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Thread: Robert Campbell's take on Poundbury

  1. #1
    Cyburbian ablarc's avatar
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    Robert Campbell's take on Poundbury

    America’s best critic weighs in…


    Getting it right (maybe a little too right) in well-behaved England

    Critique

    By Robert Campbell, FAIA

    Think of this column as a letter to a friend about a recent trip to England.

    I was tagging along with the Seaside Pienza Institute, which is an informal gang of mostly American architects, educators, and developers all of whom subscribe, more or less, to the principles of the so-called New Urbanism. They agree, at least, that they prefer walkable towns to car-culture sprawl.

    Sprawl is something you certainly don't see much of in rural England. It's amazing to an American: no roadside Dairy Queens, motels, billboards, used- car dealerships, suburban malls, or scattered single-family houses. Beautiful as it is, it's possible to get bored. The endless green countryside, unviolated by trade or commerce, bespeaks the heavy hand of a ruling bureaucracy, as it once spoke of a ruling aristocracy. Where, you ask yourself, is the insurgent who breaks the rules? Where is the bubbling up of private initiative that makes life irrational and interesting? Can I buy some fireworks, please?

    They don't let sprawl happen. We talked to several government officials who told us there is a greenbelt around every city, town, and village. You can't develop anything in that belt unless you can prove to government planners that (a) there's a need and (b) there's no capacity for growth on existing sites inside the town limits. The "thrill of walking from the town into the country," as one speaker put it, is preserved by government fiat.

    I'm certainly in favor of a sharp line between town and country. But with this same group, I toured Tuscany last year. There we discovered that the equally bucolic Italian farm landscape is uneconomic and survives only because it's considered historic and is subsidized by the European Union [RECORD, October 2003, page 67]. England has similar problems, its agriculture now threatened by cheaper overseas imports. One group is addressing that problem with the pleasingly named "Eat the View" initiative, trying to get town dwellers to buy fresh produce grown in the immediate scenic surroundings.

    Logical there; heretical in U.S.

    Planning happens on a big scale, too. We learned that the government has identified four national corridors where growth will be encouraged. The major one lies along the new rail link to mainland Europe. It's a proposal as logical there as it would be heretical in the U.S.

    We visited Poundbury, the new town sponsored by the Prince of Wales and planned by New Urbanist guru Leon Krier, who met us there. He said architects should imitate rather than invent, and noted that "nobody has proposed an anticlassical Chianti." He also said, in a sentence worth thinking about, that "architecture should be divorced from art history."


    Sponsored by Prince Charles, Poundbury follows New Urbanist planning rules.

    Poundbury obeys the principles of Jane Jacobs and the New Urbanism. It's mixed-use and dense. The houses don't float on wasteful green lawns; they butt up against one another in traditional rows. Streets wander around as unpredictably as in a medieval village, in a way that's maybe too self-consciously picturesque. Parks are banished to the perimenter, so that the town itself can remain compact and walkable. Cars are tucked semi-visibly in parking courts. It's a real town, not just a bedroom burb, with commerce and light manufacturing.

    I have to admit I was amused to learn that although Poundbury is only one-fifth built, the serpent of Nimbyism has already raised its hissing head. A group has been formed that calls itself PROD: Poundbury Residents Opposed to Density. At the time of our visit, PROD had just succeeded in getting planning authorities to deny permission for a modest new apartment building. These are guys who chose to live in a traditionally dense, compact settlement, and who paid a premium to do so (Poundbury has been a marketing success). They then turn around to protest the very qualities that, presumably, attracted them in the first place. Although I think PROD is selfish and absurd, it's somehow reassuring to know that contrariness can still flourish in a model community. Krier, as usual, gets it right. When you do a new development, he says, "You must build the noxious uses first or the residents will prevent them." They love to talk about architecture in England. George Ferguson, the current president of the Royal Institute of British Architects, has proposed an X rating for works of architecture. He hasn't explained the details, but the idea is that really terrible buildings would be given the X in the hope that, labeled with such a stigma, they might be demolished. Perhaps the government could subsidize the demolition, or perhaps it could refuse needed permissions or benefits. One delights in imagining the star-chamber gathering of taste police who would meet to award the X listing. Alas, it probably won't happen.

