Editorial Feature

Poundbury: a 21st century housing estate like no other

Architects Léon Krier and Ben Pentreath talk about The Prince of Wales’ architectural vision

Located on the outskirts of Dorchester, England, Poundbury is an experimental new town built on the “principles of architecture and urban planning”. These principles are ones advocated by The Prince of Wales and first appeared in his book A Vision of Britain: A Personal View of Architecture originally published in 1989. In the book His Royal Highness stressed the need to preserve the unique character of towns and cities, suggested the need to review existing planning laws, and also highlighted the importance of providing architecture on a human scale.

This led to the development of Poundbury, built on land owned by the Duchy of Cornwall, where work first began in 1993. Its mission was simple: “Poundbury would be a high-density urban quarter of Dorchester, which gives priority to people, rather than cars, and where commercial buildings are mixed with residential areas, shops, and leisure facilities to create a walkable community”.

Illustrated vision of Poundbury (From the collection of The Duchy of Cornwall)
First site meeting in 1993, featuring HRH The Prince of Wales, Leon Krier, Andrew Hamilton and members of the development team (From the collection of The Duchy of Cornwall)

While this sounds fairly straightforward, this approach is a direct challenge to the multitude of planning assumptions and regulations created in the latter part of the 20th century and the last decade. However, as Poundbury has developed, it has demonstrated that there is an alternative way to build new communities in the UK.

“I’m so familiar with Poundbury that it’s sometimes hard to imagine it through the eyes of someone visiting for the first time,” says Ben Pentreath, one of the architects who has been involved in the project since its early days. “People are often blown away by the sheer quality of the spaces and the richness of design, and by the vibrancy created at the heart of the development. I often say to first-time visitors: ‘please don’t compare us to an old, historic town – the actual comparison should be with a 25-year-old modern housing estate’. I want people to feel as if they have arrived somewhere, not anywhere.”

Pentreath first visited Poundbury as a student at the Prince of Wales’ Institute of Architecture. “We were given a student competition to design Pummery Square, at the heart of Phase 1,” explains the architect. “My design was chosen for the pub and shops – so you could say I’ve been involved for a very long time!” About 10 years ago, Pentreath began to get much more involved in the architectural coordination and has designed and steered through several major planning applications, including the South West Quadrant, the North East Quadrant, and the Northern Quadrant.

Architect Ben Pentreath (From the collection of The Duchy of Cornwall)
Poundburt street scene (From the collection of The Duchy of Cornwall)
Poundbury street scene (From the collection of The Duchy of Cornwall)

Built on 400 acres of land, with 250 acres of mixed-use buildings and 150 acres of landscaping, by the end of 2016 around 3,000 people were living in Poundbury and 2,000 were working across the 180 businesses that reside there. “When I first visited Poundbury it was a single street of small stone cottages built in a field leading to nowhere,” explains Pentreath. “So to see how the development has evolved into a living and breathing place is fairly extraordinary – and I think it would be true to say that no one then would have even imagined what we know now. Perhaps with one exception – Léon Krier; it is very powerful to see how closely the Poundbury masterplan has been delivered in accordance with Léon’s initial plan.”

Léon Krier is the architect, theorist, and urban planner who is responsible for taking Poundbury from drawings to a reality. “In March, 1987, HRH asked me to become his personal consultant for architecture and urbanism. A year and a half later he appointed me to masterplan Poundbury,” says Krier on how he became involved. “There was no established and professionally-defined discipline of ‘Traditional Urban Masterplanning’ when we started. So my role has consisted of a lot of things.”

Leon Krier, masterplanner of Poundbury (From the collection of The Duchy of Cornwall)
Queen Mother Square, Poundbury (From the collection of The Duchy of Cornwall)
Brownsword Hall, Pummary Square, Poundbury (From the collection of The Duchy of Cornwall)

Krier’s right, the list of decisions the architect has been responsible for is vast and has included determining the size, number, and location of new urban quarters, the hierarchy of roads, the network of public streets, the purpose of particular buildings, the incline of the roof pitches, the public signage, and so much more.

