Model Town: Owen Hatherley in conversation with Jack Hems
August 2023

Jack Hems What has always struck me about King Charles is his seeming ignorance to any sociopolitical conditions of post-war Britain that led to a convergence of industrialised building and modernism in relation to house building. Lynsey Hanley talks about this a little in her book Estates, about how this enabled a quicker turnaround of housing when it was desperately needed following the clearing of inner city slums following WW2. Charles’ issues with modernist architecture appear to be surface level and deal primarily with aesthetics. Surely architecture needs some pragmatism and should reflect the context of its time in trying to resolve issues of the day. I just always thought he completely ignored that or did not care about it?

Owen Hatherley It is funny because I think that is broadly true in so far as his understanding of architecture is basically aesthetic – it is a series of pictures for him. I said that I was not going to be denouncing him, but Poundbury is chocolate boxes, and he sees things like that. But what makes him different to a lot of other enthusiasts for that kind of stuff is that he has a quite developed philosophy of life and philosophy of society. I think he does genuinely have a position on industrialisation – which is that it should not have happened – and his interest in things like organic agriculture, his farms in Transylvania, the Duchy of Cornwall, the famous stuff he got mocked for in the ‘80s/‘90s, like talking to his plants and whatnot, all are part of a body of thought. So in a way what is very disappointing about Poundbury for me is that he is not able to integrate these two things. Apart from the basic rules of Poundbury – what you can and cannot do – he is actually fairly hands off with it. Him and Léon Krier set the rules and basically let the developers do their thing – which they think is how you organically build a town because that is how Georgian cities were built. There was a series of classical rules that you would expect a builder to have and then you would knock it up and that is how a lot of the townscapes that people most like in Britain – the London Squares, Bath, Edinburgh and so forth – have all come about, out of that combination of rules and then big business.

JH Do you think there is any sign off from him?

OH Not to my knowledge – I have never come across that. The basic idea is his. I suspect that Krier’s plans came from discussions with Charles and I imagine that Charles has veto of some sort but it is not like let’s say Portmeirion, which is a much more interesting neo-classical British resort town. What comes out in Portmeirion is someone that has thought a lot about architecture. Similarly to Charles, Clough Williams-Ellis hated modernism, did not particularly like the industrial world, did not like the destruction of the countryside, and tried to create an ideal classical town, although when he had Portmeirion built he was actually far more despotic. Not only did he own the land, he was the architect, and so the whole thing unfolded to quite a specific vision. So Portmeirion has irregularity, craft, those kind of mistakes and little personal details that a vernacular architecture is full of, and that Poundbury just does not have. What I find so interesting about Poundbury, as a Marxist, is the way so much of it is market based – capitalism is a big part of why it looks the way it does. I wonder if Krier’s approach, setting ground rules and leaving the developers to it, is partly due to some of the laws on how much intervention Charles is allowed to have given he is not supposed to get involved in politics and business?

JH I suppose there is a commercial consideration in Poundbury – anyone can buy a house there and it has to be profitable – so perhaps it cannot be too out there like Portmeirion? Trying to remain positive, do you think there is anything Poundbury does well? I have always thought it is an obvious thing to make a photography project about because it is an easy target for architectural criticism – one man’s idea about how we should live, facilitated by his inherited wealth and position, influenced by nostalgia and reactionary ideas.

OH So I suppose it depends what you compare it to. If I were to compare Poundbury to New Towns and Garden Cities I think it is quite lacking. With the exception of one or two like Skelmersdale and Peterlee, most of the post-war New Towns have a railway station. They usually have a network of cycle paths – they are real towns and a lot more people live in them. Poundbury does not have a railway station, it is very cut off from public transport and it is very small – as a New Town it is tiny. Even the smallest of post-war New Towns is significantly bigger than Poundbury, so the fanfare it has got in a way is partly because there has been nothing else like it happening. The idea of someone actually planning a city basically dies with the completion of Milton Keynes in the late ‘70s and so it is the only one we have got.