    The hottest argument at the moment is over a government policy that says, or seems to say—the wording is the usual bureaucratic fog—that traditional styles of architecture are now banned in the British countryside. The law formerly banned any large new house in open countryside, since the government policy, as noted above, is to keep development in towns. But it was modified—with backstage pressure, everyone thinks but can't prove, from Norman Foster— to permit houses that are "truly outstanding and groundbreaking" and reflect "the highest standards in contemporary architecture."

    Architects who practice in traditional modes believe this is a deliberate prohibition of historic styles, and they're up in arms, as are Americans like Andres Duany. A member of Prince Charles's staff suggested to me that if you were to ban architecture that imitates the architecture of some previous era, you'd have to demolish half of London. Gothic Revival? Palladian? Even a landmark like Tower Bridge is merely thick clothes of traditional stone over a modern steel frame.

    Speaking of Foster, his office courteously arranged a private tour of the master's new office tower in the financial district of London, the so-called Gherkin. (Taciturn Americans lack the gift for nick- names that come so easily in the
    more verbal culture of the Brits.) A gherkin is a pickled cucumber, and Foster's tower does indeed look like a pickle or a fat cigar standing on end [RECORD, May 2004, page 2181. I loved and hated it. From an urban point of view, it's remarkably unsocial. It wraps itself haughtily in its glass cloak, like an operatic diva, ignoring everything around it. The architecture tells you this is a generic building that could be sited anywhere. It offers nothing to the life of the street. The ground floor, which is tiny, as befits the end of a gherkin, contains only an elevator lobby.
    A vertical cul-de-sac

    Upstairs, though, if you're privileged to go there (the whole building is occupied by a single Swiss insurance company), the place is remarkable. Glass atriums spiral up the exterior, offering fresh air to every occupant. At the top are a restaurant and bar with spectacular views over the city, at least until the next tower blocks them. In a talk at Poundbury, the ever-quotable Krier fulminated about skyscrapers. They are, he said, "network disrupters" and "catastrophic social isolators." A skyscraper is a "vertical cul-de-sac" - cul-de-sac being, probably, the most vicious insult a New Urbanist can utter.

    And indeed, the Gherkin functions more like an elitist club than a connected piece of the city. But it's an elegant work of architecture. Four days after my visit, when the Gherkin opened briefly to the public, the queue went around the block. Television crews were present to record the event. It's hard to imagine that kind of interest in a work of commercial architecture in the U.S.

    Incidentally, architectural techies should check out the window-washing system at the Gherkin. Cleaning a building of this shape is a challenge, to say the least. Foster and consultants had to invent an elaborate crane and boom that climbs around the exterior like a giant spider. Let's hope it works. As every architect knows, in architecture you don't get to build, test, and improve a prototype before going on to the production model. You have to get it right the first time.


    --Architectural Record

  2. #2
    Unfrozen Caveman Planner mendelman's avatar
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    Nice find, ablarc.

    from article:
    I have to admit I was amused to learn that although Poundbury is only one-fifth built, the serpent of Nimbyism has already raised its hissing head. A group has been formed that calls itself PROD: Poundbury Residents Opposed to Density. At the time of our visit, PROD had just succeeded in getting planning authorities to deny permission for a modest new apartment building. These are guys who chose to live in a traditionally dense, compact settlement, and who paid a premium to do so (Poundbury has been a marketing success). They then turn around to protest the very qualities that, presumably, attracted them in the first place. Although I think PROD is selfish and absurd...
    Ah......yep..........not surprising.......the democratic process at its best.

    Just because they live there doesn't necessarily mean they are intellectually privy to the philiosophy behind the place.
    Last edited by mendelman; 12 Nov 2004 at 9:28 AM.
    I'm sorry. Is my bias showing?

    The ends can justify the means.

  3. #3

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    Interesting little essay.

