Francis Roberts’ Poundbury houses demonstrate a sturdy arts and crafts individualism but are undermined by the duchy’s lack of attention to material detail
“The things worth walking to can be put within 100 acres,” declared Leon Krier in 1989. “That is the extreme limit of what a town should be.”
He was speaking at the launch event of his masterplan for Poundbury, the Prince of Wales’ model “urban extension” to the west of Dorchester. That his drawings actually showed a development in excess of 250 acres (100ha) mattered little: the crowd was convinced by the rhetorical flourishes of this charismatic Luxembourger, immaculately turned out in cream double-breasted suit, Panama hat and white silk scarf, fluttering against the picturesque backdrop of a blue and white striped marquee.
Twenty-three years on, Krier’s vision is almost halfway there. Walking the streets of Poundbury today provides a fascinating journey through the changing fashions of this supposedly timeless enclave, built on “eternal principles”. Phase one is perhaps closest to the stage-set image of the popular cliché: 200 houses set in winding streets that radiate from a market square, where a Budgens hides behind a hand-painted Village Stores sign and John Simpson’s bizarre market hall squats on bloated stone columns. It has a distinctly villagey atmosphere at only 16 units per acre.
Phase two, which has evolved incrementally over the last 10 years, represents a complete departure, with almost 1,000 homes set at more than double the density. Broad avenues are lined by blocks of five-storey flats, albeit with the obligatory Georgian dressing, as well as 6ha of employment space, from a Romanesque warehouse to the corniced brick shed of the Dorset Cereals factory. Stylistic diversity characterises this phase, with the pointed arches of mini Gothic castles rubbing shoulders with stacked towers of Diocletian windows and elaborate voussoirs. It is a fruity melee of architectural costumes.
“There was a stage between phase one and now when we went a bit loose,” admits Simon Conibear, Poundbury’s estate director, as we drive past a house with bolt-on ornamental veranda that looks straight out of South Carolina. “We are aiming for a bit more consistency in the next phases.”
We continue in a loop, passing the majestic Doric portico of Quinlan Terry’s Waitrose that fronts on to the new Queen Mother Square, to return to the eastern entrance, the charged edge where Poundbury meets the council estates of suburban Dorchester. It is an uneasy boundary, where run-down post-war semis confront the cartoonish turrets of Krier’s romantic imagination — the division clearly demarcated by lines of timber bollards that march across the side streets, apparently desired by residents on both sides.
Aloof from the din
It is here, on St John’s Way, that Francis Roberts Architects has built the series of four houses that I have come to see. Standing somewhat aloof from the din, separated from both existing and forthcoming phases of development by a broad rolling green (known as the Great Field), the buildings are gleaming in the afternoon sun, presenting a chalky cliff face of white render.
“It didn’t look like a very promising situation,” says Roberts, pointing out how the site is sandwiched between the St John’s Ambulance HQ, a stocky pavilion by Lionel Gregory, and the Poundbury Medical Centre, a creamy almshouse affair by Ben Pentreath — as well as backing straight on to the back gardens of a Dorchester terrace. “I was rather disappointed,” he says.
As with all development plots here, Krier had designed an outline diagram for the site, indicating four two-and-a-half storey houses arranged around a funnel-shaped yard, each with its own smaller outhouse. His plan was conceived with the wonky asymmetry characteristic of the earlier phases, a folksy picturesque that Roberts has straightened out into a more rigid, formal affair.
The front elevation continues what Krier had imagined as a “bastide wall” skirting the length of St John’s Way to form a hard edge to the rolling fields, a fortified facade line holding Dorchester at bay. As an urban bookend, Roberts’ buildings stand firm, the entrance to their yard framed by two protruding stairwell bays that appear like guarding sentinels, their blank, tapered flanks punctuated only by two small windows. Turning the corner, slender chimneybreasts project from the facing gable ends, culminating in little stone temple-cowls. With these extruded, tower-like forms and steeply pitched rooftops, the massing has a strong verticality that makes the development appear to rise proudly above its more dumpy neighbours.
The language of sturdy, tapered bays, punctured by windows bordered with deep stone reveals, recalls the work of Baillie Scott — particularly the grand residence of Blackwell in Windermere with its high gables and clusters of thick-set openings. Roberts samples from an eclectic stable, working with an arts and crafts sensibility that channels strains of Voysey, Mackintosh and the exaggerated chunkiness of French castles.