“So often, a great master planning team is hired to design a project; very often the first phase is built out reasonably closely in line with the aspirations of the plan and the design. But then things unravel and get chipped away,” explains Pentreath. “In Poundbury, by contrast, the landowner has consistently delivered Leon’s plan and, if anything, its importance has been strengthened in recent years as the success of the underlying characteristics of Leon’s way of thinking are fully revealed.”

Each part of Poundbury is methodically thought out, specifically the rich variety of architectural styles, which are all based on traditional architectural forms and details. Its design influences are primarily European and range from simple cottage-laden streets to sophisticated, classical buildings. Krier took this multi-layered approach to create an “evolving sense of character areas within the development as a whole”. The idea was to break the “monotony of so many 20th century housing estates”, where buildings and styles are repeated without taking into consideration the environment's identity.

Poundbury front door (From the collection of The Duchy of Cornwall)
Street elevations of the North Quadrant by George Saumerez Smith (From the collection of The Duchy of Cornwall)
Statue of HM Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother (From the collection of The Duchy of Cornwall)

Poundbury’s identity is a visualisation of Krier’s considered approach. But the architect is keen to acknowledge its other mastermind. “When completed, Poundbury will be the realisation of The Prince of Wales’ vision,” he says. “By creating this kind of fabric of buildings and public spaces, and ensuring their organic functional variety, a true community is achieved.”

Of course, creating a new urban environment comes with its own challenges and one of them has been the scale of the project. Krier feels the main challenge has been “doing the right thing despite the common and dominant practices of zoning, building planning, landscaping, parking, and assembly”. Working within the constraints of regulations put in place by the construction industry has made it more difficult to “build a correct traditional model”. What it’s meant is that more expertise and judgement has been needed to realise these “correct” traditional designs.

Poundbury Birds Eye View, Leon Krier (From the collection of The Duchy of Cornwall)
Architectural Drawing of The Quiet Space (From the collection of The Duchy of Cornwall)

For Pentreath, it’s making sure a high standard is maintained, especially with so many people invested in the project: “There are a lot of people involved – several developers, often several architects, Leon, The Prince, the Duchy, planning officers, historic England, residents, locals of Dorchester, and the surrounding villages. All have a sense of investment in the project, and so often the architectural role is more complicated than it might be otherwise – particularly when all aspects of the design are of considerable wider national interest,” he says.

“However, having said all that, I’d say that Poundbury now has such an established presence and way of doing things that the challenges are lighter than in many similar projects. We don’t need to have arguments about delivering mixed use, or about using a high quality materials palette, or about creating non-standard building types, or about using non-standard highways solutions. In Poundbury, all these controversial ideas are ‘taken as read’ and we are able, by and large, to get on and design to a very, very high standard.”

Poundbury street scene (From the collection of The Duchy of Cornwall)
Painting of a Poundbury street scene by Carl Laubin (From the collection of The Duchy of Cornwall)

For the next phase of Poundbury, there are big plans ahead with a “spectacular urban skyline and a kilometre-long urban esplanade”, which will stretch from the leafy Royal Pavilion to Poundbury Fort already scheduled. Alongside this, more private and affordable housing will be built in the hope that by 2025 Poundbury’s population will increase to around 6,000 residents.

While it’s the mix of architecture and careful planning that has formed the structure of Poundbury, it’s the people and businesses that have really defined the town. “My favourite elements are actually some of the businesses – I really love the Brace of Butchers, or Finca Coffee in the Buttermarket, or the Clath menswear shop,” says Pentreath. “These are the sort of places that for me make Poundbury compelling. Obviously the architecture and masterplanning exist to provide a frame for them, but it’s the bits we are not in control of that make the place hum.”

Krier agrees: “This has been an inspiring learning process for everyone involved. It would have saved His Royal Highness a lot of trouble if he had sold the Poundbury property in 1988 as his predecessors would have done,” he explains. “The Prince of Wales chose the more difficult path, which also turns out to be infinitely more rewarding for everyone involved.”

Poundbury front door (From the collection of The Duchy of Cornwall)
Aerial photo showing the full development (From the collection of The Duchy of Cornwall)
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