Ugly Buildings

16 June 2013
Ben Pentreath

This is probably going to turn out to be the longest professional suicide note in history.

I really should be writing about how good the irises are this year.

Have you noticed? I’m not sure why – because I always thought they liked baking sun. And we haven’t had so much of that this year, let’s face it. But they seem very happy.

You see what I mean?

But I’m not going to write about that.

If you follow me on twitter (I am sure a lot of you can’t bear twitter, I’m not sure I can either, but bear with me, oh, and if you want to make me feel very popular then do feel free to click on ‘follow’) you might have noticed this week a little story that I tweeted. It turned out to be rather a popular tweet. It got retweeted many times. And boy oh boy it made me chuckle…

If you were driving in to Dorchester earlier this week, and were particularly sharp-eyed, you might have spotted a little addition, made overnight on Tuesday, to the road sign that directs you into the centre of town – past Poundbury, the Duchy of Cornwall’s development… where I have been known to work from time to time. Here’s a photo from the national press. Do you spot something rather cunning?

You can read the story in the Sun newspaper here.  Of course, I have to admit, I read it in that other right wing tabloid, the Telegraph, but the Sun seemed a little… racier. For the best comments of all, follow the Dorset Echo and you can see quite how nasty people can get about Poundbury. Toxic!

Well. What a kerfuffle.  But it did make me smile.

More in a moment…. As regular readers of this blog will know, this is the drawing board where I design most of our buildings. It’s a very good spot – south facing, looking across my garden to the trees on the other side of the valley.

I’ve got to admit I’m pretty much in heaven when I’m sitting here drawing.

But what’s that we now see, if you  turn a bit to the right?

YES. You spotted it.

Yup. I’m fairly excited. I popped into the Poundbury office on Friday, where I had a meeting. And there was… that sign! I’m not quite sure how it had made it to the office, I guess via whoever had removed it (the Police? the Highways?)… but when I asked if I could steal it… no-one seemed to mind too much.  So I did.

It’s impeccably made. Incredible.

The typography is perfectly done. But what is that in the right hand corner?

A tiny insignia. K.G.B.  How ominous! Mr K.G.B. – I want to know who you are!!!! You’re a perfectionist, for sure, and I love that just for starters. And you’re an aesthete (no-one copies the typography that perfectly without being an aesthete), and an obsessive, prepared to go to rather a lot of trouble to get your view across. I suspect we might be more alike than you imagine. Please get in touch if you dare. Shall we go for a pint? I am sure you are local.

But let’s take a step back. Of course everyone loves a good joke – especially against themselves. It’s a well known fact that politicians fall over themselves to buy a particularly cruel cartoon, or cover of Private Eye, which they can hang in the downstairs loo and show the world how relaxed they are about people saying nasty things. And I must say, I haven’t seen so many laughs and smiles as there were in the Poundbury office on Friday (although strictly speaking perhaps that might be because Naomi, the office manager, was going on a Friday evening date, which was causing a considerable amount of speculation. Let us all hope it went well. I will try to report back).

Okay. I’m going to write it. Beauty, and conversely, Ugliness, is in the eye of the beholder, for sure… but, yes, I think Poundbury has some Ugly Buildings. It’s got a lot of indifferent ones, which is what you’d expect, and some very interesting ones, some of which I don’t really like… and it’s got some pretty Ugly Ones.  I guess just like everywhere.

So, I could completely see where K.G.B. was coming from. In fact, of all the things that Poundbury gets right, some of which I wrote about a while ago here (Leon Krier’s brilliant master plan… the seamless incorporation of social housing… the unequalled delivery of mixed uses…the genius way in which the car is not allowed to dominate… and most recently, the incorporation of a massive biogas plant providing carbon neutral energy to the settlement), well – of all those things, I’m not sure we could say that it’s always been right about architecture. How could it get everything right over the last 25 years? That’s a pretty tall order.

For instance, about a decade ago, this office building was built. I show you a photo from the A35 road, from the west, which I take to drive in to Dorchester every day. Hmmm.

