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Royalty reading issues of Current Affairs and frowning with distaste. "Proud to be a magazine that most royals dislike."

Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Roger Mechan (Dreamstime)

The Royal Dystopia of Poundbury

A town with no people is not a town, but a deathly museum.

The first thing that stood out to me when I looked up pictures of Poundbury was the absences: photos of the town showed no retail chains, no neon, not all that much in the way of color in general. There were no tattoo parlors or all-night pizza joints or liquor stores. On the sidewalks, there were no cigarette butts or grayed-out gum smears. There was no litter.

Nor were there any humans. This more than anything was what struck me as I scrolled through the images on my computer: that I was not viewing a real town, a living town, but a collection of hyperreal set pieces, a moquette built at 1 to 1 scale like something out of a Borges story. It was therefore with a certain degree of trepidation that I purchased my train ticket, unsure whether or not the place I was bound for was on this coast of reality or the other.

First begun in 1993, the southern English town of Poundbury (population 3,800 at time of writing, out of the 6,000 or so it is projected to house by its completion in 2026) is the brainchild of Prince Charles, who ordered its construction in order to fit his vision of a model English town; it is, however, only the meagerest splinter of his total land holdings. As the eldest son of the current reigning sovereign, Charles possesses the title of Duke of Cornwall, which comes along with some 135,000 acres spidering out far beyond its namesake county to encompass farms, forests, estuaries, cricket grounds in London, Dartmoor Prison, a massive supermarket warehouse in Milton Keynes, and a Holiday Inn in Reading. But pinning down exactly where the prince’s land is turns out to be surprisingly difficult: as Guy Shrubsole of the Who Owns England? project points out, the Duchy has made no map of its territorial holdings available and refuses all attempts by members of the public to secure such information. Because of its status as a “private entity” in the eyes of the law, furthermore, the Duchy is exempt from Freedom of Information Act requests that might otherwise shed light on the location and nature of its properties. In other words, even while we know that the prince is one of the largest private landowners in Great Britain, we have no way of ascertaining where all of that land is or what it is being put to use for. One thing we do know, however, is that over the last several decades Charles has looked to his demesne as a sandbox in which he can mock up and test his ideas for a greener and more pleasant England.

Would it shock you, reader, if I told you that a member of the English royal family was an anti-modernist? Charles expounded upon his personal architectural ideals in A Vision of Britain, a manifesto that appeared first in film and then in book form and decried the housing blocks, skyscrapers, and suburban sprawl that characterized much of the country’s post-war building and rebuilding. “The London that slowly evolved after the Great Fire [of 1666] took about 300 years to build; it took about 15 years to destroy,” the prince says as the camera pans mournfully over the north shore of the Thames, capturing the glass and concrete sheaths that now dwarf Christopher Wren’s stately spires. Charles doesn’t engage with the philosophy of modern architecture; he makes no distinctions between styles or schools, between whether a building is meant to house 200 families or the headquarters of a merchant bank. Instead, his documentary takes potshots at some of the uglier, more lumbering beasts of the capital in order to make a case against any postwar building whose aesthetic falls outside of the limited confines of his conservative tastes. Not long after the release of Vision, the first phase of Poundbury’s construction would begin, and with it a laboratory test of the prince’s ideas about traditional design, community, and modern England.

