Behind the Façade - RSA

Behind the Façade


  • Picture of Alistair Barr
    Alistair Barr
  • Cities
  • Heritage
  • Housing

Learnings from King Charles’s Poundbury and Nansledan developments go beyond aesthetics

Housebuilding in the UK is at a crisis point. Government targets for new homes are missed and new schemes lack a sense of community. Many residents have no pride in the places where they live. In November 2022, Michael Gove told the Centre for Policy Studies, “The experience for many buyers is that incredibly expensive homes that they buy simply aren’t up to the standards that they should be. In responding to these issues, we need definitions of good practice and precedents to improve design.” While much has been written about good examples in popular and academic articles, two schemes with learning opportunities are often dealt with superficially: Poundbury, Dorset and Nansledan, Cornwall, two developments commissioned by King Charles when he was Prince of Wales.

Poundbury is a town extension of Dorchester, Dorset launched in 1993. By 2026 it will have 2,000 homes, 4,000 residents and 2,000 people employed in businesses integrated in the community. Nansledan is the extension of Newquay, Cornwall, begun in 2014. When complete (in around 30 years) it will have 4,000 homes, 8,000 residents and 4,000 employment opportunities.

Prince Charles, as he then was, defined his vision (consistently from 1993, it must be said) as mixed-use, mixed-income neighbourhoods within walking distance of shops, leisure and community facilities and green spaces. 35% of the homes in Poundbury will be ‘affordable’, which the government defines as 80% of the market price in a given area. Many developers try to reduce provision of ‘affordable’ housing, relegating it to lower-quality sites or building to a lower quality. Poundbury, by contrast, fully embraces the mixed-income model and its homes are ‘tenure blind’, which means no visual differences exist between market and affordable homes.

Aspirations such as these are those that every housebuilder should commit to, yet, despite the many positive qualities of Poundbury and Nansledan, they are more often criticised than lauded. Is this because of their insistence on traditional building styles in a context where, too often, the housing debate is narrowed to the binary one of traditional versus modern? The Victorians called such architectural debate the ‘style wars’. Today, this either/or approach helps no one. What we need is a both/and approach, and to consider more deeply the complexity of modern housing beyond aesthetics and the relevance of the Poundbury and Nansledan models on other housing schemes.

A vision and a plan

Léon Krier, the master planner from Luxembourg who was appointed to design Poundbury, used a masterplan and design codes to control the development process. His work was in line with the New Urbanism ideas that emerged from the US in the 1980s, as expressed by the Charter of New Urbanism. Both theories promoted walkable neighbourhoods, mixed use and places that formed communities.

The Prince’s Foundation for Building Communities is the vehicle used to commission, brief and oversee all aspects of the development process. The commercial developers who partner with the Foundation are local and agree to comply with the Design and Community Code written by Krier and enforced by the Foundation. The Code also applies to residents, with the goal of controlling the appearance of the private residences by regulating elements such as extensions, alterations, satellite dishes and so on. Some argue that the Code goes too far, controlling even details such as paint colours, front door ironmongery and signage. I believe that, if you know what you have signed up for, this results in a positive visual contribution. After all, Georgian developers were doing this from 1714 onwards, and we still admire their work in Edinburgh, Harrogate, Bath and many other locales across the UK.

Currently, houses in Poundbury achieve 29% more value than nearby similar properties, and Nansledan is following that trend. CREATE Streets have done extensive research into the design of Nansledan, including a survey published in 2018 showing that “occupants appreciate the many benefits to belonging within a well-built, mixed-use, mixed-ownership community”. These achievements are way beyond the ambition and execution of most commercial housing developers. This is Charles’s design legacy: to remind us that there is a better way to build new mass housing and to learn lessons that can be applied to all town extension and new town schemes.

In 2021, Charles announced a new, landscape-led town extension on Duchy of Cornwall land near Faversham, Kent. ‘South East Faversham’ will provide 2,500 homes designed by Ben Pendreath Architects, a firm that has been involved in Poundbury for many years, with an “aspiration” of bringing 2,500 jobs to the area. Early images indicate the same traditional/classical mix of styles established in Poundbury and Nansledan will be used in the new scheme in Kent.

What the detractors say

The question that arises is: are the new schemes able to respond to the changes that have impacted almost every part of community life in the 30 years since Poundbury was launched?

Although Charles’s ideas appeared radical in 1993, they are a continuation of longstanding theories about urbanism, such as those expounded by Gordon Cullen in his 1961 book, Townscape. Cullen said design should be people-centric, using urban forms that are varied and around routes as a primary generator of form. Danish architect and visionary Jan Gehl believed that spaces should come first and the buildings follow them.

The time is right to capitalise on new attitudes to producing good housing

In 1984, Charles was frustrated that the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) did not want to discuss his ideas about modern architecture. Speaking at a 150th anniversary event for the RIBA at Hampton Court Palace, he said, “For far too long, it seems to me, some planners and architects have consistently ignored the feelings and wishes of the mass of ordinary people in this country.” Famously, he described the proposed extension to the National Gallery at Trafalgar Square as “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend”.