I cannot tell you the number of times I sit down at someone’s house for supper one evening down in West Dorset and someone across the table tells my neighbour (who I’ve never met before) that I’m involved at Poundbury – and I’m nearly drowned in the venom previously reserved for people languishing in an inner circle of hell. I’ve lost count of the times that I try and change the subject and move on. So, although you’re probably never going to hear from me again, it will be nice to be able to say to that person: “could I refer you, please, to my blog called ‘Ugly Buildings’. It’s easy to remember, just type it into google”.

Here’s a closer view. Nice!

Or, just to the west, is another building that has raised a few eyebrows from time to time, even being shortlisted for that renowned institution, The Carbuncle Cup. (you will be glad to hear, it did not win. If you want to see some truly dreadful buildings, look at the leading nomination for this year, in Oxford…).  Anyhow, that’s the famous Fire Station. The big pedimented one. The arched building on the right is an office and apartment block.

Well, you will doubtless make your own mind up.

It’s a strange thing, how things happen. What’s fascinating for me is that these buildings are all quite anonymous. I’m really not even sure who designed them. Before my time. Anyway, there they are.  Causing dinner party vitriol and road sign pranks.

But what I can tell you is this. A lot of the time, institutions and politicians are accused, aren’t they, of not learning or changing? So I would merely like to reply, to the world whose view of the architecture of Poundbury is entirely conditioned by articles in the press – you can’t say that about this place. It is a genuinely experimental settlement.  If mistakes happen, let’s learn from them.  Wow, there’s a radical idea. No one knew at the beginning how it would end up, and now that it’s half way through, no-one, I would say, can entirely predict what this place will be like in 20, or 50, or 100 years time.

But what I can say is that for a little while recently, there’s been a new attention on architecture, detailing, and street composition. And in that regard, the Duchy of Cornwall has been a remarkable client. Believe me, I work for a lot of clients on new developments. And I don’t know if there’s a single one who is as dedicated, and as committed, to excellence, as this one right now… and who is showing results on the ground.

So I’m going to show you a few snaps, that I took last night, and I’d ask you to make your own mind up again as to whether Mr K.G.B. is being entirely fair, and whether his beautifully made sign tells the whole story.

This is a view down the Bridport Road to the new Butter Market Bakery, where Clive Cobb (of fabulous Town Mill Bakery in Lyme Regis, and in Royal William Yard in Plymouth) has just opened up in the Buttercross building. Clive is brilliant and so is his bakery. And what I really love is the fact that (as in so many old towns) there’s a building in the middle of the road. Only Leon Krier could have achieved that. It’s a feat.

Still under scaffold, emerges a lovely terrace of townhouses designed by my friend George Saumarez Smith. A beautiful colour, and proportion, and detailing. Some of George’s nicest buildings in Poundbury, and we can’t even see them properly yet.  I designed the shop on the right. I really regret I forgot to tell the builders to push back the shopfront so the arch reads a bit deeper.  It would have been possible but we caught it a bit too late.

This is a street I designed, a simple terrace of brick painted cottages with cast iron porches, leading up the hill to some flats. Completed a month ago.

A parking mews. Garages with flats above, and in the distance a tall arch forming a pedestrian link to the Bridport Road. It all looks very new, and it needs to bed in. But it feels pretty good to me.

More houses by George S S. These are affordable homes, as it happens.

As is the row of two storey white-painted cottages that George designed here. Also among some of my favourites in the whole of Poundbury.

Poundbury has its own dose of crazy sign writing.  This sign makes me very happy.

A view into the new Buttermarket, nearing completion. A row of shops, cafes and restaurants around the new small public square.

Quinlan and Francis Terry – the most distinguished classical architects in the world – have designed the buildings around the grand main Square that is being built in the centre, including this beautifully detailed arcaded front to the new supermarket. Personally, I’m in favour of the crappy bin from West Dorset District Council. Others may disagree.

An essay in Soanian brickwork by Craig Hamilton, probably the most serious traditional architect practising in Britain today, in this handsome office building.

Or, let’s just take a bit of pleasure in the simplicity of this terrace of cottages by Johnny Holland.

Quietly refined classicism by George S S, a fine freestanding house on Beechwood Square.

A mixed-use building nears completion at the end of the street designed by my office. I was delighted to learn recently it’s been taken by a firm of Funeral Directors. You couldn’t make it up!

