Saturday, 5 September 2009

Inevitably, Poundbury

Ye Budgennes.

Charles Holland says that Poundbury is irresistable to a certain breed of architecture-oriented writer - eventually the urge to snark at it becomes overwhelming and out pours a few hundred (or thousand) words of comfortable metropolitan bile. This is all very predictable and tedious, Charles wrote, continuing:

It is possible to write about Poundbury, even to write about it critically, and say something interesting, but the kind of literal, narrowly ideologial criticism of Bayley's article seems simply derivative and hopelessly myopic. And, apart from anything else, it's just too easy. Wouldn't it be more interesting to talk about Poundbury without this ideological baggage? To actually look at it and leave aside the hollow moralism? For a change. As a way of keeping things interesting.

These words are ringing in my ears as I type. Poundbury has of late flounced its way back into the press, thanks to a damning piece in the Guardian about its multiple flaws, and its connection to Prince Charles' recent conniptions about things modern. It has also loomed large in my personal life - my boss, Icon editor Justin McGuirk, visiting the place earlier this month to be cross-examined by Roger Scruton about the nature of beauty. I visited the place myself, earlier in the summer, as I was in the area and was curious to see it. The photos that accompany this blog post are mine, taken on 3 July. When the Guardian published its attack, I was minded to post, but Owen beat me to it with a thoughtful piece that shot my fox.

Poundbury, then. Inevitably. He are some related and unrelated thoughts from my visit and later ponderings.

In the Guardian's hatchet-job, it's the instances where aesthetics trump practicality that really capture the imagination - particularly the fake chimney causing a very real flood, and the absolutely baffling choice of gravel as a street surface. I noticed the gravel everywhere during my visit, and wondering how many tonnes of aggregate were swept into the district's drains every day. (Why? I suspect that it's purely an aesthetic status-signifier, with that high-class crunch. And why do gravel paths signify status? Because they are difficult and expensive to maintain.)

The gravel.

But the real meat of the Guardian piece, the truly damning bit, is that Poundbury suffers the same problems of antisocial behaviour as anywhere else. This is very important. The Prince's complaints about modern buildings have gained much traction from the way he associates modernist architecture with crime, fear, and social breakdown. Different architecture, he suggests, would have different outcomes. The Guardian piece tells us that Poundbury suffers from exactly the same problems as any housing estate, be it Wimpy vernacular or the sort of cheap quasi-modernism we get in this country. I value experiments like Poundbury because they are helping demonstrate that the social problems of the UK are not solely the result of the high-rise, modernist social housing built in the period 1950-1980. As an aside, I've been reading reports from Edlington, scene of a horrific recent case of youth violence that has prompted handwringing about "Broken Britain". It's as vernacular as you get, brick with pitched roofs and timber features - "some way from a stereotypical sink estate" wrote the Guardian, baffled. Maybe other factors are in play.

But I'm not just relying on the Guardian here. While I was in Poundbury I picked up a copy of the Poundbury Residents [sic] Association Newsletter. It's much like the newsletter of any residents' association:

Secret poo bag slinger!
From resident - name supplied
Someone in Poundbury puts dog poo in small plastic bag, ties them up and leaves it on the grass verges along the pathway bordering the new link road and on building sites. Can all dog owners please put their rubbish in the bins or take it home?

... Obsessed with dog poo, road safety and crime. It has the same problems of antisocial behaviour and petty vandalism as anywhere else, making it the #2 priority of the incoming RA chairman. His #1 priority is:

Engender a sense of belonging for ALL residents so they share a common value system about Poundbury which incorporates a feeling of pride for the area in which they live.

Unless I misunderstood the Prince's intention, I thought this sense of pride and community would kick in as soon as people were freed from their anonymous modernist deathmaze and placed under a proper pitched roof with proper dovecotes and a nice fake chimney. What Poundbury does instead, according to the Guardian, is create a sense of us-and-them between the new town and the rest of Dorchester. You can see why when you visit the place. The vernacular milieu has changed in the past 60 years. Rather than blend in with the rest of Dorchester, which is a largely intact English town not known for its brutalist megastructures, Poundbury sticks out. It's visibly out of place in a dozen different ways - for instance, you can tell where it ends because that's where satellite dishes appear on the side of houses.

