Robert Mawell continues to consider the decisions architects took to produce these schemes which are poles apart, representing the opposite ideas of environmental quality.

Eaglestone in superficial sense is jumbled, seems to be representing rural individuality and dominance of of the parts over the whole and suggests that there are qualities of  megalomania. Perhaps betraying a loss of confidence in the capability of design to satisfy people. Maxwell says that a great many critics make a moral identification in favour of informality, spelling freedom.

Netherfield on other hand is considered  to be regimented and stands for urban regularity and dominance of the whole over the parts. Unlike Eaglestone we encounter qualities of accident. Formality is considered by most an imposition and ‘inhumane’.

Next few paragraphs are devoted to the observed behaviour of residents of both schemes by the community worker who looked after both schemes and noticed no sign of misery in one and happiness in the other estate. She only saw residents identifying with their estates and good community spirit. Please remember that article has been written while the schemes were still under construction and only partially occupied.

“It is more particularly to architects that Netherfield and Eaglestone appear utterly different. They perform very similar functions, but they do not mean the same things. To read their meanings, we have to know something of the specialised codes of the language used, of the images projected. Close examination suggests that both are intended to supply a map of social realm, to project an attitude towards life. Without some such intention it is hard to see how they could end up so physically different.”

EAGLESTONE

The decision was made to place houses in  compact groupings and the open space thus saved was spread among the housing, creating varying situations with individual character to each part.

The ring of housing was connected at various key points to the outside world for both pedestrians and cars. The peripheral feeder road served a series of square garage courts, walled and roofed like houses exploiting the hill top nature and irregularities of site. These tightly varied house groupings, consisting of rental and for sale units, located entirely on pedestrian network, and giving a nearly complete Radburn-type separation of vehicular traffic.

There has been a complete avoidance of repetition of standard houses. Partly by jumbling the mix, partly by variation of window and door positions, each little group is made in some way particular. The variations of building materials, their colours and textures,  size and proportions of openings, porches, dust bin enclosures; are all used to achieve lack of repetition which remains homogeneous despite regular rectangular house types.

It is a world of total design, and yet made up of  entirely banal and familiar elements, the construction kit of the spec builder.

From outside the estate gives impression of hill village or casbah, narrow passages with Newmanish sense of closely observed lanes frequently opening in play areas and greens. By boxing of the cars into a built form the mechanical appurtenance of New Town life is suppressed, and the quaintness is possible.

Two first schools, and the village centre  are located to give a social hierarchy a topographical basis. Starting with the individual family we progress through the shared play group space, the garage court, the first school, the second school  and the community centre.

If we can try to interpret the language of architecture, this architecture speaks of community, of social identity and cohesion, of the self-reliance and exclusivity of the tribe. Values such as these have a wide appeal today ( reminder: 1975 – I wish it was true for early 21st century) …. particularly for architect who are uneasy about the role of the self-conscious designer in mediating the expectations of the user through some filter of ideology. Eaglestone fulfils just this, combining a due modesty towards the user while projecting  an unmistakable belief in efficacy of good design. It comes plumb in the line of descent , through William Morris and Patrick Geddes, the moral mainstream of what was to be termed the garden city tradition. This line runs backwards through time to a romantic medievalism and the image of the city of God. It speaks of regeneration, of the retrieval of wholesomeness, of sharing of beliefs and habits. Garden city socialism is both genteel and pious. It is an escapism which questions consumerism but underlines the virtues of family and home. Escapism, nonetheless.

NETHERFIELD

Netherfield belongs to to a straight-line tradition which must appear anathema to jumble lovers, who no doubt are Eaglestone enthusiasts. Its evident formal precision and geometric purity indicates a direct interest in volumetric composition, independent of social symbolism. It bears the imprint of Corbusian purism rather than Miesian classicism_that is to say that it deals in tense dialectic between order and accident, a dialectic in which each quality is mutually intensified by the other.

While Eaglestone is carefully assembled in a irregular jumble of  box like houses, Netherfield has been assembled with the boxes carefully slotted into six parallel lines in three pairs. Varying contours on site have not been allowed to alter the roofline which remains constant but houses between one to four storey sit under this reference line, achieving a homogeneous building form, rather large in scale, yet also made up from modest elements.

