With its streets aligned to the rising sun and its train station once the set for Superman — Milton Keynes has a beguiling urban story to tell.
“MK” as it’s affectionately known by locals, was part of the third and final wave of ‘New Towns’, following in the footsteps of Stevenage, Harlow, Runcorn and Basildon, among 16 others. Those names might not incur thoughts of a tantalising new urban environment, but MK was the culmination of planning ideas that had been brewing since World War Two. And as planned cities go (and MK is an official city, as of this year in case you’re wondering) Milton Keynes is often, and rightfully, heralded as the planned city, famously optimistic for the future — best exemplified in Helmut Jacoby’s dazzling drawing depicting a helicopter climbing over Milton Keynes’ iconic central grid.
The grid was MK’s defining aspect in the 1970s and still is today, so much so that planning vernacular once uttered by its many pioneers, namely the Milton Keynes Development Corporation (MKDC) general manager, Fred Roche and MKDC chief planner, Derek Walker, has found its way into contemporary language: suburbs are called ‘grid squares’; cycle paths known as ‘red ways’.
It’s along these often gently meandering routes that MK’s proud, yet softly spoken architectural heritage can be found. MK was a site for many young architects to cut their teeth and explore new ideas under the stewardship of Walker, arguably MK’s most important figure when it came to design and someone eager to give architects fertile testing ground to try new things. As a result, MK is uniquely rich in experimental architecture, something which it is bizarrely shy about.
Perhaps that’s because not all of these ideas have worked. Famously, Norman Foster’s flat-roofed Beanhill dwellings leaked, leading tenants to replace their roofs with Mock Tudor, much to Foster’s chagrin. Nearby and less well-known, but more successful, is a coterie of Modern houses by Peter Womersley that have more than stood the test of time. Between all that is a vast development of 1,000 modular homes from 1972, designed by Michael Gold, Christopher Cross, Jeremy Dixon and Edward Jones.
There are more recent attempts at modular in MK, too. Notable for their colourful cladding, RSHP’s 145 homes from 2007 at Oxley Woods were designed for housebuilder George Wimpey to be highly sustainable for the time.
Nowhere more exemplifies architectural experimentation in MK, however, than the site of the HomeWorld exhibition. Launched in 1981, a year after Paolo Portoghesi used Venice to exhibit ideas at an architectural scale, the HomeWorld Housing Expo attracted more than 150,000 to Bradwell Common to see 36 prototype dwellings that told audiences how we might live in the future. Some boasted quirky names, such as ‘The House that moos’ and ‘The House where the roof is also the walls’, while others were exquisitely shaped, like the Solar House and aptly named ‘Pyramid’ house — and all survive today.
While those dwellings looked to the future, buildings such as Adrian Morrow’s New Chapel at the Crownhill Crematorium draws more heavily on the past, as the chapel takes cues from Louis Khan, with a big nod to the Kimball Art Museum.
Meanwhile, Walker’s pièce de resistance and Milton Keynes’ focal point, is the shopping centre. Stemming from the delightfully Los Angeles sounding ‘Midsummer Boulevard’ the mall serves as Milton Keynes’ central axis and strives to blend seamlessly with the landscaping that surrounds it through soft and carefully placed thresholds. It’s status as the town’s jewel in the crown though has been usurped by 6a’s MK Gallery, thanks chiefly to a shimmering facade reflects natural hues of the locally loved Campbell Park that it looks out onto.
All these, and more, are on the itinerary for our reader visit, a whistlestop tour of the places and spaces that define the once New Town. Attendance is free of charge but places are strictly limited and allocated on a first come first served basis. Register and book your place here.