An alluring glimpse past George’s affordable flats down to the Buttercross. Such vistas are part of the genius of Leon Krier’s plan. Note the absolute absence of road markings and traffic control signs. The whole place works entirely naturally without them.  I could also just add, before anyone comments: “but where are all the people?” – it was ten to nine on a Saturday evening. It was kind of freezing (hello, English Summer?), and most sensible people would not have been out and about anywhere. And those that were must have been wondering: who is that sad git walking around with a camera tonight?

Anyway, reverting to Ugly Buildings, the house builders have gone to extraordinary lengths to get the details right. We don’t always succeed, and things still go a bit wrong from time to time, and where that happens we sit down every two months and try and improve them.

This simple traditional architecture is not everyone’s cup of tea. An awful lot of architects sneer at Poundbury, and pastiche is a word I hear used a lot. Well, for me, it’s all about authentic building – and that’s not, actually, to do with age.  It’s to do with getting things right. Scale, detailing, proportion, moderation. If you look over on the architecture website, we do buildings that are more contemporary in their treatment, like our designs for the site in Chelsea – it’s horses for courses, for me – about putting the right thing in the right place as best as one can. And Poundbury, for me, is all about getting the traditional architecture – that belongs both to its own place, now, and also to the extension of a county town in West Dorset – as right as we can.

I think I had better sign off, if you will forgive the pun.  And while I hope you will, like all of us, have enjoyed a chuckle at ‘Ugly Buildings’, and even, perhaps, understood where Mr (or Ms? K.G.B) is coming from, I hope you will also realise that there are two sides to every story.  Which really is my manifesto, if ever there was one. Try and understand the alternative point of view.

Mr K.G.B, I want to have that pint with you. And for everyone else, I’d be interested, as I really have been on the blog about Coed Darcy, to know your thoughts on the new streets at Poundbury.

40 comments on this post


Great work KGB. I’ve never been to Poundbury, so may look quite different in the flesh, but having shown us the beautiful soft planting in the top images, its clear that it’s really lacking from this town. Even the fire station could be improved if it had creepers and climbers growing up it, and wild flowers and trees planted where there is currently flat green dull grass. Apart from the mews, all I can see are a few paltry trees dotted about and a tiny bit of evergreen front garden on a couple of house frontages. Also, it’s annoying that in an era where really exciting new cost effective building techniques are increasingly accessible, we still hark back to centuries old ones. However some of this architecture is interesting, it does have a relevance to our country and it can be celebrated. This really feels like a fantastic opportunity to try out new ideas. Juxtapose the classical town centre with really inspirational modern architecture on the perimeters of the town. Good design doesn’t always need to be old design.


It’s a Banksy, surely

Tim Ssays:

How I love this blog! Not only do I get to admire lovely irises and hot marble Italians, but my brain gets a bit of a workout too! Someone recently made an interesting and intelligent comment on here about ‘fake historicism’…triggering a debate in my head that has been whirring around all week.

My immediate response to these photos was that the buildings need to ‘settle in’, to weather, to look older. And no doubt, thanks to the right materials, they will age beautifully. We all love the patina of old buildings, the-stories-those-walls-could-tell etc. But actually I find myself wondering if we should not simply be celebrating them for the crisp, clean, beautiful modern buildings that they are? I doubt that Nash stood looking up at his elegant new townhouses and said “if only they looked a bit older – bring on the pollution!” It’s a bit like that irritating argument that Bach should only be played on gut strings. The new streets at Poundbury are beautiful, breath-takingly so, and age has got nothing to do with it.

Ugly buildings? I think KGB has extremely high standards! But I agree, he does sound kinda cool! Personally I find the ugliest buildings in so many towns are that sort of watered-down, vaguely ‘period influenced’ stuff . You know the kind of thing: in the belief that ‘period’ cannot offend, or that it must blend in with the surrounding Victorian architecture, some council committee has okay-ed sash windows (but never mind if they are made of plastic, have the wrong proportions, open outward), and don’t worry about any of the ceiling heights as long as you put a weathercock on top of the roof, etc. But I imagine Poundbury, for now at least, is safe from this.


Personally, I loved most of the buildings and the architecture of them,of course. What I loved though, even more I think, was the orderliness,cleanliness and the uniformity of the structures. Would gladly live in Poundbury if I could.


Yup. Time to get Banksy in!


It is all so beautiful!! KGB is seriously envious and losing sleep over Poundbury. Poor thing!