Clues to location and identity is not achieved by jagged roofs or varied materials or fenestration but by use of  ground and topography, retained old hedgerows  and trees crashing through rows of houses; a constant dialogue between design and incident, not diffused like Eaglestone but celebrated here.

Ed Jones told David Maxwell that they were working within the tradition of English landscape design which contrasts formal precision of archetype and informal variation of nature. The contrast, in which both nature and art are juxtaposed, but not opposed, is conducive to a sense of life as a lived art, of life enhanced by art. The audacity consists in reviving this attitude, not for the setting of an aristocratic mansion but for people’s housing. The houses, as in the terraces of Nash, coagulate to form an image of civility and aspiration: the individual house  shares, not in a community, but in a life-style.

Each and every house has a car access to road frontage leading to the front door, enjoys similar conditions to each other, not unlike Georgian and Victorian terraces in towns and cities. Differences of furnishing and furbishing, which are muffled at Eaglestone by Erskine’s eagerness to have each house different, stand out here through the coolness  of the format as entirely individually  motivated gestures.

The houses are aligned for car access to road frontages, facing across the road to common parkland. Behind the houses are private gardens, back to back, occasionally interspersed with mews.    Every house enjoys exactly similar conditions   but completely open at either end to the outside world_ the world as it is, production, consumption and all. For this estate is not a model of a community , but of a class: the extended middle class made up of people who feel freer from penury and exploitation than did their grandparents: who feel that now they can look after themselves.

One can, I think, dismiss the idea that straight lines are harmful in themselves, that they must always mean regimentation. It seems more likely that if the houses are full of successful people, making their way in life, the image of the estate will be beneficent: if times get bad, if the consumer society breaks down, if deprivation sets in, things could be very different.**

But what New Town is aiming at such a future? .. it must.. promote the good life. Netherfield does not depict a scarcity economy, and so is politically defined on the side of choice and variety.

Is Netherfield an architectural conceit, an artifice, because it deploys a clear formal order? Or because it revives and recasts an eighteenth century aesthetic? Clearly it is no more and no less  artificial than Eaglestone, which deploys an expressionist language of nooks and crannies, and revives and recasts a medieval aesthetic.

Maxwell thinks given the exigencies of construction of large number of houses… Eaglestone ‘jumble approach’  has little to do with realpolitik of the package deal. Netherfield is closer to our time in a practical as well as ideological sense, its terraces absorb the industrialised construction smoothly and sweetly: indeed it is a pleasure to see industrial regularity  being civilised by a powerful aesthetic instead of being itself the content of the aesthetic, as with the modern movement.

If we are on the brink social revolution, the choice of an aesthetic will seem pretty irrelevant. Such a choice will only have a meaning if our society finds away of preventing exploitation and promoting welfare and justice through continuous evolution. A dialectic of ideas requires the generation of alternatives, not the imposition of dogma. If I were to live in Milton Keynes, I would choose Netherfield rather than Eaglestone: you might choose otherwise. In any case, to enjoy the experience we would both have to feel some identity of views with some of our neighbours.

To expect architectural design to contain the element of choice is to give architecture too important a role, for it elevates it to the level of state instrument for manipulation of the masses. Hannes Meyer tried to combine dogmatic functionalism with dogmatic socialism in 1929: it is synthesis which the modern movement never quite pulled off. Let alternatives flourish. Through free experiment we will invent new interesting extensions of traditions to which we belong.

PRESENT STUATION

Having finished quoting (and some poor summarising) this admirable article by Robert Maxwell originally published in Architectural Journal of 1975, and a time lapse of 35 years, I would attempt to bring you up to date.

These schemes were built in heydays of MKDC’s most creative period of existence. Every project was attempting something new and it was difficult to absorb the full scope and direction this work was taking, as there was a lot of work coming out of the office and I was a bit too close to it to be very objective. When I recently re-read the article and re-visited the schemes quoted above, my respect for author shot sky high for his clear historical grasp and  brilliant  observations  making sense of the town planning and detailed incisive analysis of the two housing schemes with such differing characteristics. To cap it all, his prediction about the ‘disaster **’ Netherfield could face made me jump and led me to form this ‘one man fan club’.

