A cultural cul-de-sac

The Prince of Wales's vision of a 'proper' English village is about to mark its 10th anniversary. Stephen Bayley revisits the artificially created idyll that is Poundbury - and encounters disturbing political echoes among the traditional values of rural Dorset
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The Independent Online

I can see a phalanx of houses across the fields, like an illustration of traditional English domestic architecture in a children's book. There is distant Gothic tracery, Georgian rectitude, Arts and Crafts smockery. There is no mirror glass or Cor-Ten steel.

Nor are there yellow lines: the Prince of Wales does not like them. The gravel scrunches and the birds sing. The cars may also rev, but you cannot see them. Like the bins, vehicles are shooed out of sight so that nothing rude and modern may compromise the ingratiating saccharine idyll that is Poundbury, population 700.

Poundbury is approaching its 10th birthday, but its historical roots go much deeper. Near to where I live in central London there are two parks, and each one contains a significant clue to Poundbury's intellectual origins. Like all inner-city parks, Vauxhall and Kennington are a mixture of threadbare optimism, ravaged boskage and well-meaning amenity. In Vauxhall, you will find a thoroughly nasty little model village, a miniature of the frustrated and thwarted longings for rural cuteness that torment the uneducated English mind. In Kennington, there is something more noble - the ideal workmen's cottages which Prince Albert designed for the 1851 Great Exhibition.

This mixture of misbegotten sentiment and improving social purpose defines Poundbury, but there is another ingredient as well. At some point in his journey between homoeopathy and organic husbandry, Prince Charles took very badly against modern architecture, or at least modern architecture as defined by a certain sort of foreign architect and their English disciples, who like to make clear, simple, straightforward contemporary buildings.

There has been an anti-modern element in English thought for ever, or at least long before a Modern building ever appeared here. Geoffrey Scott, one of the Villa Medici crowd, a friend of Iris Origo and Bernard Berenson, published The Architecture of Humanism in 1914. This defined architecture as an expression of cultivated, if culturally restricted, thought. In 1934, Sir Reginald Blomfield published Modernismus, an architectural critique of the Jewish Bolsheviks who - with their right angles and concrete - he thought were undermining national life.

More cosily, John Betjeman's mockery of dual carriageways and council houses betrayed a snobbish complacency in the English spirit. In all its expressions, an unattractive xenophobia and crude nationalism influenced this English rejection of contemporary possibilities. Betjeman secretly and unpleasantly called Nikolaus Pevsner, a champion of Modernism in this country, "Plebsveneer". A pure anti-Semitism played its part too: Blomfield was not alone in his characterisation.

Carelessly, Prince Charles has found a foreign architect of his own to help him express his peculiar vision of Britain. This is Leon Krier, who was appointed to come up with Poundbury's master plan in 1988. Krier is a traditionalist, and asks: "Why should architecture be aggressive and deadly?" By which he means: why should it be modern? Instead, there must, he says, be variety and texture: lots of different building plots, housing association dwellings mixed up with private properties. No arguments there. But the vision does not go very much farther.

Prince Charles's architectural education was on a parallel course, if perhaps at a different flight level, to my own. This led, as I know from happy recollection, to a very revealing collision of cultures. In the same year Krier was appointed to Poundbury, I went to St James's Palace to present Prince Charles with a model of the Design Museum and ask him if he would be prepared to open it. With pride and naivety I presented a model of this coruscatingly white Thames-side Bauhaus box to the heir to the throne. I did my speech. Prince Charles looked at me rather as if I had been sick on the Aubusson and simply said, with an expression of exquisite pain: "Mr Bayley, why has it got a flat roof?" He did not add, but clearly suggested, that it should have had columns, entablatures, metopes, triglyphs, lintels, wattle, daub, Beefeaters, turrets, towers, barge boards, finials, coach lamps, pantiles, gnomes, ragstone, quoins and window-boxes. And that was the end of that. The Design Museum opened in 1989, the year Prince Charles formalised his vision of Britain in an influential, if rather potty, book and television series.

The picturesque has a special appeal to the English, who have been so affected by the industrialism that turned a memory of brutish peasant life into a dreamy remembrance of a lost and innocent pastoralism. Thomas Hardy, so much the presiding spirit in Poundbury's Dorset, hated machinery. This, the world's first urbanised country, retains a pathetic love of the countryside that finds expression today in Barbours, four-wheel-drives and ponies. The force of this feeling was powerfully expressed by Oliver Goldsmith in "The Deserted Village" (1770), his elegy about disappearing country life: "To me more dear, congenial to my heart,/ One native charm, than all the gloss of art."

Poundbury itself is a safe two-and-a-half hours away from the broiling, modern cosmopolis of London. But if you had the impression that it is a stand-alone community, an architectural sketch on a canvas of empty countryside, you were wrong. It is located between Dorchester's council houses and where all that green Wessex stuff begins. Dorchester - which was the template for Hardy's Casterbridge - is a tragic sort of place, the sort of English country town that sells specialist chutneys and has youths shooting up in bus shelters, while undemanding tourists are bussed into the quaint Eldridge Pope brewery, close to a giant B&Q and a big Nissan dealer.

