The new chief executive of the Prince’s Foundation is a quiet American. But Hank Dittmar’s lack of showiness is well suited to a charity that is aiming to slowly and subtly transform urban England.
If the Prince’s Foundation ever places a lonely hearts advert, it may read something like this: “Well-heeled educational charity looks for partners to share love of good urbanism, traditional crafts and long walks in pedestrian areas, meetings in historic market towns, former industrial or brownfield sites all over the country. Iconic buildings admirers need not apply.”
Not that Hank Dittmar, the new chief executive of The Prince’s Foundation, would ever indulge in such eccentricities. One architect who knows the 49-year-old American expresses the general opinion: he is “very sensible and very canny”.
Dittmar is a leading advocate of “new urbanism”, an American philosophy that emphasises the creation of mixed and sustainable communities. And it seems as though it is an idea whose time has come. Housing is at the top of the national agenda – Gordon Brown last week unveiled plans to release 700 public sites for residential development – and ideas such as sustainability, design coding and mixed-used are finding a ready audience among developers, government and regeneration agencies.
Dittmar also wants to ensure that the public at large understands what the foundation is all about. Despite its association with twee retro-classicism, Dittmar insists that the charity’s priority is place-making rather than the promotion of any specific architectural style. He also regrets that the foundation has become so closely associated with Poundbury, the chocolate box town extension in Dorset.
Instead, the foundation adapts designs to particular surrounding, he says. “If we work in a different environment, as we do in Nelson in east Lancashire, the Urban Design is going to reflect the history of a Victorian industrial factory town.”
In Nelson, the foundation works with Elevate, the housing market renewal agency, to reconfigure old Victorian terraces to accommodate the larger families who now live in the area. Nelson, like the other six to 10 schemes the foundation intends to take on this year, is a “lab for developing new tools to deliver better communities”.
This may be the language of the technocrat – and delivered in a technocrat’s monotone – but the ambition is noble enough: “To introduce mixed-used, mixed-tenure development and resolve some of the tensions between the local government and the Bangladeshi community that lives there.”
Workshops have been provided so the local community can develop a better understanding of building crafts. “We very much believe that a part of the sustainable way forward is the preservation of traditional building crafts,” says Dittmar. “We can marry modern methods of construction for framing the house with traditional building techniques on the elevation of the front of the house.”
Frankly, I leave to others the debate about the Gherkin. We are trying to improve the quality of people’s day-to-day lives
The amiable and self-possessed American’s manner might contrast with the more temperamental style of the heir to the throne, but Dittmar, a natural diplomat, dismisses the usual criticisms against Charles. “I think he’s very direct and clear to deal with. If you actually sit down and look at what he said in his book, Vision of Britain, it is a broader view of what architecture should look like than he has been characterised as.”
The former boss of Reconnecting America – a charity lobbying to build links between transport networks and the regions and communities they serve – has a fondness for sketching explanatory drawings on his notepad. It suggests a genuine desire to teach, which is appropriate in the head of an educational charity. For instance, while dissociating the foundation from “cause célèbre” projects such as the Swiss Re, he draws two small figures next to tall buildings. “I think good urbanism requires its architecture to behave responsibly to context, and to be human-scaled and in proportion to the buildings around it,” he says.
The foundation’s headquarters in the trendy Shoreditch area of east London, hosts an exhibition gallery, design workshops, educational events and a library. About 400 former alumni form a network of practitioners who work in design consultancies, architectural practices and local authorities.
Dittmar is too unassuming to boast about the foundation’s achievements, such as its championing of “enquiry by design”, a process now commonly accepted as an effective means of engaging communities and thereby speeding up planning. But his ambitions for the foundation’s future are considerable.
“What we try to do is use our educational programmes and our conferences as a kind of neutral table around which the different parties can gather. And by doing project-based work and by showcasing best practices around the world, we’re trying to raise everybody’s game, including our own.”
The enquiry by design projects that the foundation is presently working on highlight its wide range of interests. It is working with English Partnerships, design consultant EDAW and Newman Homes in Upton, near Northampton, where 250 houses are under construction. With EP and Wimpey Homes, the foundation is developing the old colliery site at Westoe in the North-east, where 400 to 500 houses are planned. It is also collaborating on a mixed-use urban extension of 4000 homes to Sherford, near Plymouth.
“We’re going to put a lot of attention into town centre masterplanning and bringing town centres and historic towns and market towns back as 24-hour destinations,” Dittmar says, adding that he wouldn’t turn down the chance to work on the Thames Gateway.
But don’t expect iconic buildings in the foundation’s projects. “Frankly, I leave to others the debate about the Gherkin,” he says. “We are trying to focus on improving the quality of people’s day-to-day lives.” Norman Foster and Frank Gehry might not be a love match for the Foundation. But with the ODPM sharing many of its ideas, it could be a good catch for any developers on the lookout for a new partner.