a milton keynes teaser
queen's court, the centre, milton keynes, england, 1973-1979.
architects: Derek Walker, Stuart Mosscrop, and Chris Woodward.
on our way from cambridge to oxford, we stopped for lunch in milton keynes which proved less easy than it may sound as we were sent through a labyrinth of roundabouts, all identical, all perfectly planted with mature trees that allowed only glimpses of the suburban developments they connected. when we chanced upon a grid of wide avenues, shopping centres, and large parking areas, our anxiety turned to smiles: this was friendly territory and for someone arriving by car, it would turn out to be the friendliest stop on our trip. for once, we were not made to apologise or pay through the nose for our wheels.
milton keynes is famous as the last of london's planned new towns and infamous for a certain blandness and a slightly negative general perception of the place, not counting the people who live there. we felt the same tinge of something is wrong here, that slight trepidation I think many of us experience when confronted with the planned towns of modern architecture and we spent our time in milton keynes discussing where that feeling originated.
dismissing at once the thought that anything could be wrong with the place itself, we realized that one source of discomfort with new towns is that we are entirely confronted with ourselves. without the medieval street patterns and stone facades, without the valued obstructions of history to hide behind, we are brought face to face with our own consumerism, our wish for privacy above community, the petty pleasures of a readily available parking space...and when we see ourselves unexpectedly, unease ensues: that was not my good angle. milton keynes may or may not be our good angle, that depends on your values, but there is no reason to blame the mirror.
with our defenses down, we could enjoy the place for what it is: a rethinking of the English garden city with the car defining distances and connections, and a shopping centre at its heart instead of a traditional urban core. a kind of idealized suburbia in which ease of transportation, comfort, and the contemplation of landscape are placed above social interaction. the architects called it community without propinquity - meaning that our modern social life is no longer decided by proximity but by personal choice, at once a shrewd observation of a trend and a rather bold claim on behalf of the many.
clear boundaries of interest and ownership were always a key idea of suburbia, limiting the conflicts and confrontations of everyday life. if milton keynes feels devoid of urban drama, that was its attraction to begin with. just imagine moving there from london with children. my guess is that the planners would have said that any need for drama outside the strictly existential was a sign of immaturity. today, we would say that negotiating everyday conflicts is part of what makes a community and that no amount of free choice can replace it, but we could be congratulating ourselves while actually living the life of a community without propinquity. think about it.
the shopping mall at the centre, or even in lieu of a centre, was hard to accept, but a natural consequence of the logic behind the planning. the building itself is something of a masterpiece in its genre, certainly the best we have seen outside the bazaars of the middle east. designed in the early seventies, its miesian minimalism celebrates light, order, and space above shopping, leaving a surprising amount of room for the people of milton keynes. its central courtyard, queen's court, perfectly sheltered from the surroundings is an essay in abstraction, inviting you to meditations on life and architecture rather than mindless spending. the people who live here must be philosophers, we concluded in admiration. and left for oxford.
for a serious treatment of milton keynes and the architecture found around its grid, there is only place to go: iqbal aalam, who quite rightly suggests that it is only a question of time before architectural tourists start arriving by the busload.
milton keynes on google maps showing the overall grid with its many roundabouts. the grid of milton keynes is exceptional in modern architecture for the way existing conditions are everywhere allowed to challenge the purity of its geometry.