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Poundbury may be frozen architecture but its basic structure is a pointer for developments elsewhere

If Poundbury is the answer, what was the question?

The story of the UK's best-known new urbanist community began in the late 1980s when a bypass enclosed a swathe of undeveloped land at Poundbury Farm on the edge of Dorchester. West Dorset District Council was looking for housing land. A development site seemed to have delineated itself.

The land in question had been owned since 1342 by the Duchy of Cornwall, the organisation created to provide for the living expenses, then and ever since, of the Prince of Wales. The Prince took an immediate interest in the idea. The likelihood was that a new stretch of suburban Dorchester would sprawl across this historical landscape (overlooked by the ancient hill fort of Maiden Castle), with houses minimally adapted from volume builders' standard catalogues.

Indeed, this was just the sort of scheme the architects envisaged in their first proposals for Poundbury. The Prince intervened.

Here was his chance to show that the face of contemporary development could be radically different. In 1988, he appointed Léon Krier to prepare a masterplan. Krier planned the Poundbury development as an extension to Dorchester in what he described as four urban quarters. The first quarter, supposedly incorporating a dreary 1950s council estate, is now complete.

About 650 people live in Poundbury and 470 work there (producing chocolates, electronic components and breakfast cereals, among other things). When all phases of the development have been completed, the residential and working populations will be 5,000 (more than a third of them in social housing) and 2,000 respectively.

Poundbury makes some people uneasy.

On my recent trip there two other visitors told me it evoked for them The Stepford Wives. In that classic film, based on Ira Levin's 1972 novel, the fictional suburban community seems the ideal of the American dream: well-manicured, peaceful, prosperous and happy. It turns out that Stepford's men have had their wives turned into automatons with no purpose but to gratify their husbands.

Other critics of Poundbury recall the 1960s cult television series The Prisoner, set in Portmeirion, the township on the north Wales coast designed and built by the architect Clough Williams-Ellis in the form of an Italianate hill village. The prisoner, known only as number six, has been taken hostage and a huge white balloon threatens to suffocate him whenever he tries to escape. 'I am not a number, ' he protests in each episode, 'I am a free man'. The other villagers accept their own lack of liberty with sheep-like docility.

What has Poundbury done to deserve such comparisons? Like Stepford, it is uncannily free of the thoughtless clutter of urban or suburban life. Like Portmeirion, it is carefully designed to look as if it grew organically. Both characteristics are grounds for suspicion, it seems. Why else did the makers of The Truman Show - a film set in an idyllic island community in which the hero is, unknown to himself, the only inhabitant who is not an actor, and where even the weather is artificial - use the new urbanist town of Seaside in Florida as a location?

Faking authenticity is a tricky business.

The Duchy of Cornwall's design guide sets out the design principles that shaped Poundbury and that it insists are followed in any future alterations and extensions. The guide advises that 'traditionally, roofs in the district were often provided with two courses or so of heavy, split stone tiles at the eaves, presumably as a precaution against the high winds.

This would be an attractive and authentic detail to reproduce [in the new building]'.

The detail is authentic in that it was a local tradition but inauthentic to the extent that its use today is not for the original practical reason. Similarly, the Flemish bond brickwork that the Duchy insists on is authentic in that it is a traditional local pattern, but inauthentic in that today the effect is created by using snapped headers. The design guide specifies that 'the effect of a build-up of limewash on brickwork over the years, giving a softer, more established look, may be achieved by the application of a sand and cement slurry'.

And 'judicious mixing (of different sizes and forms of chimney pot, including honey pot, roll top, plain tapered, octagonal and cannon head) will give a feeling of the collective roofscapes having evolved'.

Future evolution will be strictly controlled, though. Householders must apply for consent from the Duchy's regulator for exterior alterations or decoration, including painting the front door 'other than the same colour as previously'. Consent is also required 'for painting render, brickwork or stonework, when there will be a presumption in favour of retaining the original appearance'. The design guide specifies that 'the more formal landmark houses' should have proportions related to the golden mean, and all window panes 'shall be approximate to the golden mean on vertical axis'.

