“When I undertook this venture, I was determined that Poundbury would break the mold of conventional housing development in this country and create an attractive place for people to live, work and play. Many people said it could never succeed, but I’m happy to say the skeptics were wrong and it’s now a thriving urban settlement next to Dorchester.”
I contemplate this statement, mixed with the victorious tone you’d expect from a future king, as I drive a buggy through one of the country’s most talked about experimental towns in rural West Dorset. Having reached a certain speed, all novelty fades into a Bloomsbury-esque haze of perfect proportions and symmetry, but the moment it slows down, the youthful sheen of brickwork, unusually clean windows, and distinct lack of genuine antiquity strike. I am puzzled, unable to square the absence of disheveled splendor with this age of architecture; Like most Brits, I’m used to a degree of filth and decay in cities built several centuries ago.
But Poundbury is as new as Georgian. Conceived in 1989 by the then Prince of Wales, the pioneering 400-acre project, combining sustainable philosophy with architectural conviction, was led by distinguished urban planner Leon Krier. Krier and his team were given the not-so-easy task of designing a self-contained (and not incongruous) extension of Dorchester on a piece of Duchy of Cornwall land that adhered to the county’s historic aesthetic as well as the unofficial plan. of the future king. for this company, ‘A vision of Great Britain’.
It is in this 1989 book that King Charles first ruffled the modernists’ pens, arguing for the preservation of distinct character and tradition, and the practical and psychological impact of reverential (and beautiful) architecture. Like Poundbury, the book sheds light on the monarch’s key values.
The first, and perhaps most important, is the look, all of which His Royal Highness says should honor Dorchester’s historic aesthetic. Beyond the Georgian keynote of it, Poundbury draws inspiration from other great architectural eras. The massive Corinthian pilasters lining the yellow, neoclassical facade of Strathmore House feel more like Catherine the Great than Hardy’s Wessex, while to your right, the equally strong Duchess of Cornwall Inn, with its layers of intricate arched windows, evokes Palladio’s Convento della Carita in Venice. Then there’s the imposing Royal Pavilion, the jewel in Poundbury’s polished crown, whose opulent mix of Greek Revival and arcaded Roman architecture nods to the styles of John Nash and Sir John Soane.
Among the locals, there is a feeling that Poundbury began life more in tune with the countryside, but that the arrival of palatial buildings in later phases of construction took people by surprise. “Some people say the properties around the fire station and Queen’s Mother Square are a bit over the top,” one resident confided. There are other complaints, with clauses in the pact that prevent residents from taking visual faux pas, like painting their doors the wrong color or, God forbid, using undesirable flowers in their front gardens.
The second principle is integrated social housing. Instead of pushing social housing to the outskirts of the city (Paris-style), Poundbury absorbs them into pockets of private housing, until they become indistinguishable from each other. Despite occasional reports of petty crime and vandalism, there is an overwhelming sense that this resulting mosaic has been a success. However, the ‘them and us’ mentality is at play in other ways, with Dorchester’s old town, connected to Poundbury by the causeway-style Bridport Road, often perceived as snooty and superior in its authenticity.
There is also a distinct lack of young residents. Aside from the odd family that throngs to Waitrose or the elaborate children’s playground at Great Field, everyone seems to be sporting a silver top. “Great for retirees looking for a nice area or those who have already bought homes, but not so great for young people trying to climb the property ladder who are getting priced out,” another told me. local.
The third principle is a pedestrian-friendly configuration, with roads circulating around key public areas rather than bisecting them. It does make life difficult for drivers though, and Poundbury’s maddening roundabout system tends to swallow you up for a few unnerving minutes before spitting you out on the wrong street. The ubiquitous gravel paths, the Capability Brown type that King Charles is no doubt used to, are another nightmare, if only for pushchair pushers.
The final principle is the combination of shops, offices and public areas. There are advantages to this. Car use is reduced, for example, with residents able to walk to work or the supermarket, while even the smallest craft workshops can do business in the city’s most attractive imitation Georgian blocks. But without a clearly defined high street and hidden cafes between offices, it can be unnerving, and Poundbury lacks the beating heart around which most towns coalesce.
“Everything is great,” commented one local who was very fond of the experimental village, “but its center ended up being Waitrose and a car park.” Considering the Duchy of Cornwall’s association with the high-end supermarket, this may not be an accident, but it is certainly a paradox for its founding car-free philosophy.
What impressed me most about Poundbury is its ability to generate strong opinions. For every negative sentiment (writer Stephen Bayley was particularly scathing, calling it a “stifling, sterile bedroom town that we’re told is the prototype of all our tomorrows… an insult to contemporary possibilities”), you’ll find someone full of of praise. .
“In general I think [the King] he has done a brilliant job and has rocked the cages of the modernists responsible for the terrible development in other parts of the UK such as Milton Keynes [in Buckinghamshire] and Bracknell in Berkshire,” said a Dorchester resident.
His comment touches on a contradiction that lies at the very heart of the Poundbury project. Its street and building names speak the language of a feudal age, of Coach Houses and Buttermarkets, while its social philosophy feels remarkably progressive and utopian, where digital agencies share workspaces with lawyers, and environmentalism for the that our King is famous for remains front and center. . Such a blend of traditionalism and progressive thinking endures as the town moves into its final phase of development. It remains to be seen if the King will continue to show the same enthusiasm towards this urban experiment with its completion scheduled for 2025.
I was initially skeptical and drew comparisons to the Truman Show, but after mercilessly mocking my husband for spending Saturday mornings there with my daughter, with the West Country as his oyster, enjoying the stellar new playground and trendy Pavilion In the Park cafe, I’m now a convert. It’s easier to set up a food store in Dorchester, which is closer to our town, but I still find myself in Poundbury, partaking in the pastiche I had mocked. Why? Because in his weird way, he’s actually quite nice.
Where to stay when you visit
The Kings Arms, Dorchster (thekingsarmsdorchester.com). This recently renovated 18th century coaching inn, with a fine bar and a rich Thomas Hardy heritage, is located on the main stretch of old Dorchester.
The Duchess of Cornwall Inn, Poundbury (duchessofcornwall.co.uk). To soak up Poundbury’s faux Georgian trappings of sunroofed bathrooms and wood-paneled rooms, with a great downstairs drink.
The Acorn Inn, Evershot (acorn-inn.co.uk). A red-faced pub in the nearby village of Evershot, a trip back in time: an exhalation of the 16th century after a safari-style tour of Poundbury.