You can hardly see the join.

Scrunching classily about in Poundbury, a number of things quickly become clear. Firstly, it's very windy. The place was built on top of a hill, and frankly it shows. So much for the gentle, organic interaction of Mr Leon Krier's town planning with the English landscape. Responding to landscape challenges is supposed to be one of the things that vernacular architecture is good at, and Poundbury is no good at it.

Secondly, parts of it kind of work. By work, I mean attractively approximate an English town that has been in place for centuries. Pummery Square (the placenames generally have a Hobbit-y feeling to them) is twee and pretty, much as it should be as it's epicentre of the place, a showpiece for a showpiece. The place it reminded me of most is Woodstock in Oxfordshire - a telling similarity as that's the home of Vanbrugh's Blenheim Palace, and the village was the plaything of the Duke of Marlborough for centuries.

Pummery Square. Behind me is Ye Budgennes.

It almost works, but not quite. What is the quality that makes the place subtly "off", not quite there? I've been chewing on that question for a while, and here are some suggestions.

Vernacular architecture, of course, isn't really a style at all - it just means local, traditional architecture. England has a vernacular that is completely different to Spain's vernacular. Greece has a vernacular. China and Mexico have vernaculars. They're all different, and the idea is that they evolved in response to local conditions, making them perfectly suited to their environment - more suited than universal modernism, which is "inappropriate". Poundbury is vernacular alright (and classical, which apparently is universal, without being inappropriate, but we won't get into all that) - but what vernacular? This is "The Brownsword" in Pummery Square, designed by John Simpson:

It's vernacular, but whose vernacular is it? Hobbiton, yes, but really it's curiously Germanic, with those high pitches and tubby columns. Or this building:

That's the distinctive Mitteleuropan elephant. And there's this:

Where are we? A new-build suburb in the Moselle valley? The only explanation for all this that I can think of is that Krier is originally German. I'm not a believer in some form of racial determinism in architecture, but it's baffling that this Germanic tendency couldn't be kept under control. It appears to be a kind of tic, like Dr Strangelove's spasmodic Hitler-salute. Speaking of which, Krier - an admirer of Albert Speer - has filled Poundbury with pairs of columns that are just crying out to be topped by lovely eagles.

Columns missing their eagles.

There's also plenty of English vernacular and mixed into it all are dollops of classical, often in surreal and unexpected places. Let's play "guess the building". What is this?

Temple? Cottage? Bus shelter? Folly? No, it's an electricity substation, obviously. Now, I have on my desk Leon Krier's oddly lovely Drawing for Architecture. He devotes most of a chapter - Forms and Uniforms - to building typologies and "nameable objects". His drawings tell us: A temple should look like a temple. A factory should look like a factory. A palace should look like a palace. A warehouse should look like a warehouse. His point is that modernism has driven these distinctions crazy. Either everything looks the same - a petrol station looks like a church looks like a house - or everything is a pastiche, so that chapels look like warehouses, parliaments look like factories, and pumping stations look like mosques.

And yet here we have an electricity substation that resembles a temple. Elsewhere there's a firestation that looks like a palace. It's pure pastiche. The argument that Charles and Sam at FAT might make at this point is: "Why shouldn't an electricity substation look like a temple?" And that's a very difficult point to answer. Taste aside, it's the lack of imagination that I hate. Why not try to develop a new classical typology for the electricity substations and the fire station, and all the other structures we've developed since Palladio? Why try to disguise them? Why not experiment?

But Poundbury really isn't interested in experimentation. Like the satellite dishes, its responses to most of the inconvenient truths of the 20th and 21st centuries is to ignore them, or to integrate them in a clunking, grudging fashion. The Poundbury Village Stores (actually a Budgens) has a perfectly normal, dreary suspended ceiling - the reason I looked is because suspended ceilings are another Krier bugbear, and I was interested to see if he had a different approach, or left the services exposed. It's the same deal with the main roads. The A35/36 - the main road into Dorchester from the west, which turns into the bypass - is hidden behind a huge berm. Other roads are shielded from houses by enormous green gulfs of public grass and car parking, such as the one that separates Poundbury "village" from Poundbury "town". In theory, I believe these are literal boundaries, carving up and separating Krier's "walkable neighbourhoods". The town avoids the problem of throughroutes by shunning them. And it's not really walkable - Pummery Square, rather than being central, is near the Dorchester edge, and to get from it to where most of the large places of employment are placed is a considerable hike. It's quicker to drive. These are suburban units separated by parkways - it's Robert Moses, or Levitt, with slightly higher densities.

