Milton Keynes (and Modernism) and Me

I’ve just watched Richard Macer’s documentary ‘Milton Keynes and Me’ on BBC iPlayer and I really enjoyed it. He and the city both turn 50 this year and that was the starting point for the film, which is available on catch-up till mid-Sept.

Macer left MK at 18 and hadn’t returned for a significant amount of time until staying with his parents while filming.

I also grew up in Milton Keynes. My parents moved there in the mid 70s when the city was less than a decade old. We left (because of a new job elsewhere for my Dad) as the city turned 25 and I turned 16, so at a similar point in my life to the filmmaker, though my whole family left whereas his parents still live in their family home today.

I empathised with his memories of cringing whenever having to answer the question “Where are you from?”. (He found people from elsewhere only knew about the roundabouts, whereas for me it was always the Concrete Cows.)  I don’t think I appreciated MK while I lived there but in the past seven years I’ve re-evaluated that view, learning more about its development and understanding better when set against the experience of living in London all my adult life and visiting other parts of the UK and other world cities such as Sydney, Paris, Amsterdam and New York.

Macer interviews his older sister, who also fled the city at the earliest opportunity, noticing now how small she found the family garden, how soulless the family home and how lacking in community the city as a whole. For that perceived lack of community she reflected it might be because pretty much the whole city at that time were newcomers. I’m not sure I remember it the same way – while it did lack history (apart from a few older parts that the new town incorporated when built in the space between three existing old towns) I never felt it lacked community within neighbourhoods or school districts.

Macer highlighted some of the early MK estates, or grid squares (stemming from MK’s grid-like plan of 1km squares) where fledgling architects were able to contribute whole master plans, the most notable of which was Beanhill by Norman Foster, now of course the world famous architect, Lord Foster.

Looking back it feels like the earlier estates were more experimental and Modernist, whereas those built from the 80s to the 90s were more a product of those times – the more bland, identikit Barratt-home style designs rather than the crisper more experimental Modernism of its earlier designs. My first home there had a more unusual design, a big one-plane pitched roof and a pale gold brick, whereas the second, designed and built about a dozen years later, leaned more towards the identikit red-brick modern home with ‘traditional’ stylings.

Central Milton Keynes was the shopping and business district at the heart of the new town and while it contained two of the most memorable structures (for me), in the shopping centre and city library, at the time it felt less appealing than other parts of the city – more diffuse and following the most rigid orthogonal street layout.

I think that consciously or otherwise, growing up in Milton Keynes influenced my decision to study architecture and my continuing interest in it even when I chose not to pursue it as a career. My particular interest in Modernism must have started there too, enhanced by my Mum being a kind of unwitting Modernist herself – always eschewing the pre-20th Century homes like the relatively run-down Victorian terrace of her youth for the new, big, bright, clean and modern.

A few very happy memories from my teenage years involved Modernist icons in London. A visit to the Commonwealth Institute, a copper-clad design recently overhauled as the new home of the Design Museum. An evening at the National Theatre, where our coach from MK got stuck in traffic and we had to jump ship, cut across town on the tube and then run across Waterloo Bridge, seeing the NT hunkered illuminated on the other side, arriving just in time for the performance (Arthur Miller’s ‘The Crucible’). And staying next to the Barbican for an art history field trip, getting to wander in and about there every evening for a week, this beautiful, complex, uplifting and enveloping space, noticing funny little details like how it shared the same exterior floor tiles as my school in Milton Keynes.

This school, Stantonbury Campus, was one I shared with the film maker Richard Macer and his memories of it round out the documentary really well.

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