Ugly Buildings

This is probably going to turn out to be the longest professional suicide note in history.

I really should be writing about how good the irises are this year.

Have you noticed? I’m not sure why – because I always thought they liked baking sun. And we haven’t had so much of that this year, let’s face it. But they seem very happy.

You see what I mean?

But I’m not going to write about that.

If you follow me on twitter (I am sure a lot of you can’t bear twitter, I’m not sure I can either, but bear with me, oh, and if you want to make me feel very popular then do feel free to click on ‘follow’) you might have noticed this week a little story that I tweeted. It turned out to be rather a popular tweet. It got retweeted many times. And boy oh boy it made me chuckle…

If you were driving in to Dorchester earlier this week, and were particularly sharp-eyed, you might have spotted a little addition, made overnight on Tuesday, to the road sign that directs you into the centre of town – past Poundbury, the Duchy of Cornwall’s development… where I have been known to work from time to time. Here’s a photo from the national press. Do you spot something rather cunning?

You can read the story in the Sun newspaper here.  Of course, I have to admit, I read it in that other right wing tabloid, the Telegraph, but the Sun seemed a little… racier. For the best comments of all, follow the Dorset Echo and you can see quite how nasty people can get about Poundbury. Toxic!

Well. What a kerfuffle.  But it did make me smile.

More in a moment…. As regular readers of this blog will know, this is the drawing board where I design most of our buildings. It’s a very good spot – south facing, looking across my garden to the trees on the other side of the valley.

I’ve got to admit I’m pretty much in heaven when I’m sitting here drawing.

But what’s that we now see, if you  turn a bit to the right?

YES. You spotted it.

Yup. I’m fairly excited. I popped into the Poundbury office on Friday, where I had a meeting. And there was… that sign! I’m not quite sure how it had made it to the office, I guess via whoever had removed it (the Police? the Highways?)… but when I asked if I could steal it… no-one seemed to mind too much.  So I did.

It’s impeccably made. Incredible.

The typography is perfectly done. But what is that in the right hand corner?

A tiny insignia. K.G.B.  How ominous! Mr K.G.B. – I want to know who you are!!!! You’re a perfectionist, for sure, and I love that just for starters. And you’re an aesthete (no-one copies the typography that perfectly without being an aesthete), and an obsessive, prepared to go to rather a lot of trouble to get your view across. I suspect we might be more alike than you imagine. Please get in touch if you dare. Shall we go for a pint? I am sure you are local.

But let’s take a step back. Of course everyone loves a good joke – especially against themselves. It’s a well known fact that politicians fall over themselves to buy a particularly cruel cartoon, or cover of Private Eye, which they can hang in the downstairs loo and show the world how relaxed they are about people saying nasty things. And I must say, I haven’t seen so many laughs and smiles as there were in the Poundbury office on Friday (although strictly speaking perhaps that might be because Naomi, the office manager, was going on a Friday evening date, which was causing a considerable amount of speculation. Let us all hope it went well. I will try to report back).

Okay. I’m going to write it. Beauty, and conversely, Ugliness, is in the eye of the beholder, for sure… but, yes, I think Poundbury has some Ugly Buildings. It’s got a lot of indifferent ones, which is what you’d expect, and some very interesting ones, some of which I don’t really like… and it’s got some pretty Ugly Ones.  I guess just like everywhere.

So, I could completely see where K.G.B. was coming from. In fact, of all the things that Poundbury gets right, some of which I wrote about a while ago here (Leon Krier’s brilliant master plan… the seamless incorporation of social housing… the unequalled delivery of mixed uses…the genius way in which the car is not allowed to dominate… and most recently, the incorporation of a massive biogas plant providing carbon neutral energy to the settlement), well – of all those things, I’m not sure we could say that it’s always been right about architecture. How could it get everything right over the last 25 years? That’s a pretty tall order.

For instance, about a decade ago, this office building was built. I show you a photo from the A35 road, from the west, which I take to drive in to Dorchester every day. Hmmm.

I cannot tell you the number of times I sit down at someone’s house for supper one evening down in West Dorset and someone across the table tells my neighbour (who I’ve never met before) that I’m involved at Poundbury – and I’m nearly drowned in the venom previously reserved for people languishing in an inner circle of hell. I’ve lost count of the times that I try and change the subject and move on. So, although you’re probably never going to hear from me again, it will be nice to be able to say to that person: “could I refer you, please, to my blog called ‘Ugly Buildings’. It’s easy to remember, just type it into google”.

Here’s a closer view. Nice!

Or, just to the west, is another building that has raised a few eyebrows from time to time, even being shortlisted for that renowned institution, The Carbuncle Cup. (you will be glad to hear, it did not win. If you want to see some truly dreadful buildings, look at the leading nomination for this year, in Oxford…).  Anyhow, that’s the famous Fire Station. The big pedimented one. The arched building on the right is an office and apartment block.

Well, you will doubtless make your own mind up.

It’s a strange thing, how things happen. What’s fascinating for me is that these buildings are all quite anonymous. I’m really not even sure who designed them. Before my time. Anyway, there they are.  Causing dinner party vitriol and road sign pranks.

