Inside the model town created by Prince Charles
Poundbury was mocked as classical pastiche, but 25 years on it is thriving.
Twenty-five years ago, in October 1993, construction started on Poundbury, the Prince of Wales’s development on the outskirts of Dorchester in Dorset. For years, the Prince had been ridiculed for his supposedly fogeyish views on architecture. Only four years before Poundbury was begun, he made his attack on a proposed modernist extension to the National Gallery, calling it “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much loved and elegant friend”. He approved of its classical replacement scheme, by the American architect Robert Venturi. But when it opened in 1991, it was attacked by critics as “picturesque, mediocre slime” and a “vulgar, American piece of post-modern, mannerist pastiche”.
And yet, by the time of Venturi’s death last month, the National Gallery extension had been Grade I listed, and is adored by the public.
And so it has been with Poundbury. What had been thought of as secondrate classical pastiche has been immensely popular with residents, with housing selling at a 29 per cent premium to other new-build schemes in Dorset. Thanks to good design, Poundbury has been oversubscribed, and is now full of life.
“The Prince is amazed there haven’t been any imitators of Poundbury,” says a friend of mine, who is close to Prince Charles. “Not least in government, which has declared that it wants to build lots of new towns.”
Many modern architects may not like classical architecture, but housebuyers do. But it wasn’t just the classical façades of Poundbury that won buyers over. It was what was going on behind them, around them and under them.
From the beginning, Poundbury’s overseeing architect, Léon Krier, who is still in charge of the project aged 72, saw that sophisticated utilities, employment opportunities and mixed housing were crucial. The Luxembourgish architect is a champion of the New Classical Architecture movement and also New Urbanism, which promotes building a wide range of housing, encouraging residents to walk around town, staying within it during the working day. Ever since the idea for Poundbury was formed, “walkability” has been integral to some of the best developments.
“Walkable neighbourhoods are economic drivers of growth, attracting talented people, creating highly productive real estate and sustaining a thriving urban economy,” says Peter Freeman of Argent, the developer that has completely re-energised the now thoroughly walkable King’s Cross over the past 18 years.
The fear that Poundbury would become a dormitory town for commuters – as happened to the first garden cities, Letchworth and Welwyn Garden City – didn’t materialise. And, unlike the first garden suburb, Hampstead Garden Suburb, Poundbury didn’t become overpriced, because of the inclusion of affordable homes. “A vital aspect of Poundbury was that it was ‘ tenure blind’,” says Patrick James of the Landscape Agency. He is the designer behind Langwith, a proposed new garden village to the south-east of York, with 5,000 new homes, shops, community centres, medical facilities and schools. “That means you can’t tell the difference between the affordable housing and ordinary housing.” As a result, there was no ‘ them and us’ feel to the development.
The intention of providing one job in the town per home has also been achieved. According to the latest figures this year, the development has created a place for 187 businesses, with 2,300 jobs, among 1,500 homes. The job-per-home idea is crucial for town planners who wish to encourage walking and cycling.
“The utilities strategy at Poundbury is also innovative,” adds James. “The gas, electric and phone are routed through the rear courtyards and mews, so that you never have to dig up the footways on the streets.”
When you walk or drive around Poundbury, not only are there other people walking around, but also other cars drive at a moderate speed. This isn’t because of speed tables, humps or signs, which can so clutter an urban landscape, but because of the buildings and the layout of the streets. Look at the street plan of Poundbury and you’ll see a series of curves, bends and culde-sacs; all of these mean drivers naturally slow down and remain cautious because they don’t know what’s around the corner.
The other magic trick that Poundbury pulled off is to increase building density. “Instead of the usual 11 or 12 buildings per acre, Poundbury has over 17,” says James. “It is clever about the size of the buildings. There is office and studio space across the site, but at a size that doesn’t incur business rates. This has resulted in a large number of new small businesses.”
The proof of the pudding is in the eating – or the walking. Stroll around Poundbury today and it doesn’t feel like a fake toytown. Instead it is somewhere real, and somewhere you’d really like to live.
‘Prince Charles is amazed there haven’t been any imitators’
IN DEMAND The Royal Pavilion, below, where Savills is selling a flat, left, for £1.595m; Prince Charles in Poundbury, top