If you recall, the difficulties of building at this time lead to the choice of specific contractors and the chosen methods of construction. The housing within the adjoining grids at Beanhill (Norman Foster), Coffeehall (MKDC) had similarities both in construction and formality of layouts. It is no coincidence that this pressure to build up to 4000 homes a year, quickly started to lead to building failures in all these schemes soon after the completion. The leaking roofs, condensation, mould growth, sound transmission between houses, badly fitted and leaking windows created a nightmare situation on all these grids. It is also worth noting that the first sets of tenants for mostly rental housing came from some of the most socially deprived areas of London and Birmingham.

The first test waiting for these new communities was to react to this ‘hell’ they were provided to live in. As Maxwell predicted, the communities under a common threat reacted in unison despite their embryonic state. The first test of cohesive layouts and anticipated community spirit was passed with flying colours. The galvanised community sprung in action forming successful protest/pressure groups to demand quick and effective remedies for these problems. The social mix of tenants and failure of construction ensured that these estates started to look and feel deprived and failing in almost every sense very soon after their construction. The new tenants were refusing to move in, and only desperate, reluctantly accepted the offers to move in. Tenants had little opportunities and freedom of choice and they felt trapped in declining estates. This reputation still remains to this day and the tenants, particularly recent immigrants with little or no income are being housed in some of these schemes. I personally felt very uneasy when taking photographs in Netherfield and my subsequent visit to nearby Eaglestone was a relaxed walk in Newmanish surroundings with children playing everywhere.

Huge amount of pressure was exerted to put pitch roofs wherever possible; doors and windows replacement was extensive. The maintenance of these estates is proving a serious problem to Milton Keynes Council which inherited most of the socially rented housing and community buildings is unable to afford this onerous task. A sad and unfair distribution of responsibilities too complicated to explain here is making a bad situation worst.

Meanwhile, the tremendous force of Margaret Thatcher hit the country and the overwhelming flood of Thatcherism  brought Housing Act 1980 with ‘Right to buy’ legislation, where council tenants could buy the houses they rented at discounted prices. A hugely popular scheme which even the future Labour government was unable to repeal.

This was not quite the catastrophy Robert Maxwell had in mind**, nevertheless the fate of Netherfield was sealed. As the whole estate was built for renting, the random ‘ownership’ ensured that the cancer of ‘beautifying and personalising’ the newly bought pieces of real estate was  well spread and ensured the certain death of all laudable objectives architects stood for in its design.

It seemed that Eaglestone was designed to withstand this very ‘man/woman made’ disaster. The proportion of rental and private ownership was hardly going to make any difference: on the contrary  it was likely to improve the social homogeneity. The rest is history, the cries of  ‘Jumble Brigade’ shouting “We told you so!” have been loud and clear since those days ensuring that no quarter is given to these architects/ intellectuals trying to introduce these poisonous doctrines to the land of William Morris.


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In February I jotted down the short history of this project which started its life as a brilliant contribution to the new built environment in this historical town, now an integral part of the new city of Milton Keynes.  I pointed out in some detail  many ‘retrogressive’ recent changes which seriously undermined the original strength and qualities. You are still able to see the frail patient walking about, an occasional smile still reveals some of the original attractive charm the patient possessed.

However, recently my attention was drawn to an exhibition in Stony Stratford and this web site http://www.cofferidgeclose.co.uk/ displaying proposals for developing and improving this site and seeking public participation and involvement before submitting formal planning applications.

This apparent democratic and inclusive method has now become an almost text book approach for testing the waters and finding the best and cheapest route for most of the  developers to do what they are there for; build big, cheap, and make an quick exit with a neat profit.

The proposal is so ill conceived and poor that in all seriousness you can not even appraise it apart from saying that far from  preserving and enhancing the character of the area (a pre-requisite for any  proposal within a Conservation Area), this scheme would destroy it in all major aspects.


One sentence can adequately summarise this proposal. An attempt to insert a grossly oversized building in a beautifully crafted space in the heart of a sensitively redeveloped area. The huge mass of building is moored in a sea of enlarged  car parking and service areas, proposing to destroy the trees in the orchard which provides  pleasant walking routes through this park like well landscaped site. The directness of short cuts linking the little ally ways would be destroyed and  and the walk through the car park can hardly be compensated by planting few trees in left over spaces.

