We have our third King Charles. “The Queen is dead, long live the King” sing the Aussie royalists, who by and large hate property developers, not realising that the new King is one, and not a good one.

King Charles III has long meddled in architectural matters. Last week’s ToT looked at his interventions and the writing of his 1989 book, A vision of Britain, a Personal View of Architecture, and the founding of his own architecture school (yes, really). In a companion piece our colleagues at ArchitectureAU wrote The new monarch and the architectural schemes he buried, including his ‘carbuncle’ comment that kiboshed the winning scheme for the National Gallery by Ahrends Burton and Koralek (and effectively ended that fine firm).

Not content with proselytising and demonising architects, he wanted to put his backward-looking ideas into practice, and build an exemplar village. Fortunately for him, among his royal inheritances was a large amount of land around Dorchester, in one of his many Duchies. When the town of 25,000 wanted to expand they agreed to the Prince undertaking a development on his land, rather than the usual practice of the land being sold. The Prince becomes an active property developer.

His desire is to go forward with a retreat to the past. He wants to build his own neo-traditional Dorset village called Poundbury. In 1988 he commissions Leon Krier to advise him on planning matters. The early ideas, seemingly derived from 18th C English villages, are sensible and sound: housing of all income levels, close to shops and public squares, an intertwined mix of residential and commercial, a direct relationship between heights of buildings and their public significance, and lots of green spaces at the edges.

The Prince is a great fan of Seaside, the manufactured town in Florida, hailed by Charles Jencks as the start of ‘new urbanism’. Designed by Andrés Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk (DPZ) he hires the former to provide the building code, including rules governing such things as forms, materials, signs and the proximity of buildings to the curb.  The town appeared in the Prince’s book and TV show, guilelessly ignoring that it was the set for The Truman show, one of the great movies about human manipulation and alienation.

As an aside, if you don’t have the time and money to visit Seaside, you can inhale the full flavour with a visit to Breakfast Point, on the Parramatta River in Sydney’s mid-west. The story goes that the developer, Bob Rose / Rose Group wanted to use ‘new urbanism’ and his planner (no names), took him to see Seaside. Rose loved it. Not just the ideas but the whole look. And so that is what he built, Seaside Down Under. No surprise that it was recognised the HRH Prince of Wales in his role as patron of INTBAU, the International Network of Traditional Building, Architecture and Urbanism.

But back to Poundbury. It’s attracted brickbats and bouquets. The most measured in favour is Behind the Facade of Prince Charles's Poundbury by Witold Rybczynski, the Canadian-American author with a penchant for tradition as marked in his many books including Home, A Short History of an Idea, and Last Harvest: How A Cornfield Became New Daleville: Real Estate Development in America

Rybczynksi points to the town’s high social ideals with more than a third of dwellings as affordable housing, mostly social housing owned by charitable trusts and rented to low-income tenants; as well as shared-equity housing, where qualified buyers can purchase a share in a home, without being able to afford a mortgage on the open market. The affordable housing is ‘salt and peppered’ (or scattered) throughout the town.

All ideals that ToT has been advocating in social housing. Sadly, Rybczynski notes that there's very little social mixing (in this, the ultimate caste country), and he goes on to report that his host acknowledges that some people think it's a movie set, which brings us back to Seaside, and cruel brickbats.

The main thrust is that the town looks back not only to old architecture, but also to old values. The UK Sunday Telegraph criticised it as “an effort to return to a world where Squires and gentle folk live happily alongside the artisan class”. Or worse. It's been described as “an embarrassing anachronism as the new century dawns” (Hugh Aldersey-Williams, New Statesman); that “it's fake, heartless, authoritarian and grimly cute” (Stephen Bayley, Observer), or “an over-sanitised middle-class ghetto that has a whiff of resignation, that there is nothing positive to live for” (Andy Spain, ArchDaily).

For me, there are several serious downsides to Poundbury.

