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A Statement of Intent

25 September 2012
Ben Pentreath
21 Comments

I got home on Friday evening to find an unusual letter from someone who’d read the article in the Saturday Telegraph about the Old Parsonage a few weeks ago.

 

I don’t often write about architecture on this blog, or what we do in the office, but I thought you might be interested this exchange.  And you might have noticed in the last few weeks that we’ve reorganised our website so that the master planning, architecture, and interiors branches of our small and close-knit team here in London are now all on show in the same place.

It’s a strange mix of things; I suspect that there aren’t that many urban designers who spend some of their time interior decorating, or many decorators who get involved (as I do from day to day) in the finer details of roads, kerbs, bin stores, drainage runs and street lighting!

A bit unusual; but I guess it’s a question, for me, of thinking about things in the round.  Whether placing a new building in an urban layout, or a chair in a room – things either feel comfortable and right, or they don’t. I guess we might call it ‘design at every scale’.

As you will see a lot of our work is quite traditional in appearance. I tend not to think about it too much; I just want to make places that look nice and feel right. Sometimes that means more contemporary; generally, for me, quiet tradition.

One of the projects we spend a lot of time with is one that from time to time generates a bit of controversy; the Prince of Wales’s development at Poundbury, in Dorset, which started about twenty years ago, to provide a model for a different way of building new houses in Britain. People tend to love it, or hate it, and it was of course with Poundbury that the letter above was concerned.

Anyway, poor Mr Drury; I rather doubt he was expecting this reply!

 

Dear Mr Drury, 

I arrived home yesterday evening and found your letter which I enjoyed, striking as it does a nice balance between tongue-in-cheek and critique.

I am not quite sure if the critique is of me or of Poundbury itself, but I think the latter, and I think mainly to do with the sizes of gardens, and probably the density of Poundbury as a whole. 

 I think there is some truth in what you say and although Poundbury is full of very keen gardeners and is centred around a thriving garden centre, it is probably not a place for those who prefer large plots of land like you find in a village.  You may not know about the extremely successful allotments, of which several more are being planned and constructed at the moment, or about the regular farmers market which brings local food to the residents once a fortnight.  And of course there is a massive park and sports field being constructed, and for those who like the countryside there are walks from the front door in each direction.

 Also on the plus side you can walk to work (1200 people work in the businesses in Poundbury every day, and about 35% of these employees live within the development itself); you can walk to shops, supermarkets, cafes and a pub, and it’s a short cycle or electric bus ride to Dorchester.  So, you could, if you chose to, live in Poundbury without a car, or certainly without driving other than for leisure reasons. 

 The interesting thing is if it was all spread out and built to the low densities of conventional suburban housing estates – which is actually what large gardens mean – the businesses would lose that crucial foot trade and would ultimately fail.  As soon as people get in their car they are able and tempted to drive wherever they want to buy cheaper or larger, namely Tesco. Hence the rise of giant out of town shopping centres that so spoil our open countryside.

  If it was all spread out as normal, too, the employment would be in a massive business park which would be shut up in the evenings and which everyone would drive to and from; the shops would be in a mall, and the leisure centre would be, well, in a multiplex in Poole. The common denominator between all these? Cars.

Here in the village, ironically, despite the beauty of the place, we are all utterly dependant on cars for all our daily needs. I have to drive to buy a pint of milk or a newspaper let alone anything more substantial.  We feel this very much in the snow and ice when the valley is shut off and no-one can get in or out.  And the elderly, or young people who are not yet allowed to drive, feel this particularly strongly, totally dependent as they are on other people to drive them around for their every daily need.  The village here, despite its absolute charm and beauty, can be quite an isolated place.

It was very interesting to me that when I first moved here I met a couple who had lived here for a  few years and were about to move into Poundbury.  They were sick and tired of the driving and being cut off by the weather and not being able to walk to a shop.  I see Chris and Carol a few times a year in the village as they still sometimes come out to our social club evenings, and they absolutely LOVE living in Poundbury. They enjoy the social life, they enjoy having close neighbours, and they like living in a warm modern house that is nonetheless well-designed and in a nice street. And they like having a smaller garden!