The best way to describe this broad daylight attempt of this ‘grab and run venture’ is the following analogy;

  • Imagine a pretty little ornate cage in a nicely decorated front room of an old thatched cottage with a lovely little singing bird. The bird lost a few feathers after a confrontation with a house cat when it escaped the cage through an open door, but survived and continued with well rehearsed melodies and preening the colourful plumage in this handsome spacious cage.
  • Suddenly the old owner of this bird was taken ill and had to go to a Nursing Home and the bird was sent to another house with a large bird cage which it was able to share happily with other similar birds.
  • After a while a new owner, another bird lover, came to live in this cottage. The owner loved the lovely little bird cage in the front room, but unfortunately had a large barn owl to look after. The owl was far too large for the cage and indeed the door. It managed to get in but found it difficult to move within it. The children from the neighbourhood who knew the singing, colourful bird came and apart from the initial thrill of seeing a big bird with funny head and round eyes, they missed the colourful singing bird and wanted it back.
  • The kind new owner did not want to disappoint the children and said, ” I tell you what! Tell me your three favourite colours and I would be happy to colour owl’s feathers in your favourite colour. If you like I will even mix two or three of the colours to make it even more cheerful. I also have a CD of the loveliest bird songs you can think of, and I will play it when you visit me.”
  • Fortunately the children were far too intelligent to go along with this ploy. The owner also saw that the owl would never fit in the cage and thankfully gave it away to someone with proper owl accommodation. He also bought another small pretty singing bird and all was well in the old cottage.

I hope the local residents would strongly object to this outlandish proposal and ensure that this idea is killed before it is even considered as a worthwhile project for any planning permission.

Unless we learn to appreciate and protect all the best of old and recently built environments around us, opportunistic profiteers would do their best to sell us things under the guises of doing us favours. Hopefully we are now mature enough to recognize the merits of what we have and know who the real beneficiaries of these false promises are likely to be.

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.

Assessing last thirty years of wear and tear.

During the early growth of Milton Keynes, while the central shopping area was under construction, the two existing district centres of Bletchley in South and Stony Stratford in North were identified for growth to cater for the shopping and social needs of the growing population. The development brief for these district plans were similar but the different characters of the existing towns resulted in quite distinct architectural results.

Stony Stratford was traditional English market/coaching town on the old Roman road, Watling Street (A5), known as High Street while passing through the centre of town.

It was obvious that the growth of extra traffic on A5 was likely to suffocate the town. Milton Keynes Development Corporation (MKDC) proposed to build a bypass which was integrated with the new grid of road network being carried out for the birth of the new town.

The shop, pub and house owners also actively participated in preparing and implementing a conservation scheme which showed the great improvement potential the town possessed.

MKDC carried out many planning studies involving the community to expand the town and exploring the full potential of preserving and enhancing the character of the town.

In the end Cofferidge Close was designed, financed and built by MKDC on the land it owned in and around the High Street, the only significant scheme to include the major office and shopping development.

‘ The site, derelict backland in the centre of Stony Stratford, has been developed for  a wide variety of functions including offices, shops, housing, car parking and service access not only to new development but to many adjacent High Street traders, reducing congestion in the town’s busy High Street. The layout provides eleven points of pedestrian access and pays great respect to its historic context, particularly to its choice of materials and breaking down the scale.’ (* abstract from Derek Walker’s book ‘Architecture and Planning of Milton Keynes’)


Terry Farrell (Partner of Farrell/Grimshaw Partnership at the time) wrote a detailed critique for the building study of this project for Architectural Journal of 1st November 1978. His opening remarks dealt with architects’ role in ‘mixed/divided economy’ are quoted here:

“The example of Cofferidge Close defies those who pursue a ‘divided economy’. It demonstrated how through human co-operation, in a delicate process, architects living and working locally produced a catalyst of quality to act as an example to the town and all letting agents, estates departments, valuers, developers and their architects”

He concludes “If balance is the key to success in urban replanning Cofferidge Close achieves this in two ways. Unlike a lot of work done under Derek Walker, Cofferidge Close achieves a balance of old and new urban fabric consistent with the original consultants’ intentions for all Milton Keynes in their masterplan. Stony Stratford has also obtained the right balance of public and private investment due to Cofferidge Close. It is ironic, though not surprising that it takes a New Town to do something so positive for an old town.”

