Reith Lectures are a brilliant investigation of the realm where popular and serious culture meets. I would love to watch Perry in Poundbury.
Will Wiles, whose recent novel Care of Wooden Floors is the last word on the inability of buildings to provide perfect lives, is no admirer of Poundbury, but he recognises it nonetheless as a “fabulous curiosity, a psychedelic urban experience, an area of exception that deserves to exist”. Thomas Heatherwick, creator of the London Olympic torch, the Shanghai Pavilion and the new Garden Bridge conceived for the Thames, has visited recently. Something is going on here, which might raise an eyebrow among the tweed-suited brigade.
Aged 20, Poundbury can no longer be dismissed as a mere “Quality Street”, chocolate-box vision of England. It hasn’t got everything right and it doesn’t provide all the answers. But, like an awkward teenager who makes some mistakes along the way, it is growing into something with stature and a life of its own. It is impossible to find another housing estate built in the past quarter century that is as richly textured, as intricate, as convincing as a whole, and which is getting better not worse with age. Thousands of planners, architects, housebuilders, developers and government officials have now visited: from the UK, Europe, the US, Asia and the Middle East. Only time will tell whether it is the radical, underlying complexities, or merely the surface veneer, that will prove more influential. I hope it will be the former, but fear the latter – and that would be missing the point.
A model village in numbers
● Poundbury is a 400-acre development, with 150 acres reserved as open space
● 1,200 houses have been built in the past 20 years
● The development is due to be completed in 2025, when about 2,500 houses will have been built under Krier’s 1988 master plan
● There is 400,000 sq ft of commercial space, with a further 270,000 sq ft set to be delivered by completion
● 140 businesses currently trade in the village, employing 1,660 people
● The anaerobic digester provides enough carbon-neutral biogas to supply 4,000 homes in winter and 56,000 homes in summer
Ben Pentreath’s architectural practice is designing a number of buildings in Poundbury