But what I can tell you is this. A lot of the time, institutions and politicians are accused, aren’t they, of not learning or changing? So I would merely like to reply, to the world whose view of the architecture of Poundbury is entirely conditioned by articles in the press – you can’t say that about this place. It is a genuinely experimental settlement.  If mistakes happen, let’s learn from them.  Wow, there’s a radical idea. No one knew at the beginning how it would end up, and now that it’s half way through, no-one, I would say, can entirely predict what this place will be like in 20, or 50, or 100 years time.

But what I can say is that for a little while recently, there’s been a new attention on architecture, detailing, and street composition. And in that regard, the Duchy of Cornwall has been a remarkable client. Believe me, I work for a lot of clients on new developments. And I don’t know if there’s a single one who is as dedicated, and as committed, to excellence, as this one right now… and who is showing results on the ground.

So I’m going to show you a few snaps, that I took last night, and I’d ask you to make your own mind up again as to whether Mr K.G.B. is being entirely fair, and whether his beautifully made sign tells the whole story.

This is a view down the Bridport Road to the new Butter Market Bakery, where Clive Cobb (of fabulous Town Mill Bakery in Lyme Regis, and in Royal William Yard in Plymouth) has just opened up in the Buttercross building. Clive is brilliant and so is his bakery. And what I really love is the fact that (as in so many old towns) there’s a building in the middle of the road. Only Leon Krier could have achieved that. It’s a feat.

Still under scaffold, emerges a lovely terrace of townhouses designed by my friend George Saumarez Smith. A beautiful colour, and proportion, and detailing. Some of George’s nicest buildings in Poundbury, and we can’t even see them properly yet.  I designed the shop on the right. I really regret I forgot to tell the builders to push back the shopfront so the arch reads a bit deeper.  It would have been possible but we caught it a bit too late.

This is a street I designed, a simple terrace of brick painted cottages with cast iron porches, leading up the hill to some flats. Completed a month ago.

A parking mews. Garages with flats above, and in the distance a tall arch forming a pedestrian link to the Bridport Road. It all looks very new, and it needs to bed in. But it feels pretty good to me.

More houses by George S S. These are affordable homes, as it happens.

As is the row of two storey white-painted cottages that George designed here. Also among some of my favourites in the whole of Poundbury.

Poundbury has its own dose of crazy sign writing.  This sign makes me very happy.

A view into the new Buttermarket, nearing completion. A row of shops, cafes and restaurants around the new small public square.

Quinlan and Francis Terry – the most distinguished classical architects in the world – have designed the buildings around the grand main Square that is being built in the centre, including this beautifully detailed arcaded front to the new supermarket. Personally, I’m in favour of the crappy bin from West Dorset District Council. Others may disagree.

An essay in Soanian brickwork by Craig Hamilton, probably the most serious traditional architect practising in Britain today, in this handsome office building.

Or, let’s just take a bit of pleasure in the simplicity of this terrace of cottages by Johnny Holland.

Quietly refined classicism by George S S, a fine freestanding house on Beechwood Square.

A mixed-use building nears completion at the end of the street designed by my office. I was delighted to learn recently it’s been taken by a firm of Funeral Directors. You couldn’t make it up!

An alluring glimpse past George’s affordable flats down to the Buttercross. Such vistas are part of the genius of Leon Krier’s plan. Note the absolute absence of road markings and traffic control signs. The whole place works entirely naturally without them.  I could also just add, before anyone comments: “but where are all the people?” – it was ten to nine on a Saturday evening. It was kind of freezing (hello, English Summer?), and most sensible people would not have been out and about anywhere. And those that were must have been wondering: who is that sad git walking around with a camera tonight?

Anyway, reverting to Ugly Buildings, the house builders have gone to extraordinary lengths to get the details right. We don’t always succeed, and things still go a bit wrong from time to time, and where that happens we sit down every two months and try and improve them.

This simple traditional architecture is not everyone’s cup of tea. An awful lot of architects sneer at Poundbury, and pastiche is a word I hear used a lot. Well, for me, it’s all about authentic building – and that’s not, actually, to do with age.  It’s to do with getting things right. Scale, detailing, proportion, moderation. If you look over on the architecture website, we do buildings that are more contemporary in their treatment, like our designs for the site in Chelsea – it’s horses for courses, for me – about putting the right thing in the right place as best as one can. And Poundbury, for me, is all about getting the traditional architecture – that belongs both to its own place, now, and also to the extension of a county town in West Dorset – as right as we can.

I think I had better sign off, if you will forgive the pun.  And while I hope you will, like all of us, have enjoyed a chuckle at ‘Ugly Buildings’, and even, perhaps, understood where Mr (or Ms? K.G.B) is coming from, I hope you will also realise that there are two sides to every story.  Which really is my manifesto, if ever there was one. Try and understand the alternative point of view.

Mr K.G.B, I want to have that pint with you. And for everyone else, I’d be interested, as I really have been on the blog about Coed Darcy, to know your thoughts on the new streets at Poundbury.

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