Dorchester chronicles

Architecture - Hugh Aldersey-Williams revisits Prince Charles's model town

Last night I dreamt I went to Poundbury again. Actually, I did go, it's just that it was like a dream. At the beginning of the 1990s, Prince Charles's project to build a suburb of Dorchester as a showcase of traditionalist architecture seemed to present an almost plausible "Vision of Britain", to take the title of his architectural manifesto. Now the vision seems deluded.

Cool Britannia may be meretricious in many respects, but she has at least helped us to see that we can be at home with the modern. The stipulation that Lottery-funded projects should employ good contemporary architecture will shortly deliver a further jolt to public perceptions of what is architecturally possible and desirable.

Poundbury, meanwhile, ploughs its furrow, almost - but not entirely - heedless of this national shift in attitude towards modernity, and can now only look like an embarrassing anachronism as the new century dawns. It is eight years since the first phase of the scheme sailed through its planning applications. Some 250 buildings, including owned and rented homes in an assortment of vernacular styles, are complete and occupied. The ambition, as at the outset, is to house 5,000 people on 400 acres of land owned by the Duchy of Cornwall lying a mile west of Dorchester over the next 20 years or so.

Several local architects have been involved in "Wessex-ising" a somewhat Italian-inspired master plan by Leo Krier. Others are less in tune with the project's aims. One calls it "a cooked-up, potted history of architecture. Why do we have to do this? Why can't we find an acceptable style for the third millennium?" "When it's finished," another told me, "it's going to be just another estate like Bournville or Saltaire."

Poundbury fails in many ways. The bleak site is wrong for a start. Dorset towns have historically grown along valleys, and not (since Neolithic times at least) as hilltop settlements. It is just far enough from Dorchester to leave its residents dependent on their cars, if they have them. But they will drive not into town, but around the bypass to shop at new out-of-town superstores, also built on Duchy land - the bus timetable to Tesco is prominent on the Poundbury Village Residents Association noticeboard. Local shops are coming, but it has been understandably difficult to attract traders with a catchment area of just a few hundred "locals". The commercial focus will be a "traditional-style" market hall by the architectural pasticheur John Simpson. It will soon be joined by a pub and an alternative therapy clinic. There are indications that the pub is to be called The Three Feathers in a splendid blend of invented tradition and downright sycophancy (the prince's crest or coat or arms or whatever it is has three feathers, don't you see).

Poundbury's houses are too tidy, too symmetrical, and too small for their stylistic presumptions. The urban plan is flawed, too. Pavements, for example, are consistently too wide, reflecting the need to conform with contemporary planning laws. Pocket handkerchief gardens betray the demands of today's developer and estate agent, not the evolution of a historic town. The pot-pourri of styles is picturesque but inauthentic, demonstrating the prowess of the architects involved but sabotaging the aim to produce the look of a town that has grown, as it were, organically over centuries. "There are no 'boring' Victorian terraces, no 1890s workers' cottages," observed one local architect. "Because it is laid out for pedestrians and cars, there are no oddities of manorial waste, no bits left over." While Poundbury overall has its instant history, there is no individual history of its houses. In real houses of this pretended period, for example, modern kitchens and bathrooms would have been built on at a later date. Here, of course, the mod cons are incorporated where the modern home buyer expects to find them. As a consequence, the plan of each house is not always true to its elevation. Elsewhere, too, the modern sits strangely with the fake tradition; the yard to one building lies behind a wooden gate that opens by silent electronics.

Too many materials have been employed in the effort to provide visual interest and showcase "traditional" crafts. Dates of construction ("1995") are pretentiously inscribed on too many, too humble frontages. Street name signs are craftsy, not civic; house numbers are in a uniform style, not subject to individuals' bad taste.

The overall result is confusion at what to make of it all. Is this an imagined extension of Dorchester? Is it an invented town? With or without an invented past? Is it an estate? Is it a model village? Is it a showcase of English domestic architecture? If so, why are only some ages represented?

Despite its botched conception, Poundbury appears to demand total loyalty. The Dorset architects I have quoted asked to remain anonymous. Although they have not contributed to Poundbury itself, they fear losing work on other local developments that may be built on Duchy land. When I wrote about Poundbury in an American architectural journal, I drew fire from Andres Duany, one of the creators of the nostalgic Disney townships, Seaside and Celebration, who seemed happy to cast himself in the role of Krier's stooge. Scribbled at the top of the draft I saw was the legend: "Leo: read this one". When the magazine declined to print his attack on my critique of Poundbury, he posted it on the Internet where, I imagine, you can still find it. (Technology has its uses, even among historicists.)

On my return to Poundbury, I find something very odd is happening. The pretence to authenticity is quietly being dropped. Expansion proceeds apace. There are many new buildings, and some of them have the strangest impact. One laudable aspect of the prince's project is to integrate not only people of different social strata in both rented and owned accommodation but also to mingle residential with industrial buildings. And what factories! The House of Dorchester Fine Chocolate - a production unit the size and shape of a conventional industrial shed, but with stuccoed walls and a slate roof and lurking behind a cod Queen Anne house frontage - is perhaps what one would expect. But another disguised shed, home to a company called Integrated Photomatrix, appears to have been imported directly from the Venice Arsenale. There is sheltered accommodation in a steep-roofed turreted tower that would look at home in Krier's native Luxembourg. A planned nursing home will make a rather good pastiche of Voysey. So much for a sense of place. Or maybe not. The insidious effect of these surreal additions is that they begin to make the "vernacular style" houses and other buildings only three or four years old look real and rooted.