    I have problems with a lot of his comments, though. For instance, how is a pod of identical tract homes and fast food fry pits any less boring than a beautiful countryside? I'm sorry, American suburbia to me epitomizes the boredom of lowest-common-denominator and commerce-at-all-cost development. I am very skeptical that our culture allows any more room for true innovation in urbanism than Britain does. Unless he is saddened by the relative lack of identical big box clusters at every freeway ramp?

    Its hard to take the musings of anyone who believes this very seriously. And, given who it is (Campbell is a big mucky-muck in architectural journalism/editing) why is he so worried about the urban unfriendliness of the gherkin? Half the architects and design movements he and his magazine promote are far more hostile to cities.

    Just my opinion, of course.

  4. #4
    Cyburbian ablarc's avatar
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    Quote Originally posted by BKM
    Interesting little essay.

    I have problems with a lot of his comments, though. For instance, how is a pod of identical tract homes and fast food fry pits any less boring than a beautiful countryside? I'm sorry, American suburbia to me epitomizes the boredom of lowest-common-denominator and commerce-at-all-cost development. I am very skeptical that our culture allows any more room for true innovation in urbanism than Britain does. Unless he is saddened by the relative lack of identical big box clusters at every freeway ramp?

    It’s hard to take the musings of anyone who believes this very seriously. And, given who it is (Campbell is a big mucky-muck in architectural journalism/editing) why is he so worried about the urban unfriendliness of the gherkin? Half the architects and design movements he and his magazine promote are far more hostile to cities.
    BKM, Campbell has his constituency, like all members of the Press. This means he has to present his Certificate of Evenhandedness by at least acknowledging all points of view—even ones he doesn’t believe—like those familiar anchormen who dutifully report the President’s claim that things are going well in Iraq.


    Jim Buckels: Dreamers Awaken

    (Why, I do this too in my posts, and I get nailed for seeming to have an opinion that’s actually not mine-- just one of those pieces of mindless nonsense floating out there in the ether of conventional wisdom. I seem to recall having been raked over the coals once or twice by you, BKM, merely for hinting at the existence of views I don’t hold.)


    Guy Billout

    “Maybe a little too right” is Campbell’s way of keeping his fences mended with Lord Foster, who loathes Poundbury. And the first passage you object to is just Bob’s little nod to Learning from Las Vegas, a seminal justification in the minds of most architects who conflictedly labor to produce the roadside raunch that we all find familiar. I know Campbell, and he doesn’t really believe that suburban sprawl is interesting; he merely feels he has to say it to maintain his credibility with the profession (and maybe a portion of the public). The gist of his message is obvious: he admires England’s way of doing things, and because it preserves the countryside, he thinks it’s better than our way.


    Jim Buckels: Seven Sisters Road

    So do I.

    * * *

    Much more harm was done by that contrarian intellectual and epicure of sprawl, John B. Jackson, who died in 1996. Here is his obituary from the New York Times:

    John Brinckerhoff Jackson, a writer whose cultural interpretations of the American landscape encompassed parking lots, trailer camps and highways, died on Thursday in Santa Fe. He was 86 and lived in La Cienega, N.M.


    Guy Billout

    In the journal Landscape, which he founded and edited for many years and in works like "American Space," Jackson laid the groundwork for a new way of looking at the American landscape, a sub-specialty sometimes referred to as cultural geography.

    For nearly 50 years he roamed the nation, surveying field and forest but also registering the change wrought by human beings, regarding it as a kind of language; front lawns and strip malls cried out for interpretation, an analysis of the political and cultural forces that shaped them.

    "The older I grow and the longer I look at landscapes," he once wrote, "the more convinced I am that their beauty is not simply an aspect but their very essence, and that that beauty derives from the human presence."


    Jim Wark photo from A Field Guide to Sprawl by Dolores Hayden

    Jackson was born in France to wealthy parents who traveled a lot. He grew up in the Maryland suburbs of Washington and in New York City and attended private schools in Europe and the United States. After earning a bachelor's degree in history at Harvard University in 1932, he briefly studied architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

    As an Army combat intelligence officer in Europe in World War II, he began thinking about landscape as, in part, a human artifact and developing the [not very original] idea that landscapes have styles of their own.

