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Preserving Poundbury, England

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 carved 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 the picturesque façades.

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 call 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 information 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.

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