In a room of raw concrete block walls and exposed steel beams, a man with a long hipster beard takes an order on his iPad and froths up a flat white. Young mums and retired couples sit at long communal tables among Wi-Fi workers. It could be a trendy east London cafe in a repurposed industrial space, but this is the centre of Poundbury, the Prince of Wales’s traditionalist model village in Dorset. And there’s not a doily or tweed jacket in sight.
Something quietly radical has been going on here – and it's got nothing to do with architecture
“It’s not quite what most people expect,” says Ben Pentreath, one of the architects who have been engaged in producing replica Georgian terraces and quaint country cottages here over the last two decades. In jeans and New Balance trainers, the designer isn’t quite what you would expect from a classical architect, either. “For 20 years, this place has been treated as a joke, a whim of HRH,” he says. “But something quietly radical has been going on – and it’s got nothing to do with architecture.”
Butter Cross bakery in Poundbury. Photograph: Chris Vile
It is easy to get distracted by the buildings. From flint-clad cottages and Scottish baronial villas to Palladian mansions and miniature pink gothic castles, Poundbury is a merry riot of porticoes and pilasters, mansards and mouldings, sampling from the rich history of architectural pattern books with promiscuous glee. On the outside of its breeze-block walls, Pentreath’s Butter Cross bakery is dressed as an early 19th-century brick gazebo, crowned with a gilded fibreglass orb. It looks on to a little market square, where cast-iron verandahs face off against a creamy rendered terrace, watched over by a neoclassical office block that is raised on an arcaded plinth. It might seem grand for a village square, but it’s nothing compared with the latest set-piece tableau a few streets away, unveiled by the Queen today.
Almost 30 years since the masterplan was drawn up for this 400-acre site on the edge of Dorchester, Poundbury has finally received its town centre in the form of Queen Mother Square. If the first phase, built in the early 90s, was based on a villagey “Dorset vernacular”, this grandiloquent piazza has cranked up the dial to full Greco-Roman. A doric colonnade marches along the front of a new Waitrose on one side, facing the yellow facade of Strathmore House across the square. Strathmore, a palatial pile that could have been airlifted in from St Petersburg, contains eight luxury apartments beneath its royal-crested pediment. Next door stands the white stone heft of the Duchess of Cornwall, Poundbury’s first hotel, based on Palladio’s Convento della Carità in Venice, natch.
Strathmore House in Queen Mother Square. Photograph: Duchy of Cornwall
“The silent majority like this sort of building,” says 79-year-old Quinlan Terry, one of Prince Charles’s favourite architects, who designed most of the buildings around the square with his son Francis. Walk around the back and you find a cheeky nod to the stage-set nature of the place: here the columns and capitals are simply painted on to the facade. “It’s the poor man’s choice,” says Terry, “but it makes it more poetic.”
It’s easy to come here and compare it unfavourably with a 300-year-old town. But it’s just a modern housing estate
The residents of the new square will be anything but poor. Flats in Strathmore House have sold for £750,000, while apartments in the Royal Pavilion, complete with a spa, are likely to cost even more when they’re released next year. Sprouting from this block (which “brings to Dorchester design standards normally associated with Knightsbridge”), a 40-metre-high tower now rises above the square, visible from far around. It’s an odd beast, looking a bit like an inflated Georgian townhouse perched on top of the Arc de Triomphe, crowned with a domed pavilion and a little bright green pergola. It’s based on the Choragic Monument of Lysicrates in Athens, says Pentreath, who clearly had a field day with his pattern books on this particular job. But the tallest edifice in the area by far didn’t happen without a struggle.
“There was a real plot to stop the tower because of the landscape impact,” says Léon Krier, the Luxembourgian architect who drew up the Poundbury masterplan at the Prince’s request in 1989 and has overseen the development. “But we wanted to impact the landscape. The whole point of a monumental building is to create a landmark.”
We are engaged in creating a convincing fake. All architecture is essentially wallpaper: underneath, it’s all the same
The grand palazzo next to the tower was intended to be a magistrate’s court, but the plan was changed to make it more economically viable. “Perhaps it’s an interesting symbol, being luxury flats,” says Krier. “That’s the spirit of our time. After all, the masterplanner is not the master of the game.”
If Poundbury is a game, it is one that has become a good deal more convincing over time. For years derided as a feudal Disneyland, where Prince Charles could play at being planner like Marie Antoinette with her toy hamlet in Versailles, this supposed ghost town feels increasingly like a real place. The quality of the early phases was mixed – even Krier admits there were some “ghastly mistakes” – and construction has certainly improved. But strip away the fancy dress and you find a plan that far exceeds the sophistication achieved by any modern housebuilder.