    In 1951 he founded Landscape and was its editor and publisher until 1968. It expressed the vision of a philosopher-tourist and offered an idiosyncratic blend of history, urban planning, landscape architecture, geography, anthropology and historic preservation. Although its circulation never exceeded 3000, Landscape was influential in establishing the notion of what Jackson called the vernacular landscape, the geography of everyday places and plain-folks architecture.

    Although he taught sporadically at the University of California at Berkeley and Harvard's School of Design, he was wary of the academy, and the academy of him. Likewise his appreciation of the human imprint on the landscape and his dislike of urban planning and what he called the "boutiquing" of the landscape made him equally suspect to environmentalists and urbanists. Rather than being appalled at shopping malls, he regarded them as rich sources of information about American culture, as expressive and characteristic of our time as Chartres was of its.


    Chartres. Jim Wark photo from A Field Guide to Sprawl by Dolores Hayden

    "I want Americans to explore the landscape for its own sake," he once wrote, "to develop an intelligent affection for the country as it is and a vision disciplined enough to distinguish what is wrong and should be changed from what is valuable and worthy of protection."

    In addition to "American Space" (1972), his best-known work, Jackson wrote "Landscapes" (1970), "The Necessity for Ruins" (1980), "Discovering the Vernacular Landscape" (1984) and "A Sense of Place, a Sense of Time," which won the 1995 PEN Award in the essay collection category.

    After retiring from teaching and lecturing in 1985, he did laboring jobs at construction sites, gas stations and gardens.

    Jackson was the subject of two documentaries, "J. B. Jackson and the Love of Everyday Places" and "Figure in a Landscape: A Conversation with J. B. Jackson."
    There are no surviving family members.

    --The New York Times, August 31, 1996, p. 27., "Brinck Jackson, 86, Dies; Was Guru of the Landscape", by William Grimes

    * * *

    BKM, clearly you don’t buy Jackson’s view point, and neither do I, Bob Campbell or [the blue] part of the American public.

    .
    Last edited by ablarc; 22 Nov 2004 at 6:28 AM.

  5. #5

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    Ablarc: I was certainly not implying you hold Campbell's view as your own. I was merely commenting specifically on the article itself. For once, the sarcasm wasn't aimed at you.

    The article irritated me quite a bit, so, I ranted.

    As for Jackson's viewpoint, sadly enough I do "buy" his viewpoint in that I think it is spot on:

    "Rather than being appalled at shopping malls, he regarded them as rich sources of information about American culture, as expressive and characteristic of our time as Chartres was of its."

    I may not like this fact, and I admire those who, unlike, to be honest, myself, who are engaged in a more active rear guard action against the degenracies of modern life. (And, is it just the United States? Doesn't Europe have its own share of horrible sprawl? Italy just legalized by Berlusconni's fiat a couple of decades of illegal, ramshackle construction-including on National Park and public seashore property)

    Still, do I celebrate this? No. I vastly prefer the pre-Automobile era vernacular, even when it is a gritty, ramshackle Mission District (where I was walking today) streetscape.

    Even beyond economics and planning rules and national chains' dictates, it's the car. As David Sucher of City Comforts notes, we have never learned how to build a beautiful city that cheaply handles the private automobile. I'm not sure it is physically possible, given how much sheer room the private car takes up. If I lived an honest life,. I would ditch my car. But that would mean being trapped pretty much in my "placid" town of commuting families and flickering television sets.

    My Sunday Night Rant (tm)
    Last edited by BKM; 22 Nov 2004 at 1:23 AM.

  6. #6
    Cyburbian ablarc's avatar
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    BKM, They say travel is broadening.

    For me, a benefit is having long, revealing conversations with total strangers I would never connect with closer to home. People will talk to you in a bar in New York, or in an airport lounge or on a plane (if neither of you is homeward bound and there’s no-one in the third seat). Secure in the knowledge that they will never see you again, they open up their hearts and tell you their secrets.