Poundbury is not an independent settlement—rather, it is grafted onto the larger town of Dorchester, and while the line between one and the other isn’t officially marked as such, it doesn’t really need to be: the difference is immediately perceptible to any visitor, as much palpable as it is visible. It is a Sunday when I make my visit, and if the shops and cafes I see are open at all on the Lord’s day most have closed by the time I arrive around 2:00 p.m. I get a drink at one of the only places open, a pub called the Duchess of Cornwall that sits on one side of Queen Mother Square, in the center of which is a bronze statue of its namesake squat centenarian. Charles himself, apparently, puts in an appearance at the town’s pubs a couple times a year, sipping beer while he sops up a tidy stream of revenue. As the place is mostly empty, I’m able to get a window seat, from which I can see that most of the vast square—like many of the public spaces in Poundbury, I would soon learn—has been given over for use as a parking lot, which does little to allay the eerie suspicion I have that Poundbury is populated entirely by motor vehicles. Was it merely the kind of town that grew sleepy on a Sunday? But then I remember the pictures I’d look at beforehand, all of which were equally devoid of life. Walking the peopleless streets, I’m reminded of the eerie feeling of childhood weekend mornings when I was the only person in the house who was up yet, watching cartoons with the volume turned all the way down and waiting for the rest of the world to awaken.

Labor as such is not really visible at Poundbury, nor labor’s detritus, nor the countless amenities that sustain and succor the laboring body. I can’t see where people would run to to pick up milk, where they might get new keys cut, where they might have their microwave repaired, where they might get takeout past midnight. The labor of structures, too, has been deemed obscene by Poundbury’s architects: “unsightly” functional elements are masked by ornament or else, in the case of things like TV antennae, banned outright. (Compare this to “inside-out” buildings like the Pompidou Center, with its snakenest of exposed pipes making visible the network of forces required for the successful functioning of a single building.) There’s something of the manor house in this: the way Georgian gentry built their homes so that the servants’ quarters were invisible from the stately garden walks, with separate hallways and staircases and floors to conceal the movements of the maids and valets who kept the household running. What Poundbury’s planners have made room for, however, is a worship of monarchy etched into the fabric of the town: there are streets named Dukes Parade, Crown Yard, Jubilee Court; streets that bear the names of the Queen Mother’s racehorses; streets named after Charles’ relations. (Most puzzling to me is Gallows Down Lane, which raises the question of why, if you were designing a nostalgic utopia from scratch, you would choose of your own accord to harken back to the heady days of public execution.) 

There are also, tellingly, streets named after battles fought in Iraq and India, references to Britain’s imperial past that are far from accidental. In a 1987 speech on architecture before the City of London Corporation, Charles stated:

I see no reason, then, why wealth should not finance beauty that is in harmony with tradition, today as in the past. People too easily forget that the London of Wren’s time was the greatest trading empire the world has ever seen… [rivaling] Venice, itself a center of world trade, and one which knew so well how the fruits of commerce should be celebrated in the arts and architecture.

For the prince, architectural marvels are one of the sweet results of conquest—and so it should come as no surprise that the styles he fulminates against date to the period of the British Empire’s collapse. Charles’ laments about the “decline” of architecture are also implicitly about the fading away of Britain’s power: surveying the city of Birmingham, the voiceover of Vision notes sadly that “all around…are derelict sites which were once the manufacturing heart of the empire.” But what the prince fails to understand is that the dense post-industrial cities he so despises are the cities his beloved empire built. The banks whose glass towers now blot out the sun reaped their wealth from the slave trade; the cars whose massive thoroughfares Charles considers an eyesore are fueled by gasoline whose extraction from Middle Eastern oilfields guided British foreign policy; the art museums whose glitzy modern extensions he rails against are populated by works that, if not stolen outright, were likely paid for with imperial spoils. That the sole problem Charles sees here is one of aesthetics is a telling sign of his own inability, typical among conservatives, to make any kind of structural critique of the world around them.

