Twenty years on, Prince Charles’ town is liked by its residents, but suffers − not from its faux styling − but from its impulse for instant placemaking
What is it that makes yesterday’s homes so different, so appealing? This reversal of the title of Richard Hamilton’s collage could define the inquiry on which the Prince of Wales’ model urban project of Poundbury was based. Planning permission was given in May 1993, and it is still growing and causing satisfaction for its residents and aggravation to architects in roughly equal measure. If the mission was to find the essence of the good past and use it to grow something new, it fell into a recognisable sequence of retro-utopias.
Its closest precursor was Noak Bridge, 1975, by Maurice Naunton and George Garrard of Basildon Development Corporation who were tired of the monotonous suburbia they had worked on. Streets were narrowed and curved, houses conjoined to save ground and create a more urban quality, landscape conserved and cars parked out of sight. With less architectural and media fuss than Poundbury, it did an excellent job.
To be polemical, was, however, integral to the Poundbury mission. It divided the world into two groups, those who get the creeps from it and those who can’t see the problem, and no amount of argument is likely to shift people from one group to the other. Every quantifiable characteristic of the place tells in its favour: the planning innovations, in the form of higher densities than standard suburbia; a mix of housing tenures; less traffic-friendly roads; the aspiration to integrate employment in walking distance of houses.
This is supposed to add up to community, a more elusive goal, but people say they feel safe there, and the houses sell at a premium for the area. The look has been widely imitated, but there is more to the project than just appearances. What makes Poundbury creepy, then? Is it like an over-attentive puppy that is just too cute? Is it the attempt to be old when it isn’t, or just the wrong retro references, given that Modernism has now been a retro style for three generations? Is it a concentration of Middle Englishness that, as WH Auden or Agatha Christie would surely tell us, conceals a deeper deceit or darkness of the soul? But don’t all planned settlements have something creepy about them?
Is there a single garden suburb or Siedlung that doesn’t convey a slightly zombie-ish feeling of unreality? I love to visit Milton Keynes, Hampstead Garden Suburb or Frankfurt Römerstadt and admire the beauty of the landscapes and the clarity of the architectural concept, but I am heartily glad to return to the messy reality of places that have not been hatched in a single moment.
Neither Poundbury nor any Modernist Truman Showcan ever inspire our affection as do the ecosystems of piecemeal growth. Rather than imagining a face off between, say, Poundbury and Accordia, should we place them in the same category of well-intentioned but over-determined efforts to achieve the impossible feat of instant placemaking?
If turning the dial a few notches towards Modernism reduces the creep factor, it will be interesting to see whether, beyond the control of the Duchy of Cornwall and its improving landlord-prince, the strengths of the Poundbury model can grow without their Classical trappings. At Roussillon Parkin Chichester, Ben Pentreath, a major young contributor to recent Poundbury phases, has worked with William Smalley to design terraces whose stripped classicism in grey brick is a whispering bone-structure rather than a jaunty hat and necktie.
Is Accordia, with its Modernist clarity, any more than a mere arm’s reach from this sort of stripped Georgian, or is Modernism, by cosying up to classicism, denying its birthright to innovate technically, spatially and artistically? Is the discussion really about the predilections of house buyers and mortgage lenders falling into a narrow band of acceptable choices, rather than anything more fundamental about the vital question of town building in the 21st century?