    In a Third Avenue bar, a burglar recounted adulterous escapades and some tricks of his trade (how to defeat an alarm; dogs are a deterrent, alarms are not); in a lounge at LaGuardia, a Bulgarian ticket agent offered detailed narrative of adventures in Thailand's sex resorts; and on a flight to Detroit, a lady bassoonist divulged furtive escapades with her conductor.

    More recently I found myself in the company of a physician who studied feces. As the evening progressed and the martinis accumulated, he revealed an increasingly animated enthusiasm for his studies, describing in minute detail the visual evidence of this or that pathology discernible in his chosen field. Obviously he knew his subject and therefore loved his work. His descriptions assumed an ever-increasing aesthetic cast, culminating in a rhapsodic declaration that he found in his subject matter (I could see it coming)…a certain beauty.

    I was reminded of Jackson.

    Quote Originally posted by BKM
    "Rather than being appalled at shopping malls, he regarded them as rich sources of information about American culture, as expressive and characteristic of our time as Chartres was of its."
    But at the end of the day, it's still just a pile of $hit.

    .
    Last edited by ablarc; 22 Nov 2004 at 9:05 PM.

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    Quote Originally posted by ablarc
    . His descriptions assumed an ever-increasing aesthetic cast, culminating in a rhapsodic declaration that he found in his subject matter (I could see it coming)…a certain beauty.

    I was reminded of Jackson.


    But at the end of the day, it's still just a pile of $hit.

    .

    LOL!

    I find airplane travel pretty deadening (with a couple of interesting exceptions). I've loved the train-people seem to open up more in the much less stressful environment of the railroad trip.

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    An interesting article, although I'd have to dispute a few facts; for one there isn't a green belt around each city, town and village. There is a greenbelt around some British cities - probably 10 to 20, not entirely sure. Greenbelts have advantages and disadvantages, with one issue being the development which happens on the 'other side' of the belt, leading to commuter towns/suburbs springing up/growing rapidly with most residents commuting across the greenbelt every day, causing congestion, pollution etc.

    There are policies of restraint around most cities, towns and villages and general countryside policies restrict any development aside from agricultural uses, forestry, essential sport and recreation, and other uses which preserve the openness of the countryside (apart from allocated housing and employment sites).

    I think he may also be getting some policies mixed up. Recent policies (ie within the last 5 years) have been based on regenerating town centres. This has led to policies for housing, for instance, meaning that the vast majority of new housing has to be built on 'brownfield' sites and out of town shopping centres and retail parks have effectively been stopped now. These are not based on the requirment to stop sprawl, but more to promote regeneration, promote the more efficient use of land in such an incredibly crowded island and attempting to cut down on the use of the car.

    For the record I'm not a big fan of Poundbury anyway. Some of the high density aspects work, but generally its a little too twee for my tastes. And besides, I'm not a fan of Prince Charles or his views on architecture

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    ablarc's pictures

    Jim Buckels: Seven Sisters Road. I had never seen this image. Thank you I appreciated them along with your response, I should aim to do the same when possible. here is a change of font

  10. #10
    Cyburbian Howard Roark's avatar
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    Poundbury was blasted by the faculty at Brookes, the main complaint was a cultural misunderstanding with alleys, which in the UK seldom occur in smaller towns. The alleys there are consistent with what one would find in an American 19th century residential model. The result was confusion with backs and fronts, People were arrange their homes and only using the back door, the front door was sometimes blocked by furniture.
    She has been a bad girl, she is like a chemical, though you try and stop it she is like a narcotic.

  11. #11
    Quote Originally posted by Howard Roark View post
    Poundbury was blasted by the faculty at Brookes, the main complaint was a cultural misunderstanding with alleys, which in the UK seldom occur in smaller towns. The alleys there are consistent with what one would find in an American 19th century residential model. The result was confusion with backs and fronts, People were arrange their homes and only using the back door, the front door was sometimes blocked by furniture.
    It's not uncommon for people to block their front door and use only the side door for entrance, with or without alleys.

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