Agora, Wolverton, Milton Keynes

February 19, 2010

Wolverton, though only few miles away from Stony Stratford, is a very different town, almost in all respects. It is a historic Victorian Railway town, with a Milton Keynes like gridded housing core of terraces, surrounded by railway workshops.

The softness and rustic surroundings are nowhere to be seen and this shift in grain of the town was very sensitively picked up by the MKDC design team in designing this indoor market and Skating/Leisure Centre.

The shopping/leisure building had to be flexible in use and a large space framed covered area surrounded with two storey balcony/ circulation is housed in a robust engineering brick structure with references to Victorian brick decorations. The appearance and the architectural handling has been developed to provide a strong visual rhythm to accommodate ‘uncontrolled’ use and appearance, consequently the building is unlikely to win many beauty competitions but what a wonderful gift for a tough town this turned out to be.

It is refreshing and unusual to see the building taking everything on its chin like a seasoned street fighter, remain standing on its feet, and to shame the ‘abusers’ asks for knock out blows to be landed on it.

The only reference to its inception showing the linkage with the Miesian tradition is a beautifully designed glass box sitting at high level under the large roof to one side of the Market area, dissolving the space, looking down and reflecting the surrounding activities of this well crafted space.

The location of the large bulk of the building within the town is also brilliant.

It links various walking routes through and around it, addressing itself to a small town square, an open air market and car park and two main streets of the town.

Despite the size and bulk of the building, it sits majestically among the Victorian neighbours, with no visual niceties or concessions, without    playing second fiddle to anyone.

This building is a hidden gem (not visually exciting – more like an uncut precious stone) and has a lot of lessons to offer to many people of differing disciplines.

15 Responses to “Agora, Wolverton, Milton Keynes”

  1. While I largely agree with your description of the architectural qualities of the Agora, I can’t accept that its location is brilliant. Rather, it appears to me as another example in a chain of poor planning decisions that started in 1837.
    Wolverton, as you note, grew on a grid foundation, and nothing wrong with that except that the commercial centre ended up in an eccentric position, largely due to ad hoc planning. Nonetheless people learned to live with it and the Stratford Road (The Front) became the commercial centre, in time spreading to Church Street and to Morland Terrace and the Square at the turn of the last century. the residential parts grew to the south and west with two through streets, Radcliffe Street and Windsor Street, to provide essential connections to the shops. The decision to build the Agora across Radcliffe Street severed one of those arterial connections with poor consequences for the Stratford Road which once hosted important shops and banks and now is distinctly seedy.
    I am not blind to the other factors that lead to High Street decline, but I rather suspect that the Agora’s location accelerated that decline.
    My own preference in retrospect would have been to develop the Agora to the west of Radcliffe Street, even developing another street on the west side to create a complete commercial square.
    For all that the Agora remains one of the few architect-designed buildings in Wolverton. As I observed in my book, “The Lost Streets of Wolverton”, Wolverton was an “architect-free zone’ almost from the beginning, traceable, I think, to the railway engineer Edward Bury’s distrust of architects.

    • winslowhub Says:

      It is most interesting to know the background through your detailed insight into the road patterns and development of the town. I am certain you are right in your opinions about the commercial aspects of the development and of course you are correct in hinting at the decline and the possibility of other contributory factors. I look forward to reading your book to know more details. My comment on the buildings location within the town was more about the ‘geometrical’ placing, its connections, changes of levels and creating space hierarchies in and around it to respond to the town.
      The admiration for Victorian architecture is almost universal and I don’t blame Edward Bury for distrust of architects. It is most unfortunate that the recent housing and its layout near college is of such poor quality, out of character with Wolverton and has caused serious damage to it. It matters little as to who adds to the existing communities, it requires planners, architects and even house buyers to understand the existing built fabric and demand additions to compliment and enhance it rather than clashing with it.

  2. I initially picked up your post on a google alert but I have now had an opportunity to look deeper into your blog and I am impressed by your thoughtful analyses of the building developments and projects in the Milton keynes area. The 40 year perspective makes for interesting reading.
    I was born and raised in Wolverton when it was still a railway town and cycled all over the MK area when road were almost traffic free. I more-or-less left Wolverton in the early 60s when I went to university and returned occasionally to visit my parents and old friends. So, other than witnessing the raising of new houses at Galley Hill, I think I rather missed the whole Milton Keynes experience.
    I certainly have no knowledge of Cofferidge Close in Stony, but next time I am there I will make an effort to see what it is all about.
    Back in the 60s I was very much in favour of the development of Milton Keynes and on the whole it has been a beneficial project. But some mistakes were made with the best of motives and it is good that they are now subject to critical reappraisal.
    My own focus in my sunset years is to reclaim bits of the past which have been lost or forgotten. Wolverton’s Tesco car park was once the original Wolverton new town, complete with factory, streets of cottages and shops. Not a brick remains.

    • winslowhub Says:

      Thanks. As you probably gathered I have worked and lived in and around MK since the start of its growth in early 70s.
      There is a danger that one may be too close to notice the gradual changes. You have an advantage to see things almost from a fresh point of view. As you say there is a lot to learn and I am pleased that the younger professional generation is taking serious note of the things which went wrong and hopefully avoid some of the pitfalls.
      I am certain that your memories and presentation of old Wolverton would become more precious with the passage of time.