 As you will know from reading the Telegraph there is a chronic shortage of housing in the UK. This is not, as so often put about by that newspaper, entirely the result of immigration.  Sadly, it is quite largely to do with divorce and the commensurate rise in single households, but most of all, it is actually caused by dramatic increases in life expectancy that we have seen in the last 5 decades, and by changing social habits whereby younger people like to set up home earlier.  (Interestingly this last trend has recently been reversed because young people can no longer afford to buy houses).

Whether it is a good thing or not, therefore, we probably need to build more homes – not least to replace the absolutely dreadful housing stock that is the legacy of so much development in the 1960s and 70s. 

 This is a hard task to do well and the strange thing is the harder one tries to do it right, the more criticism one can attract. In a funny sort of way, if Prince Charles had no interest in architecture, and the Duchy had sold the Poundbury Estate in 1987 to a volume house builder, people would probably have been sad to start with at the loss of open countryside but as the anonymous brick estate grew they would have shrugged their shoulders and moved on.  Approaching Dorchester from the west you would today see a sea of 2 storey brown tiled roofs with no chimneys and no skyline, hemmed in by the bypass and probably given a noise buffer from the road consisting of some large perspex panels with black crows painted on.  There would have been no employment, there would have been no shops, there would have been no social infrastructure apart from a (probably now failing) club building, and there certainly would have been no affordable homes on site. 

 And no–one would have complained at all, which I find amazing.

I doubt your visitors would express much interest in visiting such a place either.

Poundbury is a very unusual project to work on. It is an experimental project and it certainly doesn’t get every last thing right.  But we are trying very hard, and in particular we are constantly trying to learn and to improve. Recently the Duchy has made enormous commitments to achieving better architectural quality and I hope the latest phases of the development, the South West Quadrant, are beginning to demonstrate the results of that commitment.  Recently, in the part of the development that I and my colleagues have just been working on, and which obtained planning approval this month, we have also listened carefully (amongst other things) to the criticism about garden sizes and have created a number of plots with considerably larger gardens than we have seen so far – without upsetting the carefully crafted mix of house types, sizes, and employment use that I have described above. Hopefully this will make you happy.

It certainly isn’t a place for everyone, and because it is quite a strong ‘cup of tea’ it tends to be a place that people like or dislike with some passion.  I’m afraid I’m a bit exhausted by all that debate and I tend to spend my life just getting on with things as best I can.  

 Your letter sort of implies that because I rent a nice house with a beautiful garden I should not be allowed to design any small houses for anyone else.  I am not sure if that’s what you are saying but I think it is. I am afraid I don’t think that’s a logical position; in exactly the same way that I don’t think it is true to say that because Prince Charles has a large house and inherited wealth, he should not have a concern for the built environment, or indeed for people less well off than him? Which you also imply, but I don’t expect you really mean.

 It is true that I’ve made certain choices in life and one of them was not to buy a house but instead to rent a place like this, which I could never afford to buy, but which I can afford to rent. Restoring the garden here has been and is one of my passions. I don’t do a lot of foreign travel and I make some sacrifices to make it all happen.  And, every single day, and especially this beautiful morning, I do wake up and thank God, literally, that I am able for a short period of my life to live in such a beautiful and wonderful place.  Believe me it does not go unappreciated.

In my life I have a passion to make things just a little bit better than I found them. In the complicated world of housing development, that’s a lot more difficult than it sounds.  If you look on my website you can see one or two other projects where we are trying to create what I hope will be beautiful, appropriate buildings in the countryside. After all, that is all that our much-loved towns and villages once were – new buildings in our green and pleasant land. I feel confident that we can continue to create places which people will find beautiful hundreds from years from now, but from time to time, the way things happen today in the “house building industry” do seem a bit stacked up against that.

 I don’t often reply to every letter I get and I am sure this isn’t the reply you were expecting, but I have enjoyed writing it and I hope you have found some of the background to Poundbury interesting, and perhaps thought-provoking for your next visit.

