The advertising campaign for Milton Keynes is very revealing, ignoring essential values of city living and urbanity in favour of images stressing seclusion, ease of escape to the countryside, and a consumer future displaying the bland sensible products that reflect the cautious, non-commital ‘functional’ aesthetic of its architecture
This piece from AR September 1980 was republished online in May 2019, in connection with the publication of 6a Architects’ new MK Gallery.
The new town of Milton Keynes is the most extreme example of a particular approach to planning (evidenced in most new towns) which also reflects a prevalent trend in modern life. Unlike the tightly knit mix of an historic town, where movement system and built form constitute an indivisible whole, in Milton Keynes each component is separate and univalent – islands floating in space and motion. For instance, housing areas are only housing areas, each clearly defined by boundary and design as quite separate from the others. Roads are only roads. They move cars but are not places and communicate nothing of the nature of the urban areas adjacent. In fact, they conceal it. They have none of the traditional function of ‘structuring’ the city in terms of generating both its image and activities, nor are they anymore the theatre of everyday public life.
So life too becomes a series of discrete experiences, of clear-cut roles and identities with marked transitions. Thus family life – father, mother, child – is played out in the seclusion of home and nuclear family; travel is encapsulated in a car, out of reach of others, on a road from which the life of the town is invisible; and work is probably in an industrial park or office complex with its staff cafeterias, hierarchies and protocol. To many there is a reassurance about this. To a large degree it is possible to live out a series of predetermined and controlled roles, without the unexpected confrontation that reveals contradictions and causes questioning of identity.
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The quest for ‘purity of identity’, the adolescent avoidance of dissonance that may threaten this identity, and the consequent evasion of maturity together form one of the most powerful forces shaping our culture. It is only possible with relative affluence, and is of course encouraged in a society where even identity can be consumed. But two things should be noted. First the tendency is encouraged by modern town planning. Planners who see the good life, and acceptable future, only in their terms, discourage (perhaps unconsciously) the unexpected which may result in changes of aspiration and lifestyle, and hence urban form. Second, both planner and citizen are attempting to freeze time and deny history, evading change and hence authentic growth, social and personal.
The town centre and the new shopping centre of Milton Keynes are designed in a way that is entirely consistent with the town as a whole. Though located in the geographic centre they do not form the centre in the historic sense. It is possible, in fact it will be usual, to pass right through this centre unaffected by it, indeed hardly noticing it. Partly this is inescapable because movement is by car, but here urban design, architecture and tree planting all contribute to this detachment. By contrast, in an historic town the centre was unavoidable, in several senses. Most routes passed through it so one had to partake of its many activities, meanings and distractions and these routes themselves formed the stage for the chance encounter, the confrontation and contradiction that are essential to urban life.
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In Milton Keynes there is, and will be, no ‘central’ place, no heart, where many functions, civic, commercial, entertainment and so on come together in, or around a defined, coherent place. There is nowhere that can acquire the density of meanings and associations, and be the receptacle and symbol of the aspirations of the citizens, to which they would come for a multitude of reasons and pretexts, or simply be in, that is to be found in an historic town. Instead, the central functions are exploded into a series of separate monofunctional buildings that will attract only purposive visits. These sit as isolated blocks, mute and expressionless even by contemporary standards, plonked in a grid, and cut off from each other by roads, parking and landscaping. These low widely spaced buildings fail to define the so-called boulevards (though this will be partly offset when the trees are big), so that they are really only dual carriageways with parking on either side. They lack the enclosure, the intensity of adjacent use and the provision for strolling, dalliance and distraction that their name conjures.
The closest thing to being a centre now, and probably in the future, is the new shopping centre, a long shiny block which runs from one major grid road to another, to both of which it presents an almost enigmatically uncommunicative and uninviting aspect. Even in its own terms these two ends must surely be judged unsuccessful. On its long sides the building makes tentative gestures towards linking to the other central buildings, via the porte cocheres which are so diminutive in scale and austere in form as to suggest only movement.
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It is quite unlike other shopping centres of recent times. It is not designed for ‘impact’ with signs, advertising and display vying for attention, nor to reassure and coddle with historical and vernacular pastiche. Rather the architects have attempted an aloofness from the tawdriness of commerce, and a timelessness that is nevertheless contemporary; they have succeeded admirably. But the building is quite inscrutable. Though clad in glass it is not transparent from the outside, so that its crowds and even the nature of major events in the central hall are hidden. Inside, there is none of the kitsch of the night club fantasy world of the conventional modern shopping centre. Daylight floods into the two main arcades which are tall, airy and landscaped, and everywhere is spacious, elegant, restrained-and repressive. The most obvious suppression is of one’s awareness of the shops. It is the architecture, however self-effacing, that is dominant. The columns projecting into the mall hide the shop fronts from any but close view when looking down the mall, so that with the prohibition of projecting or hanging signs the contents of the malls are known only by memory or consulting a guide plan. The shop windows cannot compete with the brightness of the mall. The views of them, and movement across the malls, are partially obstructed by the planting.
Diversity of shopping character is also suppressed. There are only two kinds of mall: the longitudinal malls marching the length of the building, with variations in character attempted only in the planting: and the short lateral malls. Each location is treated as equal. The width of shop openings never vary, nor the width of the malls. Unlike most towns and shopping centres there are no up or down market areas, no demand, luxury or service goods areas, no special fashion area or food section, each with their distinctive flavour. So not only are fantasy and commercial vulgarity excluded but also variety. This may be ‘democratic’ but it is also experientally impoverishing.
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This is the most significant level of repression here: that of spontaneity, of interpretation and appropriation by the shopper/user and hence the flattening out of experience. It is subtle but real. Though the malls feel generous there is not quite space, especially with the central planting, for display stalls, kiosks, cafe tables or any other such messy sign of life to spill out on them, encouraging gathering and chatting. Small groups may sit on the slabs around the planting, but it is still hard to imagine much more than merely movement of shoppers in these malls. The garden court is attractive, though again suggests little in the way of active use and enjoyment. Perhaps the most inadequate space is Middleton Hall, a large covered open area intended as a dynamic hub, always full of activity. The problem is that there is nothing in its architecture for the public to interact with, to actively appropriate. It is simply a large flat-floored empty square surrounded by shops. (There will now be a restaurant with seating under a pergola on its southern edge-a happy accident in the letting.) But there are no steps or level changes for sitting on, no raised areas as rostra or daises, no fountains, water or other moving/living thing to distract and dally by, and columns are only on the edge and uncomfortable to lounge on. The space is usable, but only with the scale of intervention that management, commercial enterprise, or large authorised groups can achieve. Citizens cannot make spontaneous use of the space for themselves, but can only consume what will be provided for them. This is an ominous failing in a space intended as central in a building intended as ‘centre’. 5 Very similar criticism applies to the external ‘City Square’ at the south-western end of the building. This too lacks the spatial definition, the elaboration of form and the diversity of adjacent use to ever be really significant or intensively used without entrepreneural intervention and consequent manipulation of the citizen.
Like the town plan, this is a building which tends to eliminate the unexpected, the uncontrolled, where the potential roles of the citizen are strictly limited, here mainly to consumption. In both town plan and architecture there is a wilful and puritanical naivety, an over-simplification that stunts full humanity. The poverty of the vocabulary of both must result in a poverty of opportunities for response, interaction and discovery and hence encourages a retarding innocence. By adopting an architecture ‘without rhetoric’ can the architects also claim to be innocent-very skilful technicians but unaware of what they are doing?