If you compare Poundbury with what they probably want it to be compared too – your average Barrett Homes estate – it is a lot better. It is a lot tighter, it does not have all of those awful cul-de-sacs and vague spaces. It is very walkable, it has visual interests, there is always something around the corner to look at which there never is in those Barrett estates. It has got that variety of vertical features and corners – there is a lot put in so that your eye is not bored as you walk around – Krier has obviously read Camillo Sitte. You could in theory, although it seems very few people do, live there without a car, which in your average volume-housebuilder estate is literally impossible. You cannot live in the kind of product that Barrett produce without a car, you just could not cope – it would be like living in Southern California without a car.

Basically, Krier’s theory is phase out the car and Milton Keynes and Los Angeles cannot exist – personally I don’t think that is actually true in those two cases. But take away the internal combustion engine and certainly Taylor Wimpey or whoever, Persimmon Homes cannot exist – whereas Poundbury can. It would survive the climate apocalypse.

JH You mentioned that very few people actually walk in Poundbury despite its small size and the fact that pedestrians are prioritised in terms of planning. I noticed this during the last visit I made there, for Charles’ coronation, whereby I struggled to take any photographs without cars in them! This trip was particularly challenging as a lot of the residents treated me with immediate suspicion when they saw my camera. I am unsure whether it is because they have had a lot of photographers and filmmakers there recently since Charles became King and the general public are learning more about his extracurricular activities?

OH That is always the problem with the ideal city of any given period. If you read up on Thamesmead, residents there in the first ten years or so were absolutely sick of photographers, architecture students and town planners descending upon it. It was a real problem for them and then of course five years or so after Thamesmead is built, Stanley Kubrick turns up and films A Clockwork Orange which makes it even worse. Lots of people go to Poundbury to take pictures but no one has shot the dystopian drama yet: which I think is a real shame, and it’s dying to happen. I wonder if there are rules on that too, because of course the specific school of planning that Poundbury comes out of, New Urbanism, their big flagship town in the U.S. is Seaside in Florida – which is the town where The Truman Show was filmed. So a British version of The Truman Show is begging to be made in Poundbury and someone is going to do it one day.

JH I do have empathy for residents in such places and there has always been a moral issue for me when photographing people and where they live – I definitely do not want a project to be zoological. I do not know if it is to do with me being embarrassed about being a photographer or getting unwanted attention when taking pictures but I have always had a problem with photojournalism and photography’s so called “objectivity”. Particularly when it involves people – it can feel patronising. Take Martin Parr for instance, there is a degree of exploitation when you consider where his images end up (in a commercial art gallery for example) compared with their origins, usually working class people. Despite being technically great and visually rich images they do reinforce stereotypes for me. I am very conscious of doing something similar, hence why I avoid people in my images. Just because this series is of a white, wealthy area, it does not mean I should be taking the piss, particularly when my beliefs about the place are cynical. As much as possible when shooting in Poundbury I try to talk to people and ask permission where I can, I try to be visible and open about my intentions.

OH Which is exactly the opposite of what I do when I take pictures for my books. I use a snapshot camera and I try not to be noticed and do it as quickly as possible.

JH And why is that?

OH I don’t want to talk to anyone. I also do not want it to be voyeuristic but there are two ways you can deal with the voyeurism problem – there is the one where you do what you do which is try and set up some actual human contact with people and try and make sure you have got their trust and there is what I do which is make sure they do not notice you.

But there is something with your pictures, they are very composed and again that is very different to what I do with my books where they are straightforward. When I take pictures of buildings they are usually for a book project and there is a phrase John Berger uses in the introductions to his books where he says “reproductions are simple memoranda”: you are describing a thing and here it is – it aids the description. Mine are not independent, free standing pictures, meant to be seen on a wall or in a stand-alone book, whereas these are, so that means you have got to take your time with them for one thing, you cannot just snap them, you have got to stand there with your tripod and do it properly. I guess the particular format dictates that and the longer you take the more likely people are to walk past and engage you in conversation and work out what you are doing. So you have to deal with that specifically and you have to come up with a strategy for that because of the process.