Regards, 

Ben Pentreath

21 comments on this post

David Drurysays:

Hi Ben, Sorry to be six months behind the curve but I have only just been acquainted with your online magazine. Pleased to hear that Louise’s family enjoyed their garden – theirs may have been the one of reasonable size to which reference is made, as that is a corner plot. However, some of the other contributors seem to regard the original letter as a general criticism of Poundbury when, in fact, all it did was to draw attention to the yawning chasm between Prince Charles` own garden space and the amount he was providing in this, his own, development.
You readily conceded that it was indeed the case that gardens had been kept to a minimum in Poundbury in order to maximise population density on the site, so job done.
I would recommend that Paul Little revisits the letter to realise its tongue-in-cheek nature, as by “on green paper” I take it that he means “in green ink”, which we tend to associate with “Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells”.
Anyway, I should be proud that my joke inspired you to pen the fulsome overview of Poundbury, which, as I have already told you, will be given to all future visitors who express any interest in this development. (Yes, Deby, I did reply to Ben`s letter at the time.)
It would be good to see some pictures of Louise`s first Poundbury garden so as to see how it compares with those of Highgrove and yours at Little Bredy. As to our garden, it, or at least its north eastern corner, is available for all to see in our letterhead, although those with some geological understanding will appreciate that the background cliffs are not actually part of the garden but on the opposite side of the bay. The reason for mentioning this is because the same carbon reduction imperative that restricted the gardens in Poundbury is soon to infest that view with massive wind turbines.
Regards,
David Drury
p.s. Sorry to hear that it didn`t work out with Harry.

Jane Nearingsays:

This discussion and the descriptions of Poundbury made me think immediately of Christopher Alexander’s A PATTERN LANGUAGE. Here in Texas, we literally drive across the street, re-parking our cars, to shop at another store. And, I’m so used to it that I don’t know that I could change – so very much would have to change with me. I’ve stayed with friends in England, where we walked to shops and stopped at the WI weekly market and it was so nice, but still, to me, so set in my ways and sitting so often in my car, it was really nice to be in a very different world, at least for a while.

Sharonsays:

We need more of you Mr Pentreath !

I have several friends who live in Poundbury and love it! two of them even have vegetable plots and fruit trees in their garden.All that Poundbury needs is a little time for the vegetation to grow and soften the edges. Poundbury even has a little Waitrose housed in a building by Quinlan Terry, how can you beat that? Thanks for sharing this rather ill researched letter!

Jill Rowesays:

Beautifully written response and incredibly informative! I have a separate question, I hope you don’t mind answering. I love the paint color on the exterior of the side bay windows at the Parsonage, can you tell me what paint color you used? Warmly, Jill Rowe

I have never been to Poundbury but would be interested to visit if I was passing that way.
It is impossible to please everyone all of the time, we all have different likes, desires and interests.
A very restrained and gentlemanly reply.

Bensays:

“1200 employed in Poundbury! I have been to Poundbury and it barely seemed big enough accomodate that many. I would love to see a breakdown of those figures. In your new Architecture section, Ben?” writes Charlie (although comment posted in the following blog, “Golden Valley”.

Well, I’ve double checked and the figures have gone up. This was the reply I got from lovely Naomi at the Duchy:

“We’re just checking and updating the figures at the moment, which will have gone up from the last official count in February 2012, when there were there were 113 business and 1,496 people employed in full/part time positions (excluding building and development personnel). Today there are at least 135 business in Poundbury and the number of employees will have risen again.”

Kevin Kornegaysays:

Well said! You are quite correct that Poundbury should probably have been uncontroversial were it a conventional post-war housing estate. Its thoughtful design impliedly criticizes of the aesthetically moribund built environments to which many people have become reconciled. You and all the team working on Poundbury have my very best wishes for continued success.

So inspiring !!! You are a genius … It looks like you are totally merged with your profession, I mean architecture completes you !!!

Jo in NZsays:

Do not know Poundbury, but this is a fascinating exchange regardless!