I was very interested to see the larger places of employment. The houses and village squares are comparatively easy for the Charles/Krier school - that's where hundreds of years of experience have built up. I wanted to see the office blocks. There's that fire station, of course, and this:

Mey House.

This is what Albert Speer would have done if he had to design an office park on the M40. Krier might take that as a compliment - it really isn't. This is a hamfisted thrust in the direction of Giles Gilbert Scott that ends up looking exactly like most of the rubbish decreed by timid or philistine planners in the wake of the Prince's outbursts in the 1980s and 1990s - bland sheets of brick, overbearing scale, awkwardness and pomposity. If this is the best they can do, modernism has some hope yet.

Mey House is awful, but it might not be the worst building I saw. It's tied with the horror to the right in this photo:

In the middle of the roundabout is a display of traditional water-filled plastic barriers in seasonal colours.

I feel myself slipping into comfortable metropolitan bile. It's easy to do - it's really a horrible, creepy, place, made all the more surreal and unpleasant by the fact that it's apparently deserted (we saw very few people when we there). But I haven't really addressed the mysterious quality that makes the place so ... off. It's very tempting to use a word like "fake", but that's an empty criticism: the buildings are real enough, people live and work there, an although it's trying to look like it was all built 200 or more years ago, it doesn't claim to have been built 200 years ago.

Nevertheless, the reason "fake" is such a tempting word is because although it all "looks old", it does in fact "look new". Part of the appeal of pretty english villages is the mild decay that comes with age - the lichen on the roof slates, the softened brick, roofs that sag slightly. Some of this will come in time, perhaps, to Poundbury - but I'm not convinced. It has not completely been built according to traditional methods. A lot of it appears to be breeze blocks with decorative brick applied to the surface. The offices are steel frame, the bricks and tiles are of course modern. It won't age in the traditional, picturesque fashion. But it is aging - there's efflorescence, staining from masonry, failing mastic, flaking paint and dodgy woodwork. All the troubles of modern volume housebuilding.

Also militating against Poundbury's graceful aging is the fact that the place is so ruthlessly maintained. I get the strong impression - from things like the lack of satellite dishes - that the local building codes frown upon alterations to homes. These experiments in "new urbanism", like gated communities, are always covered by ruthless building codes, lest actual individuality disrupt the carefully choreographed individuality of the houses. It's as if the whole place was built as a conservation area, or a collection of listed buildings.

And that's the source of its weirdness. That's what makes it - dare I say - so fake. The "English genius for townscape", if such a thing exists or survives, has nothing to do with building entire places out of whole cloth - it is a genius for adaptation, evolution, improvisation and development over time. That is what makes buildings that coexist perfectly with their surroundings and their neighbours, and for the elusive charm of heritage villages. It's a change here, a change there, a few windows bricked up, a porch added. In its attempt to replicate this completed evolution from a blank slate, Poundbury misses the whole story of what it claims to try to preserve. The English vernacular - probably most vernaculars - are created by local people problem-solving and expanding over time, in an unplanned manner, using the materials at hand. That is not how Poundbury was created. Maybe I should give it 200 years, and see how Poundbury looks then - but we don't have 200 years, we have a housing crisis now, one that is worsening every day.

I'm very pleased that Poundbury exists, and is developing with little outside interference. It's good that the Prince Charles tendency is being allowed to experiment, so that we can see how the experiment is failing. Hopefully the Charlesistas will learn that modern architecture wasn't the cause of the social problem they claim it has been; but I doubt they will, and instead will fall back on draconian social legislation. Poundbury is a fabulous curiosity, a psychedelic urban experience, an area of exception that deserves to exist. What we can't afford is for its methods to apply to the whole country, because it offers the modern world nothing.

