Friday, December 12, 2008

In Defence of Poundbury. Well someone had to.


(Image via)

This article by Stephen Bayley on Poundbury seems to have been picked up in various places although I can't for the life of me think why.

What does it say that we haven't heard a thousand times before? Are there any prejudices it doesn't pander to? In what way does it represent an insightful, original or interesting take on the place? Instead we are given the same old stuff about fakes and shams and pastiche.

All the cliche's are here present and correct:

It isn't honest. Oh for f*cks sake. Buildings can't be dishonest. They aren't people. They don't lie. This conflation of aesthetics with ethics is puerile. Where is the dishonesty in a brick building that looks like a traditional brick building? Truth to materials and honest detailing are part of the ideological rhetoric of Modernism and not actually fact.

It is authoritarian. Why? Above and beyond a slightly weird sense that everything is too perfect and too well maintained, what exactly is the authoritarian regime in operation in Poundbury? How does this differ from the acceptable model villages of Bournville etc.?

It is "Grimly cute". I quite like the sound of this but the article simply assumes that I won't. This is symptomatic of the stifling nature of most architectural criticism which says that I must be a heretic if I don't like the right things for the right reasons. If the term grimly cute were used in a review of an art exhibition it wouldn't be clear whether they meant it was good or bad. In architecture such ambiguity is viewed as aesthetic deviancy.

Similarly he writes:
What can be said about a presiding intelligence that demands central-heating flues be disguised by cast concrete gargoyles?
I don't know but they sound fabulous. Can I have one?

A few years ago the BBC ran a dreadful programme called Demolition* in which people could nominate the places they would like destroyed. Poundbury was one, predictably along with a number of Brutalist housing estates. The programme makers interviewed an appallingly smug character in his swish London home recounting how he would like to bulldoze Poundbury himself, a look of sadistic joy in his maniacal eyes. All this simply because it didn't meet his second hand aeshetic prejudices.

It is possible to write about Poundbury, even to write about it critically, and say something interesting, but the kind of literal, narrowly ideologial criticism of Bayley's article seems simply derivative and hopelessly myopic. And, apart from anything else, it's just too easy. Wouldn't it be more interesting to talk about Poundbury without this ideological baggage? To actually look at it and leave aside the hollow moralism? For a change. As a way of keeping things interesting.

* Brilliant concept. Maybe they should do a new series in which people could nominate which books they would like to burn.

12 comments:

owen hatherley said...

I agree with most of this post - but it's not a defence of Poundbury, is it? It's an attack on the astoundingly lazy Stephen Bayley. Who deserves the kicking, but nonetheless...

Charles Holland said...

Well, to be fair, it's a bit of a defence at least against the slightly stale attack of Bayley's article, but I take the point. BTW I had high hopes for Bayley being a slightly waspish Peter York-esque critic for The Obsever but he's turned out to have much more predictable taste.

Addictive Picasso said...

any being who uses phrases like "aesthetically timorous" or "culturally backward" deserves to be shot. i blogged a long time ago that his writing is overweight, smug and stuck up. but to say this could be taken as praise - and his contract extended - so shhhh...

Anne said...

Thanks for the NTSH link. I agree, it's too easy to slate Poundbury. I had to really, really try to find the good in it. There is some, somewhere. The other thing is I didn't feel fully qualified to judge when I don't live there. It looks an okay place to live really, if deadly dull.

Murphy said...

A defence of Poundbury on aesthetic terms would be to miss the point, just as to dismiss it on aesthetic terms would also.

I think the real issue with Poundbury is the reactionaries who project their desires into it; Charlie Saxe-Coburg Gotha, Krier, et al... as far as I've read, with Poundbury or NU in general, the kitsch aesthetics are often accompanied by a deeply unpleasant volk-ish attitude, a distrust of cities as being generators of crime and dissenting attitudes (perhaps even Socialism), and a rosy eulogisation of lords and peons...

Charles Holland said...

I'm not so sure. I think the aesthetics are a large part of the issue simply because everything else supposedly so objectionable about Poundbury (barring Prince Charles of course) can be levelled at any rural or suburban development, especially the industrially sponsored ones such as Bournville, which Stephen Bayley endorses. Don't all these (and indeed most urban regeneration projects with their Secured by Design policy and positive overlooking, not to mention the gentrification process itself) have a fear of crime and dissenting attitude?

Murphy said...

yes and no, i suppose.

I'm not on the firmest of ground regarding Poundbury, so I can't make sweeping statements. Must read more, as ever...

The Modernist critique of Poundbury is, of course, nonsense, though, but is it worth defending it just because you disagree with its least thorough critics?