Poundbury's housing is based on a range of historic Dorset vernacular and Classical types. Subsidiary elements that might give the game away are forbidden: bubble skylights, clothes dryers, meter boxes, air extractors, dustbins, rooftop solar collectors, television aerials and satellite dishes. (Satellite television services are accessed from a central satellite dish, cabled to every home. ) Wherever possible, road markings and signs have been banished as well. Experts may cringe, but to 90 per cent of the British population Poundbury will look authentically historical.Details such as the Victorian pillar box - initialled VR - in the market square will no doubt help confirm the impression.

If the builders' interpretation of the local vernacular or of Classical models make some of the other 10 per cent a little queasy, Poundbury's defenders offer the excuse that reinventing a lost tradition takes time.

The Prince faced a major difficulty in creating a model community at Poundbury.

The Duchy of Cornwall is obliged by Act of Parliament to sell land only at market price, and is forbidden to impose any restrictions that might reduce that price. As a result, Poundbury had to be a commercial development, built by a housing industry driven largely by marketing departments that claim to know precisely what the customers want, and convinced that in most cases building anything but their standard products will be rewarded by financial ruin. Remarkably, the Duchy has managed to impose a building code that involves housebuilders abandoning some of their deepest instincts. The builders move on site as licensees, and the land is not conveyed to them until the right product has been delivered.

In the first phase, half a dozen local architects designed individual buildings, their sites scattered to provide variety. The Percy Thomas Partnership then provided coordination, stitching together the individual designs to make a unified townscape. Development of the first phase started in 1993 (in a recession), painfully slowly, with about 40 houses being built each year. Currently, 80 houses are being built a year, and the figure will soon rise to 100 or 120. Densities in Phase 1 were at 40 houses to the hectare, unusually high for that time and comparing with 20 to the hectare for the adjoining 1950s council estate. Recently, planning permission was given for a new phase of 338 houses.

The Duchy is challenging the assumption held by most housebuilders that everyone aspires to a detached house. What people actually want, the Duchy says, is as much as possible for their money. In part of Poundbury's latest development, the same street offers detached houses and terraced houses at similar prices. The detached houses initially attracted more attention, but the terraces have sold much better. The reason is not that terraces make better urbanism, but that through making fuller use of the site they offer the buyer much more internal space for the same money. The experience has confirmed the Duchy's belief that there is a good market - almost entirely neglected by volume house-builders - for grand, expensive terraced houses.

The standards and practices of local authority highway engineers have long been one of the major causes of suburban sprawl.

The dinosaurs have had the occasional success at Poundbury, but generally the road layout - by engineer Alan Baxter and Associates - has been brilliantly conceived and executed. The first phase of Poundbury was planned as a series of spaces - squares, streets, lanes, courtyards, mews and pedestrian streets - and only then fitted with highways. Cars are parked in places that feel like comfortable pedestrian spaces. There are, miraculously, none of the leftover, forgotten bits of space that most large developments create. There is little of the usual paraphernalia of traffic engineering - signage, road markings and traffic-calming devices. Traffic is calmed by the spaces it shares with people on foot, and by 90infinity turns rather than sleeping policemen.

Would Poundbury's basic urbanism - its layout, movement network and plot sizes - work with Modernist, rather than traditional, architecture? A few weeks ago the leading US new urbanist Andres Duany was talking about the relationship between new urbanism and architectural style at the Prince's Foundation and at a conference in Brussels.

He was bemused, claiming the issue of incorporating Modernism, so hot in Europe, hardly arose in the US. New urbanism there usually has a traditional face. Seaside in Florida (a state with a strong regional tradition of Modern architecture) does have some buildings in the Modern styles but they still comply with town's design code. (Seaside is built to a masterplan by Krier and an urban and design code by Duany Plater-Zyberk. ) Plater-Zyberk, though he has designed Modernist buildings himself in the past, would clearly prefer not to mix Modernism with new urbanism. But so long as it is not avantgarde (in his view avant-garde buildings can work as landmarks but not as urbanism, defining space and contributing to the public realm), he does not object to seeing Modernism in new urbanist communities.

