Travel + Leisure

November 2009, Travel + Leisure

The Town that Charles Built

Prince fights to keep cherished English traditions alive with his nostalgic utopia.

Contemporary architecture has a very high-profile critic in Prince Charles. For more than two decades, he has fought to thwart projects by some of the best-known architects in the world. Earlier this year, he successfully pressed the royal family of Qatar to fire Richard Rogers as architect of a major real estate development project they were backing in west London. As a result, the princely campaign has brought condemnation from the likes of Frank Gehry, Zaha Hadid, Norman Foster, and Renzo Piano, who think the heir to the throne is circumventing the democratic planning process.

In the meantime, Prince Charles has been quietly leveraging his wealth and position to conjure up a utopian suburb called Poundbury that he hopes will point the way for future development in Britain. Poundbury, on the outskirts of Dorchester in the county of Dorset, 125 miles southwest of London, has its detractors as well. Local cynics call it Charleyville and others deride it as the apotheosis of retrograde aesthetics. But advocates proclaim it a resounding success——an alternative to the sterility of modern urban sprawl.

Poundbury’s master plan, drawn up by Luxembourg architect Leon Krier, takes inspiration from the vernacular architecture of surrounding Dorset, and while automobiles aren’t banned, they are subordinate to foot traffic. A jumble of neo-Georgian, Victorian, and Arts and Crafts-style houses line the narrow streets. Modern-day encroachments like satellite dishes, meter boxes, and garbage cans have no visible place here. Traffic signs and yellow lane markers are similarly banished, along with exhaust vents on the sides of buildings (when one appeared, it was quickly covered up within a curved limestone dragon head that now emits steam from its mouth).

The resulting streetscape is varied and often fanciful. Strict design guidelines rule out flat roofs. Instead, buildings are crowned by a mix of gables, turrets, and tall chimneys. The use of brick and rusticated stone is encouraged; concrete may be used only according to certain strictures.

Poundbury’s meandering lanes and market squares delight many visitors—and incite others. Thus the town is now a magnet for design aficionados and the simply curious. “We get coach loads of visitors looking around,” says David Barrett, a former mayor of Dorchester. Sixteen years since the first house went up, some buildings look as if they’ve always stood in this rolling green countryside that inspired the writing of Thomas Hardy. Because of Dorset’s damp climate, moss and lichen already dot the slate rooftops. The bricks, laid in prescribed patterns, appear mottled by age, and vines creep across picturesque facades.

Now 40 percent built, Poundbury has 700 buildings and 1,600 residents; properties range from 500-square-foot apartments to 2,200-square-foot houses. Prices run from $215,000 to nearly $1 million, with 35 percent of the dwellings subsidized for low-income residents. Close to a hundred new houses are under construction and plans calls for a centerpiece—to be called Queen Mother Square after Prince Charles’s grandmother who died in 2002—drawn up in Palladian style by royal favorites Quinlan and Francis Terry. Quinlan Terry claims that the Classical orders of ancient building design were handed down by God at Mount Sinai. Businesses are also scattered throughout town, where 1,000 people are employed in a chocolate factory and a muesli plant, as well as technology and law firms, doctors’ offices and clinics, financial advisors, and shops.

“We’re not building follies. It’s got to make money,” says Simon Conibear, who represents Charles as development manager for the prince’s Duchy of Cornwall, set up in 1337 by King Edward III to provide funds for the heir to the throne. Nearly seven centuries later, the duchy and its properties help support Prince Charles in an era when the royal family faces increasing public scrutiny.

Poundbury is as much about community building as it is about architecture, and I found those who opt to live here exceedingly open and friendly. Walk into the local pub, named the Poet Laureate after the prince’s late friend Ted Hughes, and it’s clear that most everyone knows everyone else. “It has a nice feel,” says publican Brian Dodge as he drafts a pint of lager. Dodge lives in an apartment just atop his business. “You feel safe here.”

Within half an hour of my arrival in Poundbury, Patricia Berry—a retired nurse I met while she was walking her dog on a graveled sidewalk—invited me to her stone cottage for tea. She ushered me into a cozy, bluish-white sitting room, with a gas-fed fireplace and a television set.

“When was Charlie here?” she called out to her twin sister, Margaret, a board member of the local residents’ association. The prince drops into town at least twice a year to check construction progress. “I was eating my lunch one day and looked out the window, and he was inspecting my garden with Prince Albert of Monaco,” a former resident, retired hotelier Len Paul, told me.

More than most British subjects, Poundbury residents have a lasting link to their king-in-waiting, if only because they’re required to sign a seven-page covenant agreeing to a litany of restrictions. People are urged to name their homes—I passed by Toad Hall, Pepper Pot Cottage, and Holmead House—on regulation-size signage in one of seven fonts. The prince and Krier review each new design of any kind, with an eye to preserving human scale and a local Dorset feel, as well as weeding out any attempts at a more extreme approach.

London architect James Gorst, who designed a nursing home for Poundbury’s second phase, fell from favor after he put forth a more up-to-date proposal for a medical center. “It’s an ideological view of architecture,” Gorst says. Stephen Bayley, a critic and former director of London’s Design Museum, blasts Poundbury as “a retirement community of the mind, a shabbily executed artistic dead end.”

“We’re not taste police,” insists Conibear as we pass by a house guarded by a tacky pair of stone lions that has brought angry complaints from neighbors but a pass from the duchy. There are few serious breaches of the covenant with His Royal Highness. “People have volunteered for it,” Conibear says.

Poundbury bears some semblance to American neo-traditionalist towns like Seaside, Florida, because it follows similar guidelines set out by such New Urbanists as architect Andrés Duany—who helped write Poundbury’s building code. But advocates of Poundbury say its economic mix gives it greater long-term viability than its U.S. counterparts, which are often seen as nostalgic stage sets where residents drive off to work and shop elsewhere.

And for His Highness, the effort is worth it to preserve a cherished version of England. “Rather than see the development of another zoned conventional housing estate,” the prince has said, “I was determined to ensure that such growth should recapture the organic form and sense of place of our historic towns and villages.”