JH The photographs are also shot on medium format film which slows the process down further, but it does reinforce a selective way of shooting which I prefer to digital formats. The images themselves are planned ahead of time – based on previous visits and scheduled regarding the position of sun relative to the scene allowing for the best possible conditions in terms of lighting and shadow position. I also like to catch the architecture at that fresh stage of being new but bedded in – I do not want to see any sign of building work, as I am trying to emphasise some sort of surface level “perfection”. All of these things slow the process down but also move the work away from objectivity and towards subjectivity in terms of documentation. I am sort of just using Poundbury for my own means and maybe that is where the art lies – as it moves towards fiction and surrealism I feel less guilty about being there.

OH They have got this Giorgio De Chirico quality going on which I guess is an interesting way to look at Poundbury, but also involves directing attention away from certain bits of it. I do not think there are any of the villagey bit? They are all classical Poundbury rather than hobbit land Poundbury. Especially the pictures of the main square – they look like if you built St. Petersburg in Blackgang Chine. They have got a sense of grandeur but you can see how cheap and thin it is.

JH I suppose focusing on classical Poundbury is an aesthetic decision, but it is also the area where I am most likely to find a Union Jack, which lends itself to my narrative of the place – of the town representing some kind of romanticised idea of “Britishness”. Charles is apparently inspired by the medieval town of Siena – so I immediately thought of De Chirico when I walked around Poundbury.

OH He loves Siena and again Bath is another kind of … I mean Bath is so much better, it really does show up Poundbury in lots of ways and similarly, it is a load of sceneries and ensembles and kind of framed pictures. Classical architecture is so much better to frame pictures in which people are not really that important. So it makes sense in a way, a lot of your pictures of Poundbury deal with the more classical corners of it, because they lend themselves to that sense of abstraction.

If you think of the great images of classical architecture, they are often depopulated or have very few people in. You know, in the ideal renaissance city pictures of the 15th and 16th centuries, there are two or three people in tights but otherwise you are there to look at the perspective, you are there to look at the symmetry and the juxtaposition and that is what the pictures are for – the people are optional extras. In De Chirico’s paintings, similarly you get one or two people and a statue – the rest is all about the space, because classical architecture lends itself to that. It is a very abstract, mathematical architecture – it is not vernacular, it is not intimate, it is not warm.

JH I have seen some other work by photographers that have been there recently and they come back with very different things. I was thinking that it is unsettling to consider that Charles might actually like my photographs because I am somehow celebrating his architectural masterpiece. I also like the idea that the photographs are closer to what he imagines the place is like compared to what it is in reality and that is quite a conflicting feeling.

OH Do you think? They are quite empty, but he is a communitarian. I think he would like it to be full of people, not necessarily Morris dancing, but full of people doing shit. Full of people whittling sticks, making pots, involved in festivals and fêtes and actually when you go there of course, it is a misunderstanding of what small towns are. I think if what someone wants is communitarian life you go to London or Birmingham, that is where the carnivals are, that is where people live much more out on the street. There is actually much more community life in the metropolis than in Britain’s small towns, and one reason for that is because those small towns are basically, by and large, commuter towns. Charles thinks that he is going to recreate the old English village with the baker, the butcher and the candlestick maker and they are all going to be living there together like in the old days but they cannot because we do not live in that world anymore. So he would be upset by your pictures because there is no one there, even though they make the place look better than I think it actually is.

I do feel bad about slagging it off, because I think we are facing huge problems at the moment which Poundbury tries to answer. It tries to answer the question of “what do you do without the car?” It tries to answer the question of “how do you introduce an urban pattern that makes people trust each other and that is not just atomised and Americanised?” It proposes a whole load of solutions to real problems. I do not think any of those solutions are good but they are all answers to real problems and so I feel that I ought to respect it more than I do.

Jack Hems is a photographer based in London, UK.

He studied at Byam Shaw School of Art: Central St Martins, graduating in 2011.


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