There is no reason why Poundbury's basic structure could not be the basis for development built in a variety of styles, which might or might not draw on Classical or local vernacular models, and with the modern technology of building and living being visible or even celebrated. The traffic could circulate in the same way, the buildings could enclose space in the same way and uses could be mixed in the same way.

Such schemes may yet be one result of the government's determination to promote housing at higher densities. Creating such layouts beyond town centres will depend on a landowner or development agency being able to twist builders' and developers' arms. English Partnerships (EP) is the sort of organisation that has the necessary muscle. It is piloting a series of 'urban extensions' (at Northampton, for example) as models of how to build connected, mixed-use developments at the edge of, and continuous with, existing urban areas.

These days, EP has largely abandoned its former development-at-any-price philosophy and claims to be committed to the principles of urban design outlined in its Urban Design Compendium. Its partner in the urban extensions initiative, though, is the Prince's Foundation, so traditional styles of architecture are likely to remain the norm.

Most of the mass-market housing currently being built in the UK is ill-planned suburban sprawl. At low densities the designs are determined by the builders' and developers' desperation to make each house look as near as possible to being detached and custom-built. Design features, supposedly creating instant kerb appeal, are clipped on as the fashion of the moment demands.

Mass-market housing built at higher densities, on the other hand, tends towards a debased, mock-warehouse aesthetic. Developers put up the blandest, bleakest, barrack-like blocks on the spurious grounds that these are historic and urban forms.

Poundbury is hardly an urban quarter, separated as it is from the centre of Dorchester by a belt of inter and post-war council housing and what will be a major road.

Whether it becomes an urban quarter depends not only on how it develops but also on what happens to the rest of the town.

What, for example, will be the future of the adjoining 50-year-old council housing development? 'The challenge of the future, ' Krier has written (in another context), 'will be the urbanisation of suburbia, the redevelopment of sprawl'. Dorset District Council, now familiar with the Krier philosophy, may decide that here is a chance to apply this aspect of it as well.

Poundbury seems destined to become a significant tourist attraction. Already 30,000 people visit it each year, to the irritation of the residents. Any picturesque place has tourists gawping at the pretty bits. Poundbury has urbanists looking round the back at the car parking as well. The completed development will surely be irresistible to lovers of the sort of places it evokes, to people with an interest in architecture and planning, and to others fascinated by a concrete (or, rather, brick and render) realisation of a royal dream.

If it is not an urban quarter, is it - as it is often termed - an urban village? The Prince's Foundation blows hot and cold on that term, feeling it has been devalued by being applied to developments that have none of the characteristics (including a mix of uses) that the urban villages movement deems essential. Its residents though, seem to refer to 'Poundbury village'. The Duchy frowns on this and would prefer that they saw the place as a part of Dorchester. There are signs that some residents, having weathered the criticism the place has attracted over the years, now resent the idea of the project's later phases also being called 'Poundbury', particularly as they will eventually find themselves on its outer edge when the centre of gravity has moved. The architecture may be frozen but the social dynamics of Poundbury, like any other place, are impossible to predict.

Nonetheless, this experiment in new urbanism may prove to be a landmark in the history of housing, standing alongside Hampstead Garden Suburb in its influence. It has successfully challenged obstinate orthodoxies that are part of the genetic code for urban sprawl. It has shown that urban design and road engineering can be reconciled and that different uses can be successfully mixed. It has pioneered the higher residential densities and more flexible road standards that the government is now enthusiastically promoting.

In all these ways Poundbury shows what can be achieved when vision, land ownership and control of the processes of urban change are combined. Yet that combination creates a sense of unease in some visitors. We are used to reading places for clues to their history, to the aspirations and dreams of the people who made them, and to the confusion of rules and regulations that created them. Poundbury gives us clues but they are misleading. We sense that the physical form of the place and the processes that made it do not match - at least not in any way we are familiar with.

Creating new forms of urbanism is not just a matter of exchanging sets of standards, practices and codes.More fundamentally we need to ask: Whose vision? Whose land?

Who will control the processes of change?

On those questions the Poundbury experience is unsettlingly silent.

Robert Cowan is director of the Urban Design Group

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