I'll say this for the place: as volume housebuilding goes, it's pretty good. If all the drab Wimpy-box estates were built with Poundbury levels of care and attention, the country would be a slightly better-looking place. But its advantages are mostly the result of care and patronage, supported by an indulgent council. If a similar-size area, owned by a benevolent and wealthy aristocrat or developer, were devotedly filled with a small town designed by MVRDV, or BIG, or FAT, or David Chipperfield, with the same level of attention to detail, it would succeed in the areas that Poundbury succeeds. (It might still be creepy, though, given the presence of that all-seeing, all-powerful patron.)

What we come down to is an entirely contrived "choice" between "modern" and "classical/vernacular/traditionalist" building styles. This is a false dichotomy, a red herring. Take a look at this story from BD, in which developer Barratt proposes both "modern" and "classical" building for the same site. They're both awful, it's no choice at all. It's really about good buildings versus bad, devoted planning and building against developer-led junk, unchecked development against urbanism. What I really wish is that Charles had been bolder and more willing to experiment - there's something bizarrely likeable about the Germano-Hobbit Brownsword, and whimsy has its place.

To close on a note of unalloyed praise for Charles' little urban laboratory, Poundbury makes use of combined service ducts in the middle of its streets, which make utility maintenance easy and minimise the need for disruptive roadworks. That's a functional, sane, elegant approach, one that has as much to do with vernacular architecture and traditional building techniques as suspended ceilings or ETFE pillows.


Unknown said...

My word, it just goes on and on. No wonder it took so long to write. Sorry about that.

vanderleun said...

You could have said the whole thing, from first fuzzy thought to the last pebble of gravel, was ghastly and left it at that.

Tradesmen Building Supplies said...

I think "care and patronage, supported by an indulgent council." says it all.

Jonathan Clarke said...

Interesting that you mention the landscape issues at Poundbary, as I have always thought that Charlie and his various organisations, have a rather ambiguous attitude to landscape architecture.

Landscape architecture is intrinsically linked to the character of a place (sometimes overly so), which you would think that the Prince would support. However, I have never seen Charles or his organisations make any comment on the work of landscape architects.

Further, a couple of years back I was encouraged by a colleague to attend one of the Prince's Foundation's 'Inquiries by Design'. Supposedly their inclusive approach to urban design, which involves getting the whole communitytogether in a charette, was the future of cross-disciplinary working. Unfortunately for me, landscape architects weren't included in this...

Myf Skypper said...

That office building is horrifying! Way more terrifying than old victorian witch houses!

Now that I've grown old enough to buy stocks and bonds these hateful- of the street -weirdly- peepholey- charactered buildings really disturb me. Lots of people have written how you're made to feel like a criminal for simply being on foot by these places. This goes a step further and tries to make you run away so fast that just a cloud of dust and a cartoon sound effect ringing out signify you were ever there.
Sorry for the runon sentences I'm phone typing.

Olivia said...

Went through Poundbury last summer and you're right about the deserted feel it was really quite weird, as if the residents were just about to move in and nothing had quite been finshed.
I think more greenery would have softened the edges, and those particular buildings you chose were bizarre almost americanised nouveau riche horrors.
Going back to Dorset this July so will check it out again - see if its improved

Content in Poundbury said...

What a sad article. I choose to live in Poundbury and like pretty much every neighbour I know (yes we do talk , drink and socialise together) love the place.

There are plenty of parks and green space, a great mixture of private and social housing and a definite feeling of pride.

The planners have managed to create a densely populated town/village without the feeling of being overwhelmed by flats and row after row of uniform houses which I appreciate.

As for some of the comments, they are ridiculous !

'Lots of people have written how you're made to feel like a criminal for simply being on foot by these places'

This is laughable - it's all part of a trendy witch hunt borne out of petty jealousies.

Anonymous said...

Feel quite privilidged to live somewhere that sparks so much debate as opposed to another dreary housing development by the likes of Barret homes.

Anonymous said...

I love it here in Poundbury. It is a great place to live, come and join us!