Aysesays:

You most certainly, with out a doubt do more than your best all round. Lovely letter!

Deby (in Canada)says:

Oh Ben, all the above readers have said it so well. You got to the heart of the matter passionately and yet surprisingly politely. Really interesting to hear from Louise with the real life experience of family living there- I hope Mr. Drury reads what she had to say. If he replies to you please continue this ‘conversation’.
The people of Poundbury are so lucky to be able to walk for their shopping- we stayed for a week in Ludlow while on vacation this spring and the joy of not using the car was brilliant.
Cheers
Deby

libbysays:

You are such an inspiration Ben!!! I wonder why people expect well meant efforts to be constantly explained and clarified. But I am sure your reply and blog will continue to inspire your readers. I wish there were architects like you here in India!!!

Lucysays:

Yes Bravo. If only there were more corners of our lovely country that had as much thought, care and consideration for the people that live in them as have been poured into Poundbury. I know that Chaz-bashing is a popular pastime, but thankfully he appears to understand the ‘poetics of space’ very well and to have a drive to work with people like yourself who also hear that poetry and recognise the value to life and well-being that can be brought through living in a space that is thoughtfully designed and well executed.

Rose Perrysays:

Bravo! Most inspiring!

Charles Smithsays:

We have visited Poundbury a number of times. It is a brave and valiant attempt that has got a lot right and a few things wrong. What sticks in my mind are two things. Too much reconstituted concrete for sills and lintels and very little stone, and a ‘Place of Reflection’, rather than a church is a reflection of these ‘theophobic’ times. The square you designed is excellent, and funnily enough when we visit there are always the happy noise of families and children at play. So good luck with your future at Poundbury and good luck to Poundbury!

alisays:

Dear Ben,
Thank you for your letter. It illuminates your thinking and I now understand better the working part of your life and out of office home life, in which you share and entertain us with your blogs.

Louise Reasays:

Oh, thank you, thank you Ben! My parents have lived in Poundbury for 13 years I think now, and we are sick and tired of people making derogatory comments and feeling we have to defend both the place and their lifestyle choice. The first house they lived in was in the original phase, which now looks established and settled. They certainly did NOT have a small garden, but what I would call a good sized corner plot, and at that time were keen gardeners. Their garden was an absolutely joy and due to my mothers complete inability to restrain her random plant buying, was an exciting mixture of roses, clematis, exotics, raised beds, a nice lawn, pagoda with a vine, oh, and two trees…(I wonder how they fitted those in if the garden was a postage stamp, eh 😉 ?). They only moved to a newer part of Poundbury and to a smaller plot, because the garden got too much for them to upkeep as they are both in their late seventies. They still have a private garden (for that is what most people want isn’t it? thats why you cant see them from the street) and have parties and drinks whenever the weather permits. As for the general cristicism let me say this. We were brought up in Winchester, a beautiful city by anyone’s standards, and were lucky to live in an affluent and historical area. My mother now admits she was often lonely and felt something was missing. She has never been happier than she is now. Never has she had such good relations with her neighbours and other people on her “estate”. The social activities and events are there for all to get involved…or not, as you wish. She has been seriously ill over the past two years and the support and concern from the friends she has made during their time living at Poundbury has been extraordinary. At the moment the part they live in now is still a little bit like a building site but they are enjoying welcoming new neighbours, both young and old, with two young doctors from London next door and a family renting opposite, and have, only yesterday, been to a wedding anniversary lunch in what they call “the old part”. Their were 45 people there, and all would have fitted into the garden, had the rain not put a stop to that plan. I realise this development is not for everyone, and some particular personalities abhor the idea of integrating themselves into a “new” local community…each to their own. But this place is a vibrant and fun place to live, or quiet and peaceful, take your pick. I for one am a supporter, for I have never seen my Mum happier. I would gladly live there…we’re it a little closer to London where my partner and I work…for now…! So please keep up the good work, for there is a big group of people who appreciate your efforts. Oh, and note I don’t mention Prince Charles, well I don’t have time or space for that, but suffice to say, he’s like marmite of course!

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