No review of contemporary UK urbanism is complete without looking at Poundbury. Prince Charles pet project in deepest Dorset is probably Britain’s most significant residential development of recent times. Until last summer, I’d never actually visited before, but had seen its influence time and again in housing developments across the land. Most of which, I absolutely hated.
However, I have to concede that for all my many misgivings, I liked Poundbury a lot more than I had expected and found that I could strangely imagine myself living there. I suspect this is probably the point.
But my first impressions weren’t good.
Approaching from the west on the A35, Poundbury presents a very blunt elevation of three-storey brick structures, which appear at odds with the otherwise bucolic surrounding landscape (see Google Streetview image above). Maybe it’s the landscape architect in me, but I found the abruptness and lack of interface with the landscape very jarring. Considering the substantive endeavour that has been made to replicate the vernacular buildings of the area, I was disappointed that there had been apparently so little effort to capture the character of the local landscape, e.g. with smaller scale fields and paddocks around Poundbury’s curtilage. As it is, a strip of rough grass separates the western end of the development from the adjacent relief road.
The “Witches Hat” and distributor road
Dorset Fire & Rescue (note the neo-classical up-and-over garage doors)
A large business unit and adjacent properties
Similarly, as I entered Poundbury via a distributor road that leads to the “Witches Hat”, things didn’t get much better. This part of the site includes some large business developments, and it is telling that infamous fire station, is far from the worst building in the immediate area. The oversized business park vernacular, meets small Dorset village, is not a juxtaposition that I would ever want to see again. In my opinion, the awkwardness of the areas larger buildings and developments, hint at the limits of the neo-traditional approach.
However, as I wandered deeper into the development, I found myself warming to the place; for all my scepticism, residential Poundbury does have a certain vitality that you very rarely encounter in contemporary developments. I’m a big fan of Jan Gehl’s ideas about the importance of having “Life between buildings”, and you really get the impression that people are using the public spaces for pleasure. I’d argue that the quantity of active streetlife is greatly assisted by the large numbers of small businesses and shops that have been encouraged to move in. Everywhere you look there seems to be an estate agents, cafe or a small firm of accountants (insert your own gag).
Some of Poundbury’s newer developments
Admittedly there are some really awful buildings too. I’m particularly thinking of the Georgian mansion, which appears to have a miniature Parthenon forecebly inserted into the roof (grown like a carbuncle?) and fronts on to an otherwise pleasant square. I suspect on the masterplan this building was identified as a “landmark”, because I kept finding myself coming upon vistas of it. Oh well.
MINE EYES! (and the ubiquitous campanille)
There’s an enormous variety of different building types on display here, many of which are interesting and fun, whilst others I feel try much too hard to be quirky. I guess that some people will love this, but I personally found it a bit weird. Sometimes, Poundbury feels like you are in an affluent village, at other times it feels more like a typical suburban housing estate (complete with flats above garage courts) and every now and again, it feels a bit more urban, like you’ve just found another bit of Highbury, complete with grand Georgian town houses fronting onto a park.
Similarly, the architecture occasionally catches you by surprise; whilst most of the time you are only too aware that it is a recreation, individual views perfectly capture the town/villages that the settlement mimics. All in all, it’s a bit of a strange blurring of urban, rural and suburban typologies.
An attractive and well used square
A couple of quirky properties
Village and Georgian townhouse typologies
Given the breadth and scale of development (much of which is still ongoing) it’s hard for one article to encapsulate everything about Poundbury. For this reason, I’ve bullet pointed some of my other thoughts:
- Still very car dominated – at one time Poundbury was the exemplar for car management, but today it looks a bit dated. When I visited I was surprised by the wide stretches of tarmac roads, whist there were also a lot of cars cluttering the streets. The much championed “shared space” bits were disappointingly more often semi-private routes, rather than the main thoroughfares. I also saw little evidence of public transport integration.
- Expected more pedestrian links – Similarly, whilst Poundbury is undoubtedly very “permeable”, I felt that there was an absence of clearly navigable routes for pedestrians. Doubtless this was done to create a kind of Gordon Cullen, “serial vision” experience, but I felt that it could deter longer journeys on foot (or cycle?). Green infrastructure anyone?
- Quality of building construction and masterplanning – All the houses are very solidly constructed, and nicely detailed. Similarly, the masterplanning of Poundbury is generally very good, with few awkward corners and some nice compositions. The standards of both design and construction are way beyond what is commonly seen in mass housing developments.
- Very dense with little space between plots – Perhaps the trade off for the quality seen elsewhere, is that plots are very tightly packed together. Whilst I understand this is typically of contemporary housing developments, I think many would prefer more space and privacy.
Too much tarmac? Permeable or semi-private space?
Too close to your neighbours? Too many cars?
There are unquestionably some strange contradictions behind the ideology of Poundbury, but I expect that for most people this is of little consequence. I think many, many people would find it an attractive and aspirational place to live. I confess that I particularly liked the town houses around one of the developments few internal greenspaces and also appreciated the proximity of local shops and facilities; and this is coming from someone who doesn’t really like neo-traditional styles. The success of a settlement is ultimately about whether people want to live there and the happiness of those that reside within it, and here Poundbury scores well.
Poundbury is an absolute one off, fantasy development, that serves as an exemplar for what could be achieved in the built environment. However, it seems to me that the mass housing developers have learnt the wrong lessons from. Its successes are not about the variety of built form or materials, but rather its vitality which stems from the high quality design and integration of compatible uses. E.g both homes and businesses.
Despite my occasional mixed feelings, I’m glad Poundbury is there and I will watch its continued development with considerable interest.