Abroad in Britain

Anyway, what’s the oldest thing in the picture below?

It’s the VW Beetle. Because this is Poundbury – Prince Charles’ curious urban extension to Dorchester. The oldest part has recently reached the venerable age of twenty (of Poundbury that is, not the oldest part of Prince Charles, who apparently dates from the late middle ages.)

A grim, rainy day found me passing nearby, and having never seen it, I was curious. More curious at least than my wife, who sat in the car listening to Radio 4 for an hour as I wandered about, taking photos and annoying the locals. True, it wasn’t ideal flaneur weather.  And rather than the villagey hamlet location that I’d envisaged (and that perhaps the architects also envisaged?) Poundbury is actually on top of a hill, in a surprisingly windswept location.

Ignore for a moment, if you can, the architectural style(s). I use the term style advisedly, as the actual function of each of the buildings is almost aggressively divorced from its appearance. More on that later.

In fact, the thing that immediately struck me first and most forcefully was not the toy town appliqué of different historical periods, but cars, and how they are treated. Poundbury in the flesh seems much less about designing for people, or even pastiche architectural gestures, than about the car: how best to avoid annoying our four-wheeled friends with the irritation of road markings or signage, with matters as mundane as finding a parking space?

The car-based nature of the development was discussed to some degree in early reports, but perhaps it should have been at the centre of every discussion. Oddly, there is no road/street signage of any kind; no one-way systems, yellow lines, parking bays, meters or any such street clutter. Anyone can park anywhere they like, it seems. Surely therefore, parking should be a major problem? It isn’t, I think for two reasons: one is that the Poundbury is in the middle of nowhere – the place is not swarming with tourists (I was, I suspect, the only tourist, and for all the wrong reasons). But secondly, the spaces that at first glance appeared to be walled back gardens are on closer inspection… car parks. The contrived, ‘kooky’ alleyways what you would expect to lead to interesting inner courtyards (as they do in Berlin) or to other streets, in fact lead to… more car parking. Tudorbethan garage doors are studiously avoided; the architecture is more ambitious than that. Instead, whole fake coach houses are constructed as ‘instant conversions’.

It’s the VW Beetle, obviously, because this is Poundbury – Prince Charles’ curious urban extension to Dorchester. The oldest part has recently reached the age of twenty (the oldest part of Poundbury that is, not of Prince Charles, who apparently dates from the late middle ages.)

I found myself passing by (don’t ask why – I’m cruising round some odd parts of Britain-on-Sea at the moment) and having never been, I was curious. More curious at least than my wife, who sat in the car listening to Radio 4 as I wandered about, taking photos and annoying the locals. True, it wasn’t ideal flaneur weather. And it didn’t help that Poundbury turns out to be at the top of a windswept hill, rather than the down-in-the-valley hamlet location you might have envisaged. If you’d envisaged at all. Perhaps its architects had been similarly misled.

But I went with an open mind, because one should.

The development, which is now greatly expanded from the small first phase completed twenty years ago, has been largely forgotten by the architectural (and other) press.

Ignore for a moment, if you can, the architectural style(s). I use the term style precisely, by the way, as the estate’s buildings are almost aggressively divorced from those same buildings’ appearance. More on that later.

In fact, the thing that immediately struck me first and most forcefully was not the toy town appliqué of different historical periods, but the cars, or rather what is done with them. For in the flesh, the Poundbury concept seems to be much less about design for people, or good-end pastiche, than about how to keep cars contented. How best to avoid our four-wheeled friends being annoyed by irritating road markings and signage, with matters as mundane as “finding a parking space”.

The car-based nature of the development was discussed to some degree in early reports, but perhaps it should have been at the centre of every discussion. Oddly, there is no road/street signage of any kind; no one-way systems, yellow lines, parking bays, meters or any such street clutter. Anyone can park anywhere they like, it seems. Surely therefore, parking should be a major problem? It isn’t, for two reasons: one is that the Poundbury is in the middle of nowhere – so not much pressure on parking from out-of-towners. But mainly, it’s because the spaces that at first glance appear to be walled back gardens are on closer inspection… car parks. The contrived, ‘kooky’ alleyways what you would expect to lead to interesting inner courtyards (as they do in Berlin) or to other streets, in fact lead to… more car parking. Tudorbethan garage doors are studiously avoided; the developers are more architecturally ambitious than that. Instead, entire fake coach houses are constructed as ‘instant conversions’.

In fact, the thing that immediately struck me first and most forcefully was not the toy town appliqué of different historical periods, but the cars, or rather what is done with them. For in the flesh, the Poundbury concept seems to be much less about design for people, or good-end pastiche, than about how to keep cars contented. How best to avoid our four-wheeled friends being annoyed by irritating road markings and signage, with matters as mundane as “finding a parking space”.

