“FAKE, heartless, authoritarian, and grimly cute” was Stephen Bayley’s view of Poundbury, Prince Charles’s experimental town near Dorchester. The architectural Establishment had targeted the Prince since his 1984 speech attacking plans for a modernist extension of the National Gallery, the “monstrous carbuncle” on the face of Trafalgar Square. At the time, I thought the Prince’s speech outrageous: I had no problem with what I then thought was daring and exciting city architecture.
But, as the years have passed — and I have seen once celebrated concrete and glass developments discolour and sometimes fall apart, and so many “landmark” buildings being demolished and replaced — I have come to be more sympathetic.
The reality is that Poundbury has proved itself to be a popular place to live. There is an acceptance of its design quirks, with its chimneys and bird-boxes, approved founts for house names, and timber for windows and door frames. It is traditional, evoking the past, but, in doing so, it serves something wider than architects’ sometimes limited views of creative living space.
Poundbury has a sense of the organic; its rambling streets and green spaces subvert the cold and anonymous geometry that many planners instinctively prefer. It manages to look and feel as though it had evolved randomly through time, magnifying any hint of shared history, encouraging memories and a sense of belonging.
It is a place that knows that it is a place. Poundbury is sustainable, although it is probably a bit too car-friendly. House prices are high, but there is a fair amount of affordable housing available for rent or shared ownership. More Poundburys are planned, and, in our current housing crisis, they are much needed.
The success of Poundbury represents the way in which Prince Charles has outmanoeuvred his critics over time. In doing so, his public profile has changed. No longer written off as a weird reactionary, he is seen by many as a kind of benign visionary.
Perhaps this is the gift that our monarchy still has to give in our undeferential time. Unlike Prince Charles, the Queen rarely makes her views known, but the continuity of her presence must have affected the Prime Ministers who have served her over her long reign.
If I was once anxious about the negative impact of a possibly over-opinionated and meddling Prince, I am less so now. Monarchy is continuity, and, if that means anything, it means an awareness of how present-day life is enriched by contact with the past. It is the recognition that tradition can be enabling rather than stifling, and that human beings, whether they know it or not, crave beauty, ornament, and connection with one another, with history, and with nature.
No doubt there are improvements to be made to the Poundbury vision, but that is true with all designs and plans. Only the perfect is sterile.