Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Poundbury - a curate’s egg?

I was in Dorset last week and took the opportunity while I was there to visit Poundbury. Within a day of arriving in the area, I learnt that Poundbury is known locally as “Charlieville” or “Noddytown” and that its founding father, HRH The Prince of Wales, is colloquially referred to in that area as “Charlie-boy”. It seems that the denizens of Dorchester are a more earthy lot than the ‘refaned’ residents of Tetbury and district, who would never dream of referring to the heir to the throne in such a disrespectful way.

A conversation with a local architect suggested that the social mix at Poundbury is not so wide as it might be ideally, notwithstanding the inclusion of 20% social housing and some additional shared ownership properties. I was told that Poundbury residents are predominantly professional people or are retired, so the age profile is also untypical of the population as a whole.

On approaching Poundbury, I was immediately struck by its wind-swept hilltop site. It reminded me of the post-war council estates outside some of our larger towns and cities, so often located on a bleak, windy site, which inevitably creates an uninviting and even alienating environment even before a single brick is laid. This particularly applies at Poundbury to the larger, more recent area of continuing development on the highest ground. Thomas Sharp commented many years ago on the closed vistas which are such a notable feature of traditional English townscape, but in the later phases of development at Poundbury the opposite is all too often the case, with open views out of the town which entirely destroy any sense of enclosure.

The ambience of the earlier part of the development (for example around Pummery Square) is more intimate, and attempts a rather smaller scale vernacular pastiche than the polite architecture or even quasi-monumental style of some of the buildings in the later phases of development. Even so, there is a certain quirkiness in the design of individual buildings which is reminiscent of the style of Clough Williams-Ellis. In fact, my wife commented on the same slightly nightmarish quality that is evident at Portmeirion. Might the residents of Poundbury feel sometimes that they are extras in a re-make of “The Prisoner”?

Whether Poundbury works as a mixed use development is open to question. The range of local shops is very limited, although a Waitrose store is due to open later this month. The only local industry that I noticed is the Dorset Cereals factory (presumably a B1 use). I gather that working from home is encouraged, and some offices are now being built, but Poundbury remains overwhelmingly a residential development with only limited provision for other uses.

Despite its original aspirations, and the various claims made for it, I don’t think Poundbury succeeds in breaking new ground in terms of land use planning or urban design. Ebenezer Howard was far more successful with his developments at Welwyn Garden City and Letchworth. Poundbury, by contrast, has a number of distinct drawbacks, which I have referred to above, and on balance I think it is a failed experiment – not a disaster, certainly, but a disappointment. Whatever HRH may have hoped, I rather doubt whether Poundbury has any lessons to teach architects or town planners; nor does it offer a model for future urban development.


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