Poundbury Revisited

Some years ago I designed some houses for the first phase of what was then Prince Charles’s new architectural experiment at Poundbury on the edge of Dorchester. There were about six different architects involved each being allocated a few houses of known shape and size within Leon Krier’s master-plan. Following a design code we all came up with sketches which were then pinned up as street scenes for discussion and criticism. The individual flights of design bravado were then gently brought to earth to avoid an over rich mix dominated by architectural egos. This thinking was later reflected in the arguments put forward by Allies and Morrison stressing that we should value good, ordinary architecture rather than letting ourselves become obsessed with iconic showpieces.

One aspect of the Poundbury thinking which was of great importance and well ahead of its time was a completely new attitude to highway design and the spacing of buildings. The creation of a sense of community was placed far above the needs of the car driver with shared surfaces, narrow streets, sharp corners and discreet parking courts all used to boost the importance of the residents rather than their cars. All this was very new at the time but has been widely influential since.

The design code for the buildings was of course very traditional and this was what threw many architects into a catatonic rage but I took, and still take, a different view. I can see nothing wrong in using a traditional design language provided it works within its context and provided the ideas are carried through with commitment and consistency. This is not to say that it is always right to use a traditional architectural language and nor am I suggesting that traditional design will always improve the quality of buildings. In a brilliant but scathing 1988 essay on Quinlan Terry’s Howard Building at Downing College Gavin Stamp criticised the building not because of its classicism but because it fails to work in its own terms. Any architectural idiom can be used to produce good buildings or appalling ones; what is important is to realise that design quality has little to do with the formal language the architect chooses to employ and I would contend that poor rehashes of good contemporary architecture are just as much ’pastiche’ as a neo Georgian villa.

The argument that a good building has to be ‘of its time’ seems to me to be deeply flawed. If Wren had designed St Paul’s last year would it really be less great than it is?  

Now though we come to a problem. Revisiting Poundbury this summer things in Phase II seem to have gone terribly wrong. The gradual expansion of the new town over the top of a hill is in itself very un-English and while, in its early phases, the work at Poundbury built on the understated traditions of nearby towns such as Dorchester and Bridport the more recent work is over-scaled, pompous and punctuated by bizarre, crudely detailed architectural confections visible for miles across the Dorset countryside. At the time when I worked there the buildings generally were just two storeys high whereas many of the newer areas are dominated by four storey terraces, a choice of scale which, one suspects, has much less to do with the local vernacular than with commerce.

Making matters worse are various showpiece designs. The original processes for avoiding an indigestible mix of architectural mini-masterpieces seem to have been dispensed with. John Simpson’s market building seems to have been transported here from the Black Forest and then put on a course of steroids. Nearby the five storey, pyramid roofed Fleur de Lis retirement home has more to do with Carcassone than Hardy’s Wessex and dominating the western end of the town is a giant Greek temple which turns out to be the fire station. These buildings seem to me to be a complete betrayal of what was originally a serious experiment in urbanism.

In purely constructional terms the attempt to create traditional buildings but without a full understanding of the necessary details and materials, means that the whole thing is wearing very badly. Much of the early work looks tired and worst of all a blight of dark red staining is spreading across the bare cement render which is so widely used.

Happily I understand that I am not alone in seeing a lot of Phase II as a terrible mistake and after a high level review the intention is that Phase III of the scheme will once again reflect the original ethos.
I will continue to argue that the original inspiration for Poundbury was perfectly valid and many of the ideas were good ones. Hopefully the original modest thinking can be re-established before the scheme turns irretrievably into a carbuncle on the face of a much loved Dorset town.