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Why do some architects hate Poundbury? (When so many others love it?)

King Charles’ model village gets grudging respect on its impressive stats – but its revival architecture still rankles some

Image: Duchy of Cornwall


FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

Contact: Leslie Barrett

Lennard Institute for Livable Cities Inc.


POUNDBURY, UK: “Twee.” “Mock.” “Nostalgic.” “Fake.”


These are just some of the architectural curse words regularly hurled at Charles III’s new model town of Poundbury, an urban extension of 3,800 people and 200 businesses that is billed as “focused on affordable housing and encouraging a more sustainable way of life.” On the evidence, it is a successful and popular place – but one wouldn’t think so from the harsh attacks of some architects and professional royal-bashers.


Calmer voices seem ready to offer a more reasoned assessment of Poundbury. Oliver Wainwright, architecture critic for The Guardian, wrote a typically revisionist article in 2016 titled “A royal revolution: is Prince Charles's model village having the last laugh?” In it he assessed Poundbury’s accomplishments and concluded that “a growing and diverse community suggests it’s getting a lot of things right.” This past May, Matt Oliver of The Telegraph wrote yet another sober reassessment titled “Inside Poundbury: Why Prince Charles's 'Disney-esque' model village is proving critics wrong.”


Some architecture critics are also coming around. In 2018 the critic Witold Rybczynski of Architect magazine rebutted his fellow critics when he found that “the place is neither anachronistic, nor utopian, nor elitist. Nor is it a middle-class ghetto. In fact, Poundbury embodies social, economic, and planning innovations that can only be called radical.”


“Poundbury IS radical, and ironically, it’s the offended architects who are the real reactionaries here,” says Dr. Michael Mehaffy, an architectural researcher and Executive Director of the US-based Lennard Institute for Livable Cities. “They’re mired in a century-old taboo against revival architectures that is actually quite unsound, from a modern scientific point of view,” he says.


A section of Poundbury, combining traditional English Classical and local vernacular architectures. Source: Lennard Institute.


“Revival and recapitulation have always been an integral part of architectures across cultures and eras,” Mehaffy says. “It’s only recently that the rather weird idea that ‘we mustn’t copy the past,’ that everything has to be daringly novel or edgy art, has taken hold. I don’t think that has worked out well for us,” he says sardonically.

Moreover, Mehaffy says, this approach is inconsistent with the historically more recent insights into biological evolution. “Natural systems build on their own past successes, and they refine and evolve in complexity,” he says. “They keep and recapitulate what works – the porpoise recapitulates the dorsal fin of the shark, because it’s a highly successful response to a complex environment.”


“Human environments are not so different: we evolve and refine and recapitulate. And the results are some of the most successful, best-loved, most enduring environments humans have known. We know they’re sustainable, because they have in fact sustained,” Mehaffy says.


The Pantheon in Rome, a “sustainable” building in continuous use for over 1,900 years. Source: Pickpic

“This game of recapitulation has gone on for a very long time, across cultures,” Mehaffy points out. “The Egyptians' architectural DNA was recapitulated by the Greeks', and theirs was recapitulated by the Romans and the Eritreans, and theirs was recapitulated by the Renaissance, again by the Americans, by London and Paris, and so on and so on – until it all came to a crashing halt only in the 1930s.”


“That’s when the taboo against “copying the past’ came along, and the modernist idea of “starting from zero’ – although by today’s standards of biological complexity, this is not actually a modern idea. It’s remarkably obsolete, in fact,” says Mehaffy.


Mehaffy notes that a growing body of research also shows a disconnect between what most architects design and what most users actually prefer. This preference does not seem to vary much by identity or ideology, but is remarkably well-distributed across non-architect populations. “It seems to be mostly architects and critics who are in the minority when it comes to what people regard as beautiful and desirable in their neighborhoods – and we should remember, it IS their neighborhoods, not ours,” he says.


For all these reasons, Poundbury dares to recycle some of the aesthetic characteristics that have proven themselves enduring, successful, and attractive over decades and centuries. One can debate how skillfully it does so, or whether it could have incorporated more innovative forms along with the “straight-ahead” traditional forms and patterns.


A small square in Poundbury. Source: Lennard Institute.

Mehaffy says that all this is fair game, and in fact, his organization will be holding a conference at Poundbury from October 10-13 of this year, gathering researchers, practitioners and policymakers to do a “deep dive” into the community and its lessons. “We can and should debate what can be done better in this and other communities, even as we learn from their successes,” he says. “But what we should not do, in my view, is perpetuate facile attacks and shallow memes that fail to recognize the real elephant in the room – and that is the dismal state of the other 99% of development out there. If we’re not dealing with that, we’re just committing malpractice, in my opinion.”


"Artistic creativity has its place," he says. "But it is a place, subservient to responsible professional practice aimed at human and planetary well-being."


Certainly, Poundbury has achieved impressive successes, enough to spark the envy of other aspiring sustainability practitioners: 35% permanent affordable housing – “pepper-potted” indistinguishably across the town, and not clustered into identifiable “projects”; mixed use zoning, with 207 businesses integrated into the town, and providing over 2,300 jobs for its population of 3,800; ample provisions for walking, cycling and transit; and a number of innovative ecological features. Among the latter are a net zero emissions biomethane generator that provides fuel for up to 59,000 homes; “solar slate” roof systems; electric charging stations throughout the town; high-insulation homes using cavity wall construction with high thermal mass; and a shift away from plastics and other problematic substances toward natural and renewable materials.

A view from Poundbury’s Duchess of Cornwall hotel toward the main square. Source: Lennard Institute.

“We’ll share these and other lessons, not only from Poundbury, but from other communities that have managed to move the needle toward better-quality development. We think it’s urgent to do so, and to move toward a new generation of more durable, more sustainable, more livable cities, towns and suburbs,” Mehaffy says.


The Lennard Institute’s conference series, the International Making Cities Livable (IMCL) conferences, began in 1985 when a Viennese medical sociologist and a UK architectural scholar began gathering mayors, academics, practitioners and activists to focus on the well-being of urban residents and the health of their environments. This year’s conference will be the 59th in the series. For more information, visit the conference web page at https://www.imcl.online/2023-poundbury


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About the Lennard Institute for Livable Cities:

The Suzanne C. and Henry L. Lennard Institute for Livable Cities, Inc. is a US-based Public Benefit Corporation and 501(c)(3) non-profit, and the host of the International Making Cities Livable conference series. The IMCL was begun in 1985 by Dr. Henry Lennard, a Viennese medical sociologist, and Dr. Suzanne Lennard, a British architectural scholar. The current Executive Director is Michael Mehaffy, a researcher and practitioner who holds a doctorate in architecture from Delft University of Technology, who was the first Director of Education for The Prince's Foundation in London. This year’s conference focus will include cutting-edge topics of environmental psychology, neuroscience, and other fascinating subjects, exploring how human beings respond to different environments – and how those environments have surprising if sometimes hidden impacts on health and well-being. Speakers will include Semir Zeki, Professor of Neuroaesthetics at University College London, and Cleo Valentine, neuroarchitectural researcher at the University of Cambridge. Many more eminent researchers will discuss topics of human health, ecology, public space, economics, and other urban issues.


For more information:


Dr. Michael Mehaffy

Executive Director, Sustasis Foundation


A background story with additional relevant information and quotes can also be found here: https://www.cnu.org/publicsquare/2023/04/04/assessing-poundbury-30


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