Could K.G.B. possibly be an acronym for “Keep Guessing Ben”? If it is, have you been targeted specifically by a prankster, I wonder?! Loved reading your article, and seeing photos of some of the more recent houses in Poundbury.

Charles Smithsays:

I agree with your comment on the meticulous lettering of ‘Ugly Buildings’, and I am really glad you have managed to acquire what will I am sure become a collectors piece. I have visited Poundbury on many occasions. The principle failing is the lack of natural stone on window sills, and lintels where appropriate. Having sills constructed of standard size concrete blocks which give rise to ugly joins in inappropriate places. This I guess is a developer issue rather than an architectural one. However, once you accept the odd exception, Pounbury is an excellent design, a brave attempt, and the first development where the car does not rule everything. If the reader of your blog wants to see examples of ugly – then the law of probability will dictate that all he or she has to do is to do is walk out of their front door and look. This is the legacy of much of post war ‘brave new world’ destructionalism.


dear bp, my man and i quite liked poundbury when we wombled thru it about three yrs ago, although i thought it appeared eerily uninhabited, a little like a set for dr who. i’m sure you are right in that it needs a few more yrs on it to shake the place down. like a newly decorated room needs two large, hungry, and slightly muddy labradors locked in it for a day or two…anyhow, its a huge improvement on any new developments we have here in tasmania. think puke coloured render, colourbond tin, slit windows, and the all pervasive “garden style” which consists of white or granite pebles and some dark red spikey plants, oh, it’s all charm, let me assure you. slightly bitter about yr super alliums, cannot be got here for love or $. yr house and garden are wonderful, just as a place in the country shld be. thanks for the cheering blog. scott p.


I love your irises, fantastic photos of some truly beautiful ‘modern’ buildings… here downunder we are swarmed by ugly modern buildings with no symmetry, elegance or class… Great article and I hope you find KGB.

While Poundbury does look splendid from your photographs, would it be possible if it could be a showcase of the best of all architectural styles and eras? British towns have architecture from (on average) Tudor times onwards, and it feels that is what is missing from Poundbury – the energy and invigoration that buildings of different styles would bring. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if Poundbury could be a ‘best in class’ for every style of building, not just neo-classical? It is difficult to say from just seeing photos though, so perhaps there are more styles and I just can’t see them!


I wonder what Thomas Hardy, native Dorset architect and poet, would have thought of the extension to Casterbridge.

Richard Bonosays:

Very pleasing to my eye. It’s restrained a harmonious with important buildings given greater prominence. I like the mixed uses, and the implied conveniences. I don’t see many people on the sidewalks, but I can imagine how this could be a quite social place. The big issue is always the workplace. Where is it in this town, for most people. Where would they work? The suburban corporation requires size, flexibility, growth potential, and proximity if not integration of executive and R&D spaces. This is why so many of such places are suburban…a la the Silicon Valley. And for certain the suburban house is getting more and more efficient, and even has some potential for agriculture. Yet this place has its own attraction. Town and country living is not the usual choice, but this project demonstrates that it can be very attractive and convinces that it has a part of the future.


At the risk of being boring, and in response to Louisa Rae; if people are knocking Poundbury then I suspect its par for the course for such developments (it you stick your head above the parapet…..). There’s a polemical dimension to Poundbury which stirs the emotions of people. I would suggest that the fact that those who live there and love it, whilst this is wonderful (I have no doubt that people are good neighbours etc), is not a reason to not be critical. Something of this scale has visual, social, civic and economic consequences for a far wider community than itslef. I wonder whether many of the detractors are put off less by ‘ugly buildings’ ( for as Ben points out there is whole gamut of quality displayed), than by the manner in which Poundbury apparently relates to that wider community, in particular Dorchester itself. As an recent incomer, this is a criticism I have heard a number of times and I am struck by how, currently, Poundbury does seem to be its own little microcosm outwith the original town. Such engagement with the existing place is harder, trickier and messier, but it would perhaps go some way to convincing more people that Poundbury is not simply a remote experiment in architectural theory and aesthetics – an estate apart – but can actively be part of something greater than itself, and improve it. Perhaps this will be attempted in the later phases.


