(The title is an oblique reference to a song by Da Lench Mob, something I know I shouldn’t talk about at my age, but the place about which I’m about to blog has been compared to Los Angeles, so there’s some kind of connection. With apologies for the misogynistic language)
Last week I became the first person ever to utter the sentence ‘I’m really looking forward to going to Milton Keynes’ and I meant it. Sniffy put-downs by people who don’t live in them have been a feature of New Towns in general and MK in particular. I spent enough happy childhood days in Harlow to free me from such prejudices, but the stigma attached to New Towns are pervasive and I carried some of them with me on the 30-minute train ride from Euston. The trigger for my first visit was the ‘Future City’ exhibition and its title captures the fascination of the place. MK was conceived in the late 1960s with these objectives:
- Opportunity and freedom of choice.
- Easy movement and access.
- Balance and variety.
- The creation of an attractive city.
- Public awareness.
- Efficient and imaginative use of resources.
Even allowing for the type of developer hype that has become wearyingly familiar, this isn’t a bad start. In his short film ‘Looking for Milton Keynes’, Gareth Jones (who grew up there) refers to MK as the place where 1945 and 1968 collide. This is a very neat summary, although he adds that MK embodies every political period since. The 1945 element comes in the form of the post-war turn to State-led planning and mass housing (much of it publicly owned and for rent) that defined MK’s origins and has infuriated some of its critics. 1968 captures the visionary design and social ambition of the project and while it would be a stretch to call MK revolutionary, from my first impression it’s a place built with more genuine egalitarian spirit than most of what’s come since. The central shopping precinct is a glass-clad, cubic tube that runs for a kilometre and despite the inevitable chain stores, has a real flavour of the high street that other ‘malls’ can only aspire to and the awkwardly named ‘Xscape’ building, which contains a ski-slope, is authentically futuristic. Beyond the dual carriageways and underpasses lie parks, lakes and fields, a perfect synthesis of Howard’s Garden Cities and Le Corbusier’s spatial organisation. However, as with every other utopian settlement I know of, MK’s reach was beyond its grasp. Some of the original drawings suggest even more radical fantasies of quasi-communal living in a Modernist pleasure dome, but a combination of innate English conservatism and ‘market forces’ – otherwise known as Thatcherism – produced a more orthodox MK landscape from the early 1980s. The original aim of a balance between public and private housing was abandoned in favour of the mortgage obsession and the social conventions that tend to go with it.
Some of my previous posts reflect the recurring yearning for the perfectability of urban form. However different they may be from each other, places like Letchworth or Radburn are the cousins of Milton Keynes. I’ve more to say about this, but need a second visit to MK first.