King Charles’s Vision of Britain, Writ Small

In 1988, beset by marital troubles, King Charles III, then Prince Charles, starred in a BBC documentary subtitled “A Vision of Britain.” From a boat cruising down the Thames, he gestured toward the passing cityscape. “All around me is what used to be one of the architectural wonders of the world,” he said. He was wearing a dark suit, buttoned, with a pocket square, and speaking slowly. After the Great Fire, London evolved over three centuries, he said; then conflict, and bombings, came. “What was rebuilt after the war has succeeded in wrecking London’s skyline,” he continued, “and obliterating the view of St. Paul’s in a jostling scrum of skyscrapers all competing for attention.” The camera panned over the City of London—the oldest part of the city—catching several construction cranes. “Can you imagine the French doing this sort of thing in Paris?” Charles asked, incredulously.

The documentary and an accompanying book laid out the Prince’s views on modernist architecture. Plainly, he hated it. It stank. Turning his attention to Birmingham, he described designs for a new convention center. “I’m not against development, but I must confess I felt terribly demoralized when I went there to see the plans last year,” he confided. “Choosing my words to be as inoffensive as possible, I said I thought it was an unmitigated disaster.” Guffaw! Of the city’s central library, he said, “It looks like a place where books are incinerated, not kept.” Concrete towers were blights on the landscape, favoring cars and technology above humans. “When did we lose our sense of vision?” he asked. “There is no need for buildings, just because they house computers and word processors, to look like machines themselves.”

When “A Vision of Britain,” the book, was released in 1989, it became a best-seller, and launched an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Many of London’s architects were understandably peeved. Britain’s population was expanding; the need for new construction was obvious. “You cannot put the clock back,” Colin St. John Wilson, head of the architecture department at Cambridge University, and designer of the British Library, which the Prince hated, remarked at the time. As Sally Bedell Smith writes, in her exacting biography, from 2017, “Prince Charles: The Passions and Paradoxes of an Improbable Life,” “Charles’s failure to see beyond the purity of his aesthetic was a blind spot. In part because he was not subjected to the challenges of ordinary living, he didn’t understand the need for urban density to keep housing costs affordable.” His love for low-rise buildings resulted in a “lifelong antipathy to skyscrapers, whatever their merits.”

In her long lifetime, Charles’s mother, the Queen, hardly ever expressed a strong opinion. A vocal antipathy toward skyscrapers? She would never. Earlier this month, making his first address to the nation as King, Charles acknowledged the deference his new role would require. (Monarchs are discouraged from most passion projects.) “My life will of course change as I take up my new responsibilities,” he said. “It will no longer be possible for me to give so much of my time and energies to the charities and issues for which I care so deeply. But I know this important work will go on in the trusted hands of others.” It remains to be seen whether he will be able to fully step back from his favorite causes, which also include climate change and alternative medicine. In architecture, at least, he has left plenty behind that betrays his true feelings. The greatest expression of Charles’s vision for Britain might be found in Poundbury, a small, purpose-built community on four hundred acres on the outskirts of Dorchester, in Dorset, near England’s southwest coast—a project he has overseen with meticulous attention to detail.

In Poundbury, there are no skyscrapers. The buildings are short and built in a mishmash of traditionalist styles: Georgian, classical, Italian villa, country cottage. There seem to be no traffic signs or road markings, and almost no public trash cans. Built on land owned by the Duchy of Cornwall, the $1.4-billion estate that Charles oversaw before he became King, Poundbury has been crafted to meet Charles’s aesthetic standards. (The Duchy and its holdings, including Poundbury, have now passed to Prince William.) Like Seaside, Florida, the immaculate resort town that served as the set for “The Truman Show,” from which Poundbury reportedly drew inspiration, it is startlingly clean. When I visited recently, I carried a glass bottle around for hours before finding a place to off-load it. Long before Charles ascended to the throne, he had his own fiefdom. In Poundbury, Charles was already King.

What would you make if you could build your own town? Or, put another way, what would a town version of you look like? If you are King Charles III, it looks like Poundbury. As an extension of Dorchester, an ancient market town that dates back to Roman times, Poundbury does not have its own train station. Stepping off in Dorchester, I found a PizzaExpress, a Nando’s, and an Odeon movie theatre—chains you might find on any British high street. Following a road through a residential neighborhood, I passed rows of standard brick houses with little gardens. Somewhere along the way, I noticed the streets growing cleaner, the grass turning greener. The buildings seemed freshly scrubbed. Above a series of placards for housing developers, a sign read “Duchy of Cornwall,” and, in large silver letters, “Poundbury.”

Before Poundbury was built, it was mainly open fields. In the late eighties, when the local planning authority decided to expand Dorchester, Charles took an active role. He hired the Luxembourgian architect Léon Krier, who disliked modern architecture as much as he did, to design a master plan for the village. Krier was a proponent of New Urbanism, which argued that cities should be designed around pedestrians—they should be walkable, and mixed-use, with businesses mingling with residential housing. (Krier built a home in Seaside, Florida.) They should not be allowed to sprawl unchecked. “I was determined that this should not be yet another soulless housing estate with a business park tacked on,” Charles has written, “as has happened to so many of the towns and cities throughout the country.”

Construction began in 1993, with architects following a strict “building code” that promotes the “use of traditional materials and regulates building form and street scenes.” The Duchy ran a tight ship. “The Duchy’s Poundbury team work closely with the developers to control design and build quality,” the community’s Web site reads. When residents move to Poundbury, they agree to a series of stipulations laid out in a design-and-community code. The “do’s and don’ts” of Poundbury “will help to ensure that the architectural harmony of Poundbury is not disfigured by the type of insensitive alterations which have occurred elsewhere,” it reads. The comment is accompanied by an illustration of two houses—one that follows the code, and one that doesn’t—meant to show “what might happen in the absence of restraint and concern for the overall character.” The model home looks clean and orderly, if a little sterile. The offending house has added window boxes, skylights, a satellite dish, and little potted plants. An ornate glass conservatory peeks out the back. It looked, to my eyes, like someone lived there.

In the British press, Poundbury has long been a source of amusement. It has been called a “feudal Disneyland,” and “fake, heartless, authoritarian, and grimly cute.” “Why should we hide behind the delusion that excellence only existed in the past and the best we can do is to ape it?” Stephen Bayley wrote in the Guardian in 2008. Lately, coverage has been more kind. A Guardian article from 2016 was titled, “A Royal Revolution: Is Prince Charles’s Model Village Having the Last Laugh?” Today, Poundbury is home to around forty-six hundred residents, and employs some twenty-four hundred people. Since its inception, it has been under construction. The goal is to finish with twenty-seven hundred homes by 2026. Then, Poundbury will be complete.

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