Inside the ‘urban extension’ … residents of Poundbury. Photograph: Adrian Sherratt for the Guardian
Now two-thirds complete, this “urban extension” is home to a community of more than 3,000 residents, with around 1,500 homes (35% of which are let at affordable rent, pepper-potted throughout the development) and 2,000 jobs in 185 businesses. It has industry, shops and small workshop units mixed in among terraced streets, apartment blocks, mews houses and squares, arranged in such a way that the layout of buildings defines the street pattern, rather than being straitjacketed into a car-dominated grid. The streets are winding and deliberately chaotic to calm traffic, with blind bends and no stop signs or any other signage, while each neighbourhood is planned to be no more than a five-minute walk to its centre.
Still, the progressive attitude to cars hasn’t curbed habits: a survey conducted at the end of the first phase showed that car use was higher in Poundbury than in the surrounding rural district of West Dorset. The free-for-all parking policy, meanwhile, has turned many of the streets and squares into a car park for Dorchester shoppers.
Waitrose on Queen Mother Square. Photograph: Adrian Sherratt for the Guardian
But the chief success has been achieving the holy grail of genuine mixed use. As well as the medical clinics and vets, offices of lawyers and accountants, travel agents and a funeral home, there is a thriving chocolate and cereal factory, a tech company making components for plane wings, along with 80 small units for startup businesses scattered among the porticoes. “We sort of reinvented medieval workshops by mistake,” says Poundbury’s estate director, Simon Conibear, listing the enterprises, ranging from those making cakes and wedding dresses to curtains and electric bikes, two-thirds of which are run by women.
A primary school is also under construction, reflecting the increasing number of young families moving to Poundbury. “I thought it was a retirement village,” says Aaron Watkins, who opened menswear shop Clath here last month, stocking Red Wing and YMC, rather than Hunter and Barbour. “But it’s a really mixed demographic with loads of younger people moving down from London.”
Despite the leaded windows, the place has impressive energy credentials, too. An anaerobic digester nearby uses local farm waste to create enough fuel to power up to 56,000 homes on the Dorset grid, as well as charging the electric blue bus that trundles between Poundbury and Dorchester (bridging the “us and them” divide, which has softened over the years). So does this quaint experiment deserve all the derision?
“It’s easy to come here and compare it unfavourably with a 300-year-old town,” says Pentreath. “But it’s just a modern housing estate. If you look at a 1989 suburban development, it’s all identical two-storey brick houses, with a business park on the edge if you’re lucky. Here you’ll find a terrace of social housing opposite a big private house designed by the same architect, and a sense of genuine civic life.” Despite being on Duchy of Cornwall land, it is a hard-nosed commercial project, developed by local housebuilders who sell their product at a premium. A recent Savills survey found that values in Poundbury were up to 29% higher than on other new build schemes in the area.
We went a bit crazy and thought we'd do a bit of Shoreditch … HRH loves things that are quirky
- Ben Pentreath
As for aesthetics, there has been much hand-wringing in the architectural community over the “honesty” of Poundbury, questioning how faithful it is to both the local vernacular (it’s not) and natural materials (ditto), two of the prince’s primary tenets. Most of the stone is reconstituted, the traditional facades hide steel frames and blockwork walls, and much of the “metalwork” is painted fibreglass. Krier professes truth to materials, but Pentreath is frank. “We are engaged in creating a convincing fake,” he says. “All architecture is essentially wallpaper: underneath, it’s all the same stuff.”
The latest phase, which he has designed with fellow young classicist George Saumarez Smith, casts its stylistic net even wider to include what look like converted Victorian warehouses. “We went a bit crazy and thought we’d do a bit of Shoreditch or Shad Thames,” he says, pointing out the polychromatic brickwork and steel girder lintels above the shopfronts. “For the next phase we’re thinking of more of an Arts and Crafts vibe. HRH loves things that are quirky.”
Poundbury should be completed by 2025, by which time it will be home to an estimated 4,500 people, increasing Dorchester’s population by a quarter. Then the Duchy will leave it to run itself. Krier, who is writing a book on Le Corbusier, says he and Prince Charles will then embark on their ultimate project: “We are going to build a small modernist town and show them how to do it.”
- This article was amended on 27 October 2016.