Firstly, it ignores the contemporary issues of cities. The Prince’s former critiques concentrated only on particular buildings not the whole. Forest and Trees. He ignores the big issues in the big cities of his realm: London, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Glasgow: all are undergoing positive regeneration, mostly driven by modern planning, as well as architecture. That’s where he should look and learn.

Secondly, it promotes the idea of extending suburbia into the countryside, with a series of small villages, ever more remote from the services of big towns and cities (like hospitals, universities, and specialities). It is urban sprawl by another name, and it is shamelessly hypercritical for someone who is supposedly interested in sustainability.

Thirdly, the village design is wilfully regressive in not acknowledging the issues of modern technology, particularly vehicles. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to integrate cars and buses into towns that are pretending to be built in 1778 or 1888. Leon Krier’s idea to let them park anywhere and pretend they are invisible doesn’t work.

Fourthly, and allied to that, is the folly of planning a medieval town in modern times. Assuming cars can safely negotiate tight corners and bent streets is more evil than medieval. Not to mention the excessive fuel consumption required. And where is the sun in all that wonkiness? Now that we appreciate ‘solar planning’ surely every house should be able to respond to solar passive design or ‘PassivHaus’ principles. To mandate randomness is not sustainably designed.

Fifthly, aesthetics can’t trump practicality to this extent. Photovoltaics are banned from roofs that can be seen from the street, which as far as I can see is every roof. Truly bizarre to Australian eyes, and again a black mark for the ‘Prince of sustainability’. Don’t be fooled Albo.Sixthly, its architecture is all style and no smarts. Oversized columns in the work of Quinlan and Francis Terry are amusing in other contexts, but a whole town of it? Not even Walt would have gone that far, in this all too solid Disneyland. It’s all container and no contents; you get to guess which era the building is evoking, without any idea of what is actually inside. The ludicrous fire station has been singled out for ridicule.

And finally, the materiality is just retrograde wrong. Tiny windows, single glazed Georgian panes in double hung sashes – you can’t get a worse window for air and cold leakage and maintenance. Brickwork detailing made to hold moisture in the British drizzle, promoting mould and ill-health. And those chimneys. Either they are connected to gas fires or are a major source of air loss. Either way they are a stupid topping to seriously unsustainable houses.

Britain has long desired ‘planned new towns’, stretching back to company towns like Bournville and Sunlight at the turn of the last century to the ‘New Town' movement post WW2 that brought forward Welwyn Garden City (1948), Cumbernauld (1955) or Milton Keynes (1967) amongst 30 others. (Or modern Canberra for that matter – thanks Lord Holford). All had successes and failures – a pity that the Prince once again ignored his realm in favour of his regal rights.

Poundbury continues to be built out, a financial success for the Prince as property magnate, providing money for his trusts, enabling the Prince to continue to promote these backward and dangerous ideas of architecture. And into the mix he adds holistic remedies, hippy thinking, and now pushing his crazy ideas on climate change environmentalism on the European community. And us, his (not-so) loyal subjects.

A measure of just how absurd this mumbo-jumbo gets was revealed in Prince’s 2010 Book: Harmony: A New Way of Looking at the World, co-written with Tony Juniper and Ian Skelly. To finish I can do no better than the description of the book in an article by Nick Cohen in The Guardian:

Greenish readers who believe that interventions from an ecological King Charles would be welcome should look at where his environmentalism comes from and where it leads. Charles’s widely unread book …. is worth forcing yourself to plod through. It sets out an obscurantist vision that is so reactionary it opposes all aspects of modernity from the scientific revolution on. Hence his fondness for the dictatorial petro-monarchies of the Gulf. They may cause devastating environmental damage but at least they are free from the democratic constraints the Enlightenment put on European royals. Hence the belief in quack “alternative” medicines, the damage to health they bring notwithstanding.

Tone Wheeler is an architect / the views expressed are his / contact at [email protected]