The high quality of architectural and planning output during inception, birth and infancy of Milton Keynes was not accidental. Derek Walker led a gifted team of professionals working with him in MK Development Corporation and commissioned good architects of international and national repute to build housing, civic and other building types within the city.

The demise of MKDC in 1992 and subsequent political changes started to dismantle the architectural department within the Council which was supposed to take over and supervise the responsibility of completing the growth of the city.

The financial constraints and changes in house building/selling sector started a race to build to obtain biggest profits and financial savings without much regard for sensible commissioning in order to obtain the best possible architectural quality to fulfil the original goals of design and planning.

The decline in architectural standards is so overwhelming that the earlier levels of ‘acceptable/mediocre’ can now easily pass as ‘excellent’ and if anything of some merit is built, it is welcomed with disbelief and needs celebrating.

The building of Crownhill Crematorium is such an example where a series of happy coincidences led to ‘birth’ of a building dealing with the emotional issues of ‘death’.

The so called birth took place in the back seat of a taxi (assisted by the father) as it was rushing to reach hospital.

Panorama 101alt

Adrian Morrow, the young project designer with an impressive list of buildings to show against his name and a long list of first class architectural practices he has worked for, happened to be working in Architects Department during its death throes when this project arrived on his desk. The rapid population growth of the city meant that the existing crematorium built in 1982 by Roger Hobbs was unable to cope with the increased demands.

Adrian Morrow’s commitment to good architecture must have speeded his efforts to complete work on Crematorium detailed design, fighting against uncertainty of existence as Council’s architect. The new energy regulations and sustainability issues were dealt with and working drawing stage completed speedily before the inevitable ‘Project Managers’ took over the job and Council’s Architecture Department’s ‘life support’ was withdrawn and unwittingly the department became the first candidate for cremation in the new building (metaphorically  speaking of course, just like Asplund’s  in Woodland Cemetery).

The opportunity of seeing a worthwhile building in Milton Keynes after a while is too good to miss. It may not be able to withstand a direct comparison with Asplund-Lewerentz’s Woodland Cemetery in its scale, masterly handling of landscape and classicism of Swedish vernacular but there were lessons to be learnt.

The comparison with the other famous example of Funerary buildings, Scarpa’s Brion Family Cemetery (1968-78) would be grossly unfair at various levels but relevant when considering the experience of family and friends during emotionally traumatic occasions when the intimate internal and external spaces are able to offer solace and contemplation to affected users.

However, since the architect fairly and openly acknowledges Louis Kahn’s Kimbell Art Museum as the main inspiration for this building, a few related things are worth discussing.

MKCrem3

Like most architects of his age, Adrian Morrow knows and understands Kahn’s work, (as Charles Correa’s use of Kahn’s Trenton Bath House at Gandhi Ashram in India) chose to use Kimbell’s vocabulary of concrete vaults with flat roofs to create ‘servant and served’ spaces. A good model to follow, as judicial spacing of vaulted roofs proved flexible to cope with varying and sensitive space requirements of the brief for internal and external spaces.

The roof was originally designed before the sustainability requirements imposed rows of wind catchers. These clusters distract the eye from the simplicity of extruded vaults used by Kahn, but since the intentions are noble and a touch of ‘science fiction’ adds an extra layer of experience, I find it more than acceptable.

MKCrem2

My main disappointment lies with the way the car park sits in front of the building dominating the approach and exit for the mourners. The act of approaching the imposing entrance vault through cars looks abrupt and cluttered. Similarly the car park dominates the view as you leave the chapel using the side exit via an intimate well designed landscaped courtyard, created by parting of two vaulted roofs. The marrