Building a prince of an English village Charles tries to create perfect neighborhood

March 30, 1997|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

DORCHESTER, England -- In their sparkling four-bedroom home at the end of a blacktop lane, Diane and Peter Bryant have entertained tourists, architects, journalists and the Prince of Wales.

The Bryants live in Poundbury, the country neighborhood conjured up by Prince Charles -- England's royal Rouse, if you will. Poundbury is a part of the serious side of Prince Charles' life, the side one rarely reads about in the tabloid press.

"The prince is trying to do something positive," Peter Bryant says. "He's not playing with Legos. He's building a community."

On the western edge of the ancient town of Dorchester, amid 400 rolling acres of farmland that he controls through the Duchy of Cornwall, Prince Charles and his planners are trying to create the perfect English neighborhood 120 miles southwest of London.

In Charles' village, there will be a pub, a tower, shops, a main square and a cricket field. Some schools are already established nearby.

There will be comfortable homes for families and elegant facilities for light manufacturing companies.

There will even be a cemetery.

About 2,500 homes are to be built over the next 25 years, boosting Dorchester's population by 5,000 residents to 20,000.

While Poundbury is still mainly piles of bricks and mud, homes have sprouted up on this landscape that once served as a setting for novelist Thomas Hardy, author of "The Mayor of Casterbridge" and "Jude the Obscure."

A first cluster of 120 houses is complete. And construction crews continue to bring Charles' village to life, block by block.

"If it's a success, cynics will say, 'What else do you expect? Prince Charles brings all the money and influence to bear,' " says Peter Bryant, who heads the residents association and counts himself a fan of Poundbury and the prince. "And if it fails, people will say, 'He's not an architect by trade anyway.' "

Yet Prince Charles is probably Britain's foremost amateur architecture critic.

He has ridiculed trendy modern designs in Britain. In his book "A Vision of Britain," he defined 10 principles that should guide urban and rural planning, including the use of traditional materials, blending buildings with the landscape and providing a sense of community.

Poundbury provides the prince with a chance to turn words into action. Britain is apparently poised for a building boom, with plans to erect 4.4 million homes in the next 20 years.

There are worries among many here that Britain's precious green space could be gobbled up by American-style development, with boxy houses planted around shopping malls.

Poundbury is promoted by its admirers as an antidote to that sort of unfettered development. But it remains unclear if the project will serve as a model to others. Few developers seem capable of expending the kind of time, care and cash it requires to create Poundbury.

Many of Prince Charles' design principles were incorporated into the Poundbury master plan, which was created by architect Leon Krier.

Homes and businesses share neighborhood space, irregularly shaped streets radiate from the center, and playgrounds and recreation areas dot the landscape. In Poundbury, front doors actually lead onto the street, not a lush grass yard. And the back yards are all but postage stamp-sized, just big enough to hang out the wash, park a car and create a small garden.

Traditional style

The homes are of a traditional southwest English style, made of brick and stone with slate or tile roofs.

And the prices are steep for this part of England, ranging from $100,000 for two- and three-bedroom townhomes to $218,000 for a five-bedroom detached house.

Twenty percent of the homes are set aside for welfare recipients, who will rent the homes through the Guinness Trust, a charitable housing institution.

Planning for the community began in 1988. The first homes were under construction in October 1993, and the first residents moved in in 1994. The prince's Duchy of Cornwall sells land at below market prices 4 and 5 acres at a time to carefully selected builders. The builders then sell the homes.

Village critics

The Duchy of Cornwall, created in 1337, is inherited by the eldest son of the English sovereign. Its vast land holdings total 129,000 acres in 22 counties mostly in the southwest of England. The duchy is designed to provide income for the Prince of Wales and his family.

What the prince does with his land is an ancient prerogative, of course. But even Poundbury's proponents acknowledge the community has received a fair amount of criticism.

"We've been criticized for being pastiche, a toy town, a Disneyland," says Andrew Hamilton, the Poundbury development director.

"Some people just don't like that we're building in a traditional manner," he says. "But that's what people want to buy. If we build with steel and glass, people just won't like it."

So far, the community has attracted an interesting mix of retirees, young families and small-business owners.

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