And just down the road is Poundbury, the "Vision of Britain" realised, the word in stone (and lots of breeze block and four-by-two). In one sense, Prince Charles's idealism puts him beyond the reach of rational criticism but, on the other hand, the alert and curious visitor cannot help making lasting judgements about the place. Like Goldsmith, Prince Charles spurns the rage of gain and finds himself alive in "these degenerate times of shame". He advocates instead "careful craftsmanship", "a sense of pride", "nothing standardised", "human proportions", "enclosure". His Poundbury is a monument to these expressions of decency. But it does not work. Real communities evolve by demand and desire, not by diktat. Real architecture is an unforced expression of immediate need, expressed through design genius rather than through years of inarticulate, accumulated despair about the modern world.

Poundbury is an annoying, lifeless and sinister 400-acre site. Designed with total disdain for modern effects, the coarse architecture depends entirely on modern materials and systems, as well as modern builders' vans. Prince Charles may long to relocate to an imprecise vision of the 18th century in this soft-focus folly of a somnolent townscape, but would not - one imagines - wish to make do with 18th-century plumbing, still less 18th-century healthcare.

To make that point is not to demand a simple-minded historical consistency, rather to suggest the philosophical poverty of the whole project. For instance, behind the robust and architecturally incorrect peristyle of Poundbury Village Stores sits not a selection of wholesome organic sausages, fresh bread and real virtues, but a Budgen, with all its gallon packs of Sunny Delight. It's a fake.

Like those New England towns where all the shutters have to be painted the same colour by decree, there are stern directives for Poundbury (the Poundbury Design Guidance). No bad thing in themselves, these laws demand, for instance, that television antennae may not punctuate the skyline (there is cable). No functional details of modern life interrupt the idyll. There is one knicker-pink Carpenters' Gothick house designed by Robert Adam, where a central-heating gas flue has been disguised by a gargoyle. This is embarrassing nonsense.

At Poundbury, the various architects have attempted a variety of English styles and tried to use a textbook variety of materials (stone, tiles, brick, colourwash), but this sort of texture cannot compensate for an abysmal lack of texture in the purpose and reality of the place. You note how carefully the principles of picturesque composition have been followed, only to be dismayed by how rapidly they collapse to produce chilling vistas of Sloap (Space Left Over After Planning). A great influence on the picturesque tastes that have affected, however indirectly, our prince was Camillo Sitte's 1889 book Der Städtebau nach seinen künstlerischen Grundsätzen (City Planning According to Artistic Principles), advocating curves in the plan and surprises in the eye-line. But Poundbury is not a response to the landscape, more a witless and heavy-handed imposition on it; it is desolate and artistically dead.

During the Sixties, when the counter-revolution against Modernism began, Ronald Brunskill at Manchester University's School of Architecture began his systematic studies of vernacular architecture. But Poundbury's slovenly and ham-fisted evocations of the past do not even achieve the arid heights of scholarliness. The architecture and planning are just plain bad. Jane Jacobs was attacking Modernist planning when, in 1961 in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, she argued for the benefits of vital slummy chaos over frigid grand plans. Today, she would be attacking Poundbury.

There is something deadly about all communities executed by fiat. Lord Lever's Port Sunlight near Birkenhead ("Happy workers are good workers") is a ghost town. Letchworth, the leafy pinnacle of Ebenezer Howard's Garden City movement, has a moribund air. In Italy, Mussolini's ludicrous Latina and Sabaudia are bereft of Latin spirit and deserted. Clough Williams-Ellis's Portmeirion, an Adriatic Baroque village, built out of scale near Portmadoc, is so terrifying that it was used as the setting for the classic Sixties psycho-drama The Prisoner. The only planned community that has been any sort of success is Wolfsburg, home of Volkswagen. And here is a chilly reminder of another of Poundbury's sources.

In 1933, "Volkisch" ideas became the state policy of Germany. The word has no exact English translation, but "folksy" nearly does it. The theory was that there should be a mystical and supposedly innate sense of communion with the landscape. Volkisch spokesmen yearned for a romantic, pre-Modern past, one ignorant of industrialisation or dangerous bourgeois intellectualism. The architectural expression of this was to be the "Heimatstil" (or homely style). Towers were important, expressive timbering, too. Gables were in: check out the youth hostel at Urfeld to get the idea. But most important to this concept of town planning was the central Volkhall, or People's Hall. And - almost unbelievably - Poundbury actually has one of its own, the Brownsword Hall ("available for Banquets, Concerts, Conferences, Exhibitions, Functions, Meetings, Parties, Presentations"). With its tile-hung gables and grotesquely flatulent columns, the Brownsword Hall, named not for the Brown Shirts, but for Andrew Brownsword, the greetings-card tycoon who paid for it, looks like an illustration from a Nazi architect's pattern book. When I visited, it was closed.

English life is contaminated by the unhealthy residues of the past, but while life in the fast lane may get a bit tiresome, life in a perpetual cul-de-sac is enervating in a more damaging way. Poundbury is a retirement community of the mind, a shabbily executed artistic dead end. It is desperate, sad and wrong. If this is a vision of Britain, I want none of it.