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Updated Monday, 26th November 2001

Was Prince Charles' model village more than a crusty throwback?

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Leon Krier et al


Construction Date:
1988 (planning begins)
1993 (building begins, ongoing)

Dorchester, England

A Birthday Surprise

By 1984, the Modern Movement was at a low ebb. Years of recession and a subsequent shrinking of the state after five years of Margaret Thatcher's administrations meant that the government was no longer able to sponsor vast Modernist housing schemes as it had done in the three decades after World War Two.

Economic decline had also contributed to mass unemployment and social problems throughout the country. Although residents in every type of housing suffered, the unlovely monoliths of the Modern Movement seemed somehow complicit in the decay of Britain's urban fabric.

It was at this time that Prince Charles made his now famous intervention into the story of British Modernism.

At the 150th birthday party for the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), the Prince welcomed the public backlash against Modernism and launched a scathing attack on the architectural profession, accusing it of being out-of-touch, arrogant, and responsible for destroying community life in Britain's cities. "For far too long, it seems to me", the Prince complained "some planners and architects have consistently ignored the feelings and wishes of the mass of ordinary people in this countryÂ…Consequently, a large number of us have developed a feeling that architects tend to design houses for the approval of fellow architects and critics, not for tenants."

He went on "Why can't we have those curves and arches that express feeling in design? What is wrong with them? Why has everything got to be vertical, straight, unbending, only at right angles- and functional?"

The Prince warned his horrified Modernist hosts; "at last people are beginning to see that it is possible, and important in human terms, to respect old buildings, street plans and traditional scales and at the same time not to feel guilty about a preference for facades, ornaments, and soft materials."

The Past Will Be Planned

Modernists were appalled that such a prominent figure was openly attacking not just their work, but the entire Modern Movement, in which they had been schooled and which had been responsible, to a greater or lesser extent, for much of Britain's post-war landscape. But the Prince's speech was directly responsible for blocking the proposed Modernist extension to London's National Gallery ("a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend").

The speech also marked a crusade by Charles for a return to a more traditional approach to urban planning. The result of which is Poundbury, a village on part of the Prince's Duchy of Cornwall estate in Dorset.

In 1988, Prince Charles commissioned Leon Krier, a noted town planner with traditional sensibilities, to head a project to build 2,400 homes over 400 acres on the western fringe of Dorchester. Building started in 1993.

Although Modernist principles of planning and design are nowhere to be seen in Poundbury, that doesn't mean that nothing is planned. The streets are deliberately narrow and serpentine, so as to slow traffic flow through the village. Parking is provided behind houses in order to keep cars from clogging up the streets at night, and mews and gravelly lanes have been carefully positioned to create the feeling of a traditional English village.

The Prince's Solution

The housing is a blend of social and private, and commercial and residential properties rub shoulders in the narrow roads. Functional zoning a la Corbusier is not a feature. The buildings themselves are constructed according to the Poundbury Building Code, which insists on local stone as the preferred material and a respect for the English vernacular style.

Although derided by the architectural profession as 400 acres of pastiche, and as a profoundly backward-looking reaction to Modernism, Poundbury continues to grow. Much effort has been spent on creating a sense of community spirit within its turreted walls.

Just as Denys Lasdun and Peter and Alison Smithson fretted over the effect their buildings were having on the social fabric, and worried how to rectify this, so Prince Charles and his allies have grappled with a similar problem at Poundbury. Only their solution has not been a modification of Modernism, but rather a rejection of it.


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