But Poundbury is significant in the same way the Unite d'Habitation is, as an architectural example that is ideologically invested in. Hence its discussion as significant...

(on the other hand, at a guest crit a few years ago, Charlie Jencks told us all to stop blabbering on about Dubai, because 'extreme cases make bad law', which is among the more sensible of his pronouncements...)

progressive reactionary said...

I do agree with OH's comment that this post is less a defense of Poundbury and more a critique of Bayley's critique [if that makes any sense...].

In any case, I did find Bayley's article somewhat amusing, if only for selfish reasons. As a provincial Yank, I must confess I don't even know who this Bayley fellow is, but it is refreshing to read a piece of architectural journalism (present company excluded, of course) in which the actual act of criticism is exercised. You must understand that it's a rare occurrence for those us here in New York.

As for Murphy's comments re: the ideology of the Poundbury aesthetic -- I'd also have to agree with this. Again, I can't really speak to the British experience. But here in the States, time and again reactionary politics have joined hand-in-hand with the nostalgic aesthetic of New Urbanism. So much so -- the partnership is so prevalent and successful -- that the synergy is hard to ignore.

Of course, you could also argue that there are plenty of examples of modern/contemporary/whatever architecture perpetuating a reactionary agenda. And you'd be right. But there is nonetheless a pattern of a conservative political tilt to these so-called traditional architectural forms. Which is not to say that such an aesthetic should be automatically denied legitimacy. Quite the contrary: challenging accepted political assumptions through aesthetic experimentation is precisely where the fun starts. And I think that, for me, is where much of the New Urbanist school of architectural thought (and perhaps Poundbury too) fails. There's not enough fun.

Charles Holland said...

Alright OH/PR I put my hands up! It's more a knocking of Stephen Bayley than a defence of Poundbury. I guess I was slightly mystified as to why Bayley's article, which seemed routine and derivative (at best), had been picked up on at all (including on your site PR). I could only assume it was because Poundbury can be relied on to push all the right buttons. All of which you know but I did try to pick apart some of the assumptions behind such knee jerk criticism and in that respect it can be seen as a (partial) defence of Poundbury itself.

More generally the relationship between architectural form (or style) and a political agenda is a very dubious one and for all your examples (New Urbanism in particular) it's possible to show alternatives such as Terragni and Italian fascism, Le Corbusier's flirtations with the Vichy regime, maybe even the relationship between International Style modernism and corporate US culture and a right wing ideologue such as Philip Johnson. Still I'm not sure where any of this gets me other than creating some straw men to knock down or arguing the toss over exceptions to the rule....

The "ideology of the Poundbury aesthetic" though. What exactly is this and how does it differ from other aesthetics? What are the mechanisms that induce conformity in a place like Poundbury that don't occur in other developments of comparable size? Does design variety or pluralism equate easily with the accommodation of dissenting voices. Common sense I suppose would say yes to some extent were it not for the fact that common sense is always a little suspect in arguments like this.

Maybe I should try and write something positive about Poundbury instead!

Thanks for all your comments though which I most heartened by.

progressive reactionary said...

A confession: I have no idea what the ideology of the Poundbury aesthetic is.

I suppose I was referring to Murphy's comment about how reactionary desires have been projected onto Poundbury's architecture. I took this to be a suggestion that an aesthetic develops political connotations over time. I guess it's kind of a "guilt by association" argument -- the same argument that's been applied countless times to Terragni, Corb, PJ, and others.

It's something I've been trying to work out, but I'm not quite there yet. In some sense, yes: you are who you work for. So the question then becomes at what point does a certain style/aesthetic/form/whatever, after a pattern of consistent association with a specific politics, become nothing more than an instrument for that particular political agenda?

I don't know the answer. I suspect that it lies somewhere in architecture's capacity to challenge the status quo, on whatever scale possible, regardless of the patron's politics. [I suppose this is similar to the Koolhaas argument -- still unproven -- in favor of taking the CCTV commission.] I do know that, for me, the Americanized CNU brand of New Urbanism has reached that point of aesthetic and political synergy, in ways both impressive and terrifying. But at the same time, I also know that the audacious work of, say, people like Venturi Scott-Brown offers great promise. And I say this even though the Venturis often utilize a formal vocabulary that, when similarly implemented in a New Urbanist context, provokes harsh ("knee-jerk"?) judgment from this critic.

And as for the reference to Bayley's article on my site -- well, that, I admit, was bookmarked purely because of my own fatal obsession with New Urbanism. A terrible affliction, I know.

Aparna said...

Thanks for this post about Poundbury.

Krishna said...

Very nice article.
Thank you for this great post.