There are 28,000 architects on the Royal Institute of British Architects database – 8,000 more than in 1960 when John Betjeman wrote ‘Contemporary without Conscience’ in the Daily Telegraph. His article discussed the state of the architectural profession as it was then, he concluded with the statement ‘…it’s about time people thought of building as architecture and not simply as style’. However, such a notion was far from new. Mutterings along the same lines had been heard a century earlier when the ongoing fragmentation of the arts was the backdrop that prompted E.W. Godwin, and later Richard Norman Shaw and T.G. Jackson, to defend architecture as a professed art. Betjeman merely re-energised the same discussion for a whole new generation and today the topic warrants further prodding, particularly in light of the demand for new homes and supporting infrastructures.
Poundbury, a New Urbanist extension on the edge of Dorchester, is a good barometer to gauge this thorny relationship between architecture and style. It is a lexicon of random architectural flavours that holistically form an eclectic museum of chocolate box Hardyesque, red brick and limestone Romanesque, Dorset Dutch, Pimlico pub, mercantile 2nd French Empire, Gin Lane Georgian and east coast Richardson American Gothic. Sadly early-English Gothic, middle pointed and perpendicular are not represented however historical continuity has not been overlooked, as faux blind windows have been installed to suggest the development was once a victim of David Cameron’s harsh window tax. With such a disorderly confection of historic building types Poundbury resembles a film set worthy of the Prisoner however unlike Portmeirion no entry fee is demanded. Some might argue that this is a missed opportunity.
But it’s not fooling anyone. This is car crash architecture. A compendium of methodological fancy, an Alice-in-Hardy Country theme park where 1,000 years of architectural terms have been put into a black velvet bag, mixed furiously and drawn at random – ‘No.65 Flemish roof, No.43 late Georgian glazing bars, No.6 off the shelf Ionic columns, No.12 Colonial balcony’ – and then feverishly built. The consequence slaps the face with the wet haddock of poor architecture pastiche. Symptoms follow; first overwhelming dizziness leading to confusion; then acute happiness followed by devastating sadness and finally a sense of fearfulness and disappointment, all within sight of the A35 Dorchester by-pass.
But stop. Wait. Surely this is better than the impersonal pattern-book developments that we see endless examples of up- and down-the-country? Yes, those mass produced developments that draw on half-baked local architectural influences such as half-timbering, slate-hangings and fibreglass chimneys with bolt on pots. Poundbury is, up to a point, better than this. It is three-dimensional at least. The vistas can, at times, pull you in. Momentarily, at least, pedestrians can imagine being in leafy Georgian London, or in New England, Amsterdam, Bruges. Yet, this is short lived as the attractive vistas are soon compromised by mews of local authority wheelie bins, untreated plastic drainpipes, shocking -pink front doors, cheap brass hardware and economy balconies that you wouldn’t allow your aged grandmother to set foot upon for fear of collapse.
Poundbury therefore bears some similarities to Poundland. Both have vast variety, are piled high but lack quality, they have humour and just a hint of appeal – yet, you leave with nothing other than being slightly embarrassed and a touch disturbed. But that’s New Urbanism for you – surprising but inconsistent.
But is this architecture art? And does the artist here create style? No, because it is all so misplaced. Betjeman wrote ‘Great architecture is timeless’. Poundbury is still being built but it is already dated, tired, dazed and confused. It does not sit together as a whole. Pastiche and mimicry is one thing, but Poundbury simply has no style, its’s rude and tasteless, an architectural double entendre, it’s ‘Carry on Architecture’.
Another Duchy of Cornwall production albeit on a much smaller scale is currently being built on the east side of Truro in Cornwall, its centrepiece is a new Waitrose store (no surprise there) disguised as a Georgian mansion with the Classical orders and wooshy doors. Perhaps a Batty Langley inspired unit will house the recycling skips? Or a Soanian pavilion the trolleys. The trouble is that if this was the case it would not come as a surprise.
Today the RIBA campaigns to #Build a Better Britain. The new question is whether new developments like Poundbury or Truro East are building a better Britain or are they just creating a stage set that mimics the past? Here architects are building a Utopian world where sentimentalism is king. For many, me included, such a lost world should not be resurrected. Image Charlton Heston galloping across Chesil Beach in the last scene of Planet to the Apes. He arrives at a desolate and derelict Poundbury. How on earth will he know what country he is in? Or what age it’s from? This is the problem with Sentimentalism. It is neither architecture nor style; it is not the product of our age.