We must inevitably arrive at the subject of the look of Poundbury, which has attracted some truly inspired venom since the town’s inception, having variously been described as a “feudal Disneyland,” “the furniture floor of a provincial department store in 1954 translated into architecture,” an “architectural shame,” and “an awkward blend of a haphazard, incoherent, and absurd-looking architectural production.” Tenants are strictly limited in what alterations they may make to their homes: if they wish to paint their doors a different color, for instance, they require permission from the duchy to do so. Like the follies so beloved by English gentry in the 19th century, the town mixes historical styles freely and without reference to the original purposes of the structures they’re mimicking. Walking down a single street, you might encounter Palladianism, Arts & Crafts, even, improbably, a few sham Victorian warehouses that now serve as a nursing home. A strange mold the color of dried blood streaks down the walls of a number of the buildings I pass—a sign, seemingly, that the architectural attempts to project richness and quality craftsmanship overlay questionable materials and rushed execution. Rather than being reminded of the originals these houses are aping, I find myself thinking of the strip malls I grew up with in southern California, the kind that hide their flimsy stucco exteriors and fresh coats of paint behind press-on “masonry” and old-fangled names like Towne Centre. If Charles were ever to visit his wayward son in Los Angeles, he might be cheered to see that the spirit of Poundbury is very much alive there. In their quest to realize perfection, Poundbury’s creators have succeeded in achieving only an otherworldly weirdness so profound as to annihilate the very possibility of beauty.

But though it embraces traditional styles (or, looked at another way, abhors modern ones), Poundbury seems also to suffer from a paradoxical and pathological fear of the old. The neighboring countryside plays host to some of southwest England’s most spectacular ruins: on my walk to Poundbury from the train station, I’d passed a neolithic fortress, a Roman amphitheater, the grassed-over remains of which must appear from above like an undulating series of knots and whorls in the landscape. This past of warring tribes, of brief lives, of pagan sacrifices, of wave after wave of invasion, is not the past that the prince is nostalgic for—both because it was characterized by norms that modern aristocrats would abhor and because it lies far beyond the temporal reaches of the royal bloodline. In its own way, Charles’ brand of nostalgia is fundamentally rooted in a dismissiveness of the past because its brand of blinkered nationalism cannot survive the complications and contradictions that would inevitably arise from an honest and complete appraisal of Britain’s history.

Distinct Teutonic vibes emanate from the heavy roofs, glowering eaves, and muscular columns of buildings like the town event hall and the faux bell tower that serves as the improbable home for a bridal boutique. This should perhaps not be surprising: Poundbury’s master planner, Léon Krier, is a native of Luxembourg. Krier, perhaps the most famous exponent of neo-traditionalist architecture active today, has worked on projects such as urban extensions to Guatemala City, a house in the Floridian planned community of Seaside, and a strange aborted development called Atlantis, whose commissioners aimed to create a Davos-esque retreat on Tenerife billed as a “gift to the world” where thinkers could debate and solve “the crisis they saw in the world of art and culture at large.” Perhaps what Krier is most (in)famous for, however, is his vociferous apologism for Albert Speer, Germany’s Minister of Armaments and War Production during WWII who was also one of Hitler’s favorite architects. As the pet designer of the Nazi Party, Speer was responsible for the massive rally grounds at Nuremberg and plans for a postwar rebuilding of Berlin, which was to be rechristened Germania, made the capital of the world, and capped with a colossal temple to Hitler called the Hall of Glory. In his (widely excoriated) biography of Speer, Krier attempts to prize apart the architect and the fascist politics he served, as architecture, in his view, is not inherently political—except, of course, when the subject of modernism arises, in which case he is happy to make pronouncements such as that “Auschwitz-Birkenau and Los Angeles are children of the same parents.” All of this is in the service of rescuing the neoclassical style in which Speer worked, which according to Krier “has been the noblest instrument of politics and of civilizing propaganda for thousands of years and throughout all great culture and continents.” This, by his lights, is a good thing.

What does any of this have to do with Poundbury? Krier’s idea that classical buildings are “eternal proofs of mankind’s cultural and moral heritage” is mirrored in Prince Charles’s belief that traditional architecture of the type on show in his model town embodies “innate beauty,” “universal principles,” and intuitive ideas derived from capital-n Nature. These kinds of statements about the universal aesthetic appeal of European design are the kinds of things that only someone who has never darkened the door of a social science class (or, indeed, an art history class) could say. As a 2018 article in the Guardian points out, such paeans to “European traditional architecture” have in recent years become a dog whistle for those on the far right, who can hide behind seemingly innocuous appeals to “heritage” and “beauty” in coded attempts to prove the cultural purity and supremacy of Europeans. (Indeed, Krier has allied himself with several controversial restoration works in Germany despite protests that such projects are rooted in dangerous nationalism.) 