  3. Talha Muftee Says:

    i completely agree wid ur opinion on dis.n m feeling dat besides aesthetics n visual elements it is more crucial to understand da environment in which a structure is to b placed.because a a urban scene frm afar is like an orchestra,every element playin its own tune bt in harmony wid one another.da design ov dis building has done justice to da history n culture surroundin it.da new kid on da block fits in…

  4. Mat Says:

    Hi there, I would suggest that the location of the Agora is far from “Brilliant” as it effectively separates off the Square from Church Street as the only ways between them through are via the Agora itself (never an attractive proposition) or via the small alleyway down the side (certainly no pleasure at night). Demolishing the Agora and building a new development that links Church Street and the Square would be of far more benefit to residents and shop keepers and also help to integrate the town much better.

    • winslowhub Says:

      Thanks for your comments. The comments from locals and users of the buildings are bound to have more validity and insight and I am certain you are right, you are certainly not the first person to mention this. However, rebuilding is hardly going to resolve all the problems. The TESCO’s dominance of the town is a large factor in the distribution and functioning of the retail sector and I understand from another local person that originally there was a ‘covered’ walk where the shops now sit facing the open air market. This walk would have achieved what you now desire. Why was it removed? I am afraid there are so many factors at play that there is never a simple answer to a straight forward question. The real solution is for the local residents to unite and approach the decision makers, asking them to bring about the changes and improvements they desire and seek.
      I assure you that the building is more than capable of serving multitude of functions in many different ways, if only the right people find out what is needed and make the necessary adjustments. Thanks once again.

  5. I suspect that the comment above is a response to someone else’s remarks, but I would be curious to know where the covered walk was and indeed the open air market.

  6. For some reason this thread is showing your replies but not the posted comments. This has led to some confusion – on my part at least.
    My original critical point was that it could have been better sited. Building it to the west of Radcliffe Street would have preserved an arterial link with the residential part of the town at the cost of demolishing perhaps six additional houses. Perhaps that additional cost was a consideration amongst the bean counters.
    The shops on the south side of Church Street never had he commercial profile of those on the north side of the street. I suspect that the steps up to them from street level deterred some customers. There was a baker and a butcher on the corners which were popular, but the rest of the row was a secondary retail location – a music shop, a Co-op gents outfitter, a Coal Merchant, a solicitor’s office and a newspaper office. There was also a garage with its service entrance in the back alley. The front window tended to display tires. None of these would have survived the commercial realities of the last 30 years.
    I might also observe that the Agora was out-of-date a few years after its construction. One of its central functions (I was led to understand) was to be a new home for the Wolverton Friday Market which had operated in the old school on Creed Street since 1906. Weekly town markets still flourish across the country but this one seems to have lost its way and what I saw inside was a more-or–less permanent display of cheap “under a pound” goods. The vibrancy of an organic weekly market had withered away.
    Another factor has been the growth of supemarkets and shopping malls, which have left the old small town shopping centres with personal services – banks, chemists, opticians, hairdressers, estate agents. In Wolverton’s case this need appears to have been met by shops around the Square and along the north side of Church Street.
    This would lead me to the conclusion that the Agora has neither been adopted by nor adapted to by the residents of Wolverton.
    As I believe I noted in an earlier post, Wolverton has mostly been an architecture-free zone for most of its history. The original workshop was designed by an architect as was the Science and Art Institute. They have both been demolished, which leaves St George’s Church, the Wesleyan Chapel, the Church Institute (Madcap) and the Agora. Wolverton should hold on to wahtever little architectural heritage it has.
    My own view (now an outsider) is that it should be re-purposed. It would probably work as a community sports and fitness center. A few years ago i might have suggested a library, but it seems that they are now on the way out.

    • winslowhub Says:

      Thanks for your useful comments. I can see the points you are making and it is obvious that the place is hardly thriving. I have not closely observed the success or failure of Agora over the last few decades but reading your comments I intend to carry out some detective work to study the original design and the subsequent changes which have taken place over the last 30 years or so.
      All I can say is that no self-respecting architect would knowingly sever an important existing pattern of circulation without some good reasons (and MKDC certainly had a good architects department). I am pretty certain the original concept anticipated the main body of Agora to act as a ‘honey pot’ encouraging the pedestrians to pass through it on or near the old established alignment of Radcliffe Street. The ramps and steps inside the building are complex and no doubt trying to reconcile the multi-functional needs while retaining the ‘desire lines’ for the people, involving them in internal activities and functions and discouraging them to bypass it.
      It might take me a while to find out the facts but watch this space.

  7. I am currently editing a book about the social impact of Wolverton’s transition from a railway town to a northern community within Milton Keynes. We will be including comments and reflections from a number of Wolverton residents, both past and present. The Agora is a topic which frequently comes up and people have strong opinions about it, mostly negative I have to say. What I would like to do is include your article in the book, not necessarily to provide balance but to offer an alternative vision of the building. I can of course give you much more information, but not here. You will have my email with this comment. If you are interested in taking this further, please send me a message.

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