As an associate at the Building Design Partnership in Preston until 1982, Roberts brought his own curious style to a wide range of projects, including the Ealing Broadway shopping centre, a project he describes as “like Carcassonne in west London”.
“I wasn’t a conformist at BDP,” he says. “I was interested in fortresses.” He shows me expressive drawings of his scheme for the Millbank competition in 1977 in which he was a finalist, a stepped concoction with turrets and a campanile, drawn with a confident hand. “I’m a 4B man,” he grins.
At St John’s Way, the lively spirit of Roberts’ sketches has been mostly realised in the built form, with an attention to detail in the articulation of the facade that is absent from many of Poundbury’s more volume-built dwellings. The masonry reveals are expressed as separate posts and lintels, while the rendered openings have curved jambs and sills, as if carved out of the walls — details inspired by the Scots baronial work of Robert Lorimer in Edinburgh. It is a credit to the builders, local firm KDJ Slade & Sons, but also to the quasi-medieval structure in which work here is carried out.
“It is almost a return to the way things used to be done,” says Roberts, “when the architect would do the drawing, and the craftsman would show how it could go together. It has a touch of the Honeywood File, of the days when the architect was still in charge.”
It is all quite convincing, until you begin to look closely. The masonry reveals are in fact reconstituted stone, whose sharp edges are already beginning to soften. The lead finials that cap the rooftops of the garage pavilions are in fact fibreglass, painted with a lead-effect finish. The “leaded” windows are of course just mouldings stuck on the external face of standard glazing.
Poundbury is governed by extensive design guidance and a building code that dwells much on aesthetics, but which pays lip service to the enforcement of material detail.
“Columns shall be Doric or Tuscan orders with proportions and entablatures according to William Chambers’ Treatise on Civil Architecture,” trumpets the code, referencing a manual from 1759.
“Window panes shall approximate to the golden mean on a vertical axis,” it demands. Yet where the prince could exert his influence by insisting on authenticity of construction, and truly integrated environmental design, he abdicates his duties — touring Poundbury’s south-west quadrant, under construction when we visit, the preponderance of con-crete blockwork walls behind the Georgian fascias comes as no sur-prise. The rule of thumb appears to be that, as long as it looks the part, no questions will be asked. Dig a little deeper and the flimsiness of it all is soon apparent.
Arts and crafts fittings
Within, the houses of St John’s Way are a much more standard affair.
“It turned out that most of the residents didn’t want my arts and crafts fittings,” says Roberts, describing planned shelf details that would have extended above internal doorways, and bespoke panelled doors that never materialised.
Some moves have remained, including a Voysey-esque staircase with a newel post that extends up the stairwell, as well as generous landings and built-in window seats. But it appears there was not the budget — nor the commercial desire — to achieve the architect’s full vision.
The developer was ZeroC — a favourite of the prince, responsible for the Olympic sailing village in Weymouth, although it is hard to see quite where the company’s ecological credentials fit in here.
Bulky biomass pellet boilers were installed in the gardens after their flues failed to fit under the sweeping stairs of the outbuildings, but half the residents have since had these boxes removed, as they encroached extensively on their lawns. It emerges the boilers were never part of the architect’s brief, as the controlling way the duchy works usually involves the appointment of the architect before the developer has come on board — leading to clumsy retrofitting in places.
Phases three and four, which were granted outline permission in December 2011, will more than double the current extent of Poundbury, bringing forward 1,200 dwellings and 25,000sq m of commercial space in a masterplan by Ben Pentreath, working with 2011 YAYA finalist George Saumarez Smith of Adam Architecture. Judging by the reserve matters application for the first 500 houses of the northeast quadrant, much of this will be a more restrained vernacular language, with some muted classical elements and fewer novelty buildings than the second phase.
“Not everything should stand out,” says Conibear. “You need the foliage as well as the flowers.”
By this classification, St John’s Way is presumably something of a flower — Roberts’ work apparently commands an extra £50 per sq ft than the norm. He is now working on a series of houses that will continue the white bastide wall along the curving street, to culminate in a “petit manoir” at the end of the road.
“It will be a good house for playing hide and seek in,” he twinkles.
Architect Francis Roberts
Client ZeroC Holdings
Working drawings Trinity Architects
Contractor KDJ Slade & Sons
Photos: Miguel Santa Clara