The car-based nature of the development was discussed to some degree in early reports, but perhaps it should have been at the centre of every discussion. Oddly, there is no road/street signage of any kind; no one-way systems, yellow lines, parking bays, meters or any such street clutter. Anyone can park anywhere they like, it seems. Surely therefore, parking should be a major problem? It isn’t, for two reasons: one is that the Poundbury is in the middle of nowhere – so not much pressure on parking from out-of-towners. But mainly, it’s because the spaces that at first glance appear to be walled back gardens are on closer inspection… car parks. The contrived, ‘kooky’ alleyways what you would expect to lead to interesting inner courtyards (as they do in Berlin) or to other streets, in fact lead to… more car parking. Tudorbethan garage doors are studiously avoided; the developers are more architecturally ambitious than that. Instead, entire fake coach houses are constructed as ‘instant conversions’.

Despite attempts to form small parks, squares and meeting places, the royally-patronised exurb’s beating heart (I use the term wrongly) is a vast windswept space on the eastern side of town. I don’t think it was intended to be such a location, but it’s where Waitrose is located, so that’s that. The space is essentially a big car park, but without any road markings or parking bays. Instead, the vehicles using it just kind of circle each other slowly, each giving way to the other, like absent-minded kerb-crawlers. There’s an idea at work here (I think) – the transposing of Dutch-led thinking on the mixing of cars and pedestrians by doing away with traffic control clutter, meaning that drivers have to slow right down and be more aware.

To criticise the architectural styles used (as opposed to the architecture) is perhaps to miss the point. But hell, let’s go for it anyway (when in Rome…). Friends have often accused me of being a lover of that most unfashionable of styles, postmodernism, and there’s some truth in that. But Poundbury’s architecture is not postmodern; it lacks the humour, the nod-and-a-wink that made Pomo such fun. These are po-faced, pompous buildings that take themselves entirely seriously, a careful attempt to replicate… well what exactly?

The oddest thing, for Charles and the New Urbanism movement that claim to value the organic growth of the urban landscape, is that Poundbury’s mix of styles is simply too mixed. There is no medieval core, surrounded by Georgian streets, added to by the Victorian and ending in 1930s sprawl. Instead, architectural styles spanning, I would say, about three centuries, are exactly evenly mixed and disbursed, entirely pointlessly. A late medieval market building, a Victorian pub, Georgian Cottages, some Arts & Crafts er, luxury apartments. Of course the styles end at the dawn of the 20th century. There’s no modernism here. No tilts towards the Bauhaus, but also no interpretation of classicism to create something new, as Lutyens did. Poundbury is pastiche in its dullest, well-built form.

And the odd incongruity; I’ve long been mystified by the British way of incorporating (or failing to incorporate) solar panels into the roofs of newbuild homes. Perhaps the idea here was to make the building look older than the photovoltaics:

And let’s just call this, er, unsuccessful by Poundbury’s own standards:

I said at the beginning that the buildings’ functions are often completely at odds with their appearance. Obviously houses are houses, but some of the houses are offices, supermarkets, light industrial units and in two cases, offices for emergency services (a fire station and an ambulance station). Leaving aside my taste-based critique of the architecture*, my stroll about town brought to mind some of Poundbury’s chief planner Leon Krier’s writing on cities and architecture. His gripe in that particular piece (and many others) was that the modernist ‘style’ lacked validity because it presented every building typology in the same way; a church, a factory a school all were apparently interchangeable in appearance. Odd then that his theory is the first to be thrown out of the (Neo-Georgian) window. Know what this is? (below)

This is offices, I think. And Waitrose:

And this is an ambulance station. You can tell it is, only because someone has thoughtfully painted a big sign on it, saying “St John Ambulance Station”.

To be fair, the local community hall looks the part:

…if it had been built in the late middle ages.

Despite Poundbury being pretty good in terms of build quality, it’s not ageing in the way it would if the buildings were ‘real’. Render is, ultimately, not stone.

Some of the designs are sweet…

Some are frankly a bit scary…

Some are almost convincing. A sort of arts’n’crafty Charles Rennie Mackintoshy anyone?

And some of it is just a bit eighties. I partly take back my positive inflection about Pomo – some of it was good, much was terrible. And enough with the f*****g balls on top of things, already:

Maybe all of this is unfair. Those who aspire to live in Poundbury are not comparing the homes offered here against the best that contemporary architectural design has to offer. They are comparing Dorchester’s new car-based exurb with other places’ new car-based exurbs. I spoke to/accosted a few people about town, who seemed to genuinely either like living there, or were at work and would like to live in Poundbury if they could have afforded it (tellingly).

*God save me from eclectic taste, as Grayson Perry recently said.

Post-blog note: this wasn’t really an entirely successful attempt to perceive some good in Poundbury and the work of Leon Krier. And a good thing too – have just come across a timely corrective on Krier, on Owen Hatherley’s blog.

 

 

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