While much of the criticism was valid, its tone and delivery perhaps served to close people’s minds to Charles’s sensible ideas about placemaking and community. This controversy was also inflamed by the appointment of Krier. While Krier had published many books about learning from past settlements and neighbourhoods, sparking a rich debate about how urban areas work when successfully designed around good public realm, he unfortunately also published a 1983 book about Albert Speer, Hitler’s favourite architect. The book, based on Krier’s research and interviews with Speer, discussed the overlap between architecture and politics, and was largely received as a defence of Speer. This provided another reason for critics to be suspicious of Krier’s masterplan and designs, whatever their admirable points.

Recognise the benefits, relax the dogma

As the detractors attacked, the traditionalists/classicists retreated to dogma and the style battle lines were drawn. In more recent years, though, the tide of resentment from architects and critics appears to be turning, however slowly. In June 2011, The Guardian’s Rowan Moore said of Poundbury’s obsession with classical styles, “Personally it makes my flesh creep... but I can see that it works well, and is much better than the average housebuilder’s wares.” Moore’s successor at The Guardian, Oliver Wainwright, wrote in October 2016 that, although Poundbury had been mocked as a “feudal Disneyland”, just “strip away the fancy dress and you find a place that far exceeds the sophistication achieved by any modern housebuilder”.

If we could just leave the fancy dress debates behind, there is so much to learn from these developments. While we need design teams to be more pluralistic for the good of future housing, the debate needs to become less stylistic and both deeper and more nuanced. This is a question of working with the either/or attitude and embracing good ideas, wherever they come from. In the UK, this process could be furthered by new government legislation on design coding, which is helping define housing design principles, visions, context and sense of place.

While design coding application is used across the world in many different situations, the UK government has begun the Design Code Pathfinder Programme, with the aim of creating a more intelligent and agile planning permission system. The big difference is that this new Code promotes local context and references, empowering local communities while remaining agnostic about style.

The time is right to capitalise on new attitudes to producing good housing, and this should include bringing new designers to Charles’s Foundation. For example, Wayne Hemingway, a punk fashion designer who has engaged with housing problems, is changing housebuilding from the inside with his award-winning work with Wimpey’s (a 760-home development on the banks of the River Tyne) in Staiths South Bank, Gateshead. Almost all of Hemingway’s urban design principles echo Charles’s and Krier’s, with the exception of the traditional style. He should join the Prince’s Foundation team to keep the codes but dilute the classical bias.

The Foundation’s commitment to sustainability is excellent but could be more radical. 500 homes are being built in the Climate Innovation District, Leeds, in a landscape-led, mixed-use scheme directed by the architect/developer Jonathan Wilson of Citu. These are creating exciting UK housing sustainability precedents, and Citu are very close to achieving Passivhaus standards (rigorous energy-efficient design standards for buildings that maintain an almost constant temperature) in their developments. One of the Foundation’s next phases could aim to also achieve these standards, serving as an example to all.

Since 1989, Peter Barber has been creating radical social housing which takes traditional models and reimagines them in a modern way. These projects are delivered to strict cost criteria but achieve delight and sophistication alongside a sense of community. His contemporary take on housing would be an interesting catalyst on the next phases of the Foundation’s work, and there are many other innovative housing architects such as those cited here who could add diversity to the Foundation’s proposals.

In a 2018 article in Architectural Digest, Ben Pendreath of the aforementioned Ben Pendreath Architects suggested that the Foundation is open to more diversity in styles. Assuming that Charles will now have to step back from the Foundation, whoever follows should allow for greater flexibility in style; adding more designers and updating some of the philosophies is simple to achieve and develops all the principles without compromising them.

New phases of Poundbury, Nansledan and Faversham could replace the obsession with the traditional and instead embrace innovation to create more relevant precedents. This would be a worthy outcome to 30 years of learning about building communities on Duchy of Cornwall land. The Foundation should maximise their engagement in the wider housing debate, while critics need to be open to acknowledging where these developments have been successful. The Prince’s Foundation for Building Community has achieved so much in creating mixed-income, mixed-use integrated communities, showing that, by working with government rules for affordable housing, inclusive places can be built. Their projects are commercially successful and demonstrate to other housebuilders that affordable provisions can enrich a scheme. If the Foundation used a wider range of designers, higher sustainability standards and a pluralistic attitude to style, their influence on housing schemes could be even more fundamental.

Alistair Barr founded award-winning architects and urbanists Barr Gazetas in 1993. He currently teaches architecture at Anglia Ruskin University, is a design review panel member of the Design Council and a Director of the Academy of Urbanism

This article first appeared in the RSA Journal Issue 1 2023.

Be the first to write a comment


Please login to post a comment or reply

Don't have an account? Click here to register.

Related articles