While the new development in Bletchley District Centre took the route of modernism in traditions of Mies, using glass, steel and prefabricated plastic elements, the work in Stony Stratford tried to adhere to a Mies like architectural discipline but the local conditions were acknowledged by use of a red rustic brick. A cathedral like series of roofless colonnades, entirely covered with red bricks, formed a unifying skeletal backbone element to visually link all spaces of the development. Eight bays of this two storey high colonnade emerged in the High Street to announce the presence of a modern but polite new development to the town.

The modern interpretation of a ‘cathedral close’ and retention of an architectural purity, with references to Leon Krier, was not letting the introduction of roof to the colonnade muddle the purity of the concept, which we all considered a bit far fetched and difficult to justify. The design team maintained this was due to the limited funds.

The shops were not visible from the High Street and even within the Close were partially hidden behind the raised planting beds, a fact not appreciated by the letting team.

A bold colourful, coordinated signage system throughout the development welcomed you to enter the arcade, running at right angles to the High Street and led you to the Close. The hard and soft landscaping was of the highest calibre and the feeling within the close was more akin to a park or garden with some car parking. The two storey roofless arcade you saw in High Street was now addressing the quiet close/car park and a single storey version of this went under the building to reappear to form an edge to the existing orchard surrounded by car parking, service road and yards. The clever design stitched these arcades with well defined pedestrian routes in red coloured mono-paving and brick, entering the close from various parts of the town and creating little points of interests using arches, pergolas, sitting alcoves, steps in grass forming amphitheatre like forms.

Terry Farrell also expressed his concerns about the lack of roof, was full of admiration for landscape detailing and consistency and said “My only query is whether the whole effect is not a bit too rich a menu of cosmopolitan goodies—the landscape is almost sub-tropical and the ‘Shirtsleeves’ signs are more Kings Road than Stony Stratford. On other hand Habitat and Kings Road taste is becoming universal and this is after all part of a New Town.”

All the above mentioned was conceived and carried out more than thirty years ago and as usual the rigorous test of time has played its unforgiving role to shred lots of original lofty ambitions to tatters. It is beyond my capability to dissect and lay bare the forces in play here but I simply would draw your attention to the actual ‘wounds and gashes’, amounting to acts of vandalism, and sheer lack of understanding and any empathy with the original concepts shown by the parties supposedly helping to improve this ailing project. The changes over a period are expected and inevitable but these have to be carried out with intelligence and with some respect to the original design and concepts.

However, the strength and sophistication of the original design was robust enough to take it on the chin. One or two limbs missing, the original ‘dress’ in tatters, bruises and sticky plaster clearly visible, the scheme still posses qualities which most contemporary schemes lack.

The easiest approach is for me to list few of these ‘alterations/changes’ this project has experienced and let you reach your own conclusions.

  • Four middle bays of High Street colonnade and two of Orchard single storey colonnade have been removed.
  • All unified signage has been replaced by usual multitude                              of disparate sign systems.
  • The Car Parking spaces have been increased by ‘re-arranging’ the original   planting, realignment or removal of footpaths and planting bays and landscape features. The original impression of a car in a Park has been rejected with wholesale ‘butchery’.The prophecy or ‘inevitability’ of a roof in or over the colonnade has taken place and a most insensitive roof design with some further  small circular steel posts and beams extending the  two  storey brick colonnade are the most insensitive  and damaging addition. The ubiquitous chain saw gang (also known as landscape team) has ensured that all species of plants are democratically treated and receive the essential ‘crew-cut’ treatment.

I hope my photos of the scheme scanned from old slides taken soon after its completion, with some old b&w photos from AJ, and the recent digital images give a flavour of the ravages of time over last three decades. This comparative unknown example of a mixed development and another contrasting shopping and leisure development called Agora in Wolverton, a few miles away are outstanding examples of urban design carried out by MKDC in its heydays. I hope to cover Agora in a separate Blog to show an entirely different architectural approach for a Victorian railway town.

I hope that Terry Farrell will note that architects may have been able to suppress the letting agents, estate departments, valuers of this world  for a while   but it did not take them long to come back and occupy their normal positions  with expected results.