Dear Ben,
1. I entirely agree with you: far from pastiche, this is about TRADITIONAL AND AUTHENTIC ways of designing and building.
2. And I for one cannot be more grateful to HRH Prince of Wales for fighting this war with the ignorants and doing so much to preserve the architectural tradition and sheer beauty of this nation.
3. The buildings are absolutely exquisite and there is no doubt they will be just as beautiful 300 years from now!
4. As an interior designer I would like to know more about the principles od Classical Architecture. Could you perhaps tell us in one of your posts how you learned all of this…

Thank you and eagerly looking forward to every post!


For “ugly buildings” one should visit us in America. We have more than our fair share. Wish our country would invest more in creating sustainable communities. Help us, Ben!

Louise Reasays:

Sooo tired and bored with people knocking Poundbury when they have no actual experience of living there, my parents have done so since the first phase was built…around 15+ years and recently moved house, to a completely different architectural style, within the new phase. The community is vibrant and supportive and I’d say 90% of people who move there love it, so something must be right! I visit often and there’s always something going on if you chose to find it, or want to join in. The idea I think, was to have all gardens private, so no one sees the French doors flung open and people enjoying a glass of vino sat on their patios! I’ve attended bbq’s, garden parties, suppers, charity events, cups of coffee round the kitchen table of neighbours in the next street, babysat the babies next door, helped at craft fairs, decorated the hall for Christmas (hand painting huge panels I might add!) and laughed my weekends away. My parent have a better social life than I do (and it’d not all OAP’s!) I only wish there was more work opportunities in Dorchester. I’d move like a shot.

Some of the pictures appeal, and others don’t but I don’t think it possible (for me) to know a place through photographs alone. I certainly applaud what I understand to be the aims of Poundbury and next time I’m in the UK I’d like to have a look for myself. One thing that I do find bothering is the sign to the Butter Cross, specially “a place to gather”. If the place is right, people will gather there. If it’s not, they won’t. To have it written there seems superfluous somehow. A little ersatz, even.


if, when sitting at my desk, I had that view I would never get any work done at all!

Jeb Bonnersays:

There is a lot of bad architecture, modern, traditional, and indescribable. Which, alas, makes the good so rare and wonderful. I’m always stunned by Stalin’s deep involvement in the music of his times, horrible as it was; but can you imagine any politician today being able to name a contemporary composer? Maybe we should be grateful that someone is paying attention to our built environment, and your sense of humor.


It’s a odd place and no mistake. I was there today, and as an architect, curious to wander around. I’m afraid the ‘there’s not many people about because it was late’ may be a little disingenuous – there were very few people knocking about the streets this morning! Not that every day should be a street party mind, but it is quite eerie. Ever so slightly Stepford. Also the cars. Its just too easy to drive around. Unlike so many traditional and historic towns, but just like the modern towns it would appear to be a reposte to, Poundbury is accommodating to four wheels and similarly a slave to the traffic engineers, albeit in perhaps less overt ways. I can’t help but wonder Ben, if you had your way that there might be if more variety of street width, of compression and expansion, might have been attempted? Sure, road markings are few, and there is a lack of visual clutter (no mean feat), although as your blog so clearly points up, sometimes a sign or two – nicely proportioned and with good typography – can be very useful, and pleasurable…….


Two things of no note whatsoever:

1. It is HILARIOUS that you, Ben, of all people, were the one who found and claimed the Ugly Buildings sign. Fortuitous and serendipity and other words don’t begin to describe that!

2. I love a blog where comments include clever words like “anodine” [sic] and et al, and even some Russian! Поздравляем архитекторов

3. How did Naomi’s hot date go???


These are not ugly buildings. They may not be to everyones taste – as you point out, but that doesn’t make them ugly. If one wanted to complain about ugly buildings, there are plenty of far uglier ones to point out to motorists – nearly all supermarkets, office buildings and retail parks are uglier – mainly quick and cheap to construct sheds with one side made of glass. Not very imaginative.
So the big question is what should contemporary design look like? Modernism has been with us for over 80 years, so it too is now a period styl . Personally, I don’t believe traditional/vernacular architecture is out of date. These are the kind of buildings people want to live in. Georgian houses sell easily for that reason. This recalls to mind a book from 1985 called the New Georgian Handbook, which contained a section listing architects who lived in Georgian or Victorian houses whilst building in a different style for others – such as Sir Denys Lasdun and Berthold Lubetkin. Food for thought…

i have to agree with dabney. if kgb et al would like, i could send along a few photos of local new (and new-ish) construction that would (i’m sure) end up with your sending the ugly buildings sign to me. to install as i see fit.


I’m so glad you said, ‘I hope you will also realise that there are two sides to every story. Which really is my manifesto, if ever there was one. Try and understand the alternative point of view.’ Because it really rankled when you said my husband’s shoes needed polishing (one of the deliverers to Downing Street of the infamous anti gay marriage letter). Like you and Mr KGB, I too like to get things visually right and we made a conscious decision for him to dress in country clothes for a Sunday trip up to town. His nuback shoes were perfectly clean – they just don’t photograph well! So I know just how you feel about the ugly buildings sign, although you were also very politely disagreeing with his stance. I was lucky enough to be shown round Poundbury by one of the architects involved and think that both the individual buildings and groupings are splendid. What’s wrong with it is (1) the approach (from the Northern end for me) which is so stark the first time I saw it I though hmm, ‘Toytown’. It needs softening with trees and landscaping though I accept it’s probably going to expand so that’s not possible. And (2) its soullessness. It’s not just Saturday evening when there’s no-one around. During the week in the day-time too. I expect everyone is at work but in our village there are people hanging round the shop all day and the feeling is quite different. I actually worry about who really buys a house in Poundbury. Perhaps that is the problem but it is out of your hands. ‘Your ‘village in Wales, the beautifully furnished house there and the cleaning up work is absolutely spot on. I love your blog, especially the garden, but I’m afraid I find the anodine responses really boring.


I cannot understand the people who criticise this kind of thing. Look at the rest of the UK is what I would say. Or have a go yourself. Some people are just so chuffed with themselves and their pompous tastes.
By the way Ben, what is that terrible stone column doing next to your drawing board? Whoops! There I go myself!

Trish Lorenzsays:

PS: I love the blog! It always makes me feel a lovely combination of mellow and inspired (even when you’re writing about Poundbury!).

Trish Lorenzsays:

It’s not ugly per se but what it’s really missing is any architectural hint that we now live in the 21st century. Neo-classicism is all well and good but it’s my feeling that it needs enlivening with some more contemporary designs too.

I think that we, in the States, would be lucky to have a planned town that looked so great! Well done.

Nicola Barriesays:

Oh, and I hope Naomi’s date went well!

Nicola Barriesays:

I giggled when I saw the sign next to your drawing board – for a second I thought you were the ‘perpetrator’ – evidenced even more so by the careful production of the letters and sign! Maybe ‘KGB’ are not someones initials but have another meaning/little protest?


Truly beautiful, in my humble opinion.

For a minute I thought the town had suffered from a mass exodus – maybe from reading the sign. To my relief I can see 4 people remain 🙂 Seriously, where is the street life not to mention the buzz and energy which springs from people walking around and engaging with each other? I side with K.G.B. and I do like the choice of the curved edges to the sign. Поздравляем архитекторов


Judith: I refer to my blog:

I could also just add, before anyone comments: “but where are all the people?” – it was ten to nine on a Saturday evening. It was kind of freezing (hello, English Summer?), and most sensible people would not have been out and about anywhere. And those that were must have been wondering: who is that sad git walking around with a camera tonight?


I really don’t see what all the fuss is about? The new phases at Poundbury seem to be truly fresh, and dare I say it, original? Congrat’s to the architects. What’s the Russian for that?

A fascinating article. Perhaps part of the challenge for Poundbury is that the serious architecture has been lost behind a series of gut reactions from the architectural profession which have then been casually adopted by others. Looking through your photos, I’m struck by a comfortable familiarity with the proportions and layout, echoing, as it is deliberately supposed to, the well-loved Georgian towns and villages. That’s not to say Poundbury is perfect – it still needs a few years to gather that patina of use which will make it feel more natural – but it does at least seek to seriously address the criticisms of the many anonymous towns with their rigid, boxy facades. Though a few more nods toward the local Dorset architectural characteristics might help connect the town better with the county, but by creating something which is distinctive, it creates an environment which people can identify with – which is the basis for civic pride.

Thanks again for the thought-provoking article



I think its all beautiful.

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