But critiques of Poundbury’s architecture are easy to make: more objectionable, and less visible, are the social hierarchies that the town’s construction represents. In his condemnations of modern architecture and urban design, Charles likes to cast himself as a representative of the Common Man who, just like “everyone else,” hates but is helpless to stop the onslaught of the avant-garde. According to this account, the success of modern architecture despite its supposedly universal unpopularity is the results of a strange, quasi-Masonic conspiracy on the part of academics and architects to tyrannically assert their aesthetic will. But of course, Charles is not an everyman: though he refuses to acknowledge it, he wields far more clout than the average person writing to their local paper to complain about a nearby eyesore. And he has not hesitated to use the bully pulpit to attempt to get his way: when the prince called Colin St. John Wilson’s design for the British Library “more like the assembly hall of an academy for secret police,” the architect lost so much business that he eventually had to shutter his firm. After he infamously deemed a proposed addition to the National Portrait Gallery “a monstrous carbuncle on the face of a much-loved and elegant friend,” the plan was scrapped in favor of something more classical looking. And when a major London housing development looked ready to go ahead with a design he didn’t approve of, Charles wrote to the Qatari royals behind the project beseeching them to go with a neoclassical design instead. Despite his stated commitments to democracy in urban planning, the prince seems far less interested in truly democratic processes than he is in using the pretext of executing the people’s will as a means of pushing through his own will.

There’s also the question of where the revenue generated from duchy land (some £21 million in 2019) goes. The revenue is not subject to corporate tax, and the prince is not required to undergo audits: a 2012 request by Parliament to audit the Duchy of Cornwall was refused. At the same time, however, the prince is uniquely empowered to secure this income: it was recently revealed that Charles and the Queen had secretly used an opaque legal procedure to scrutinize proposed laws that might negatively impact their property earnings, including a proposed end to a policy that prevents some of Charles’ tenants from being able to purchase their homes.

Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that for all the talk of fostering civic virtues the grandest buildings in Poundbury are not schools or libraries or town halls but luxury apartment complexes. As an article by Prewett Bizley Architects notes, 

At Poundbury…the civic functions do not already exist and the money is not available to give them buildings of sufficient status, but money is available from buyers of expensive housing, so that is where it is spent.… The private residential tower and palace have no value in terms of shared civic ideals, apart perhaps from an affirmation of conservative values, but they certainly provide a clear answer to the question of who holds the power in our society.

In this sense, Poundbury would be a failure even if it were lovely: even if it were vibrant, even if it were beautiful, even if the streets were redolent of lavender and freshly cut hay. It would be a failure because it is, at bottom, both an exercise in and an apologia for the power of the monarchy and other elites to hoard and dispose of property as they wish. When figures like Krier protest that architecture is not inherently political, what they miss is the fact that the division and apportionment of space—as well as who does the getting and who does the receiving, who does the designing and who does the building—are inextricably tied to politics. 

Crossing back into Dorchester proper as evening bears on, I notice higgledy-piggledy wooden fences, stones liverspotted with lichen, bricks whose edges have been worn to smooth curves by time. There’s much more charm to this, it occurs to me, than anything in the dollhouse town a few streets over. Isn’t this precisely the atmosphere that Poundbury is attempting to replicate? But then I remember the thick set of rules to which any prospective villager must accede before moving in: by the time so much as a single fencepost had come loose, a single patch of moss had sprung up unwanted, regulatory forces would already be springing into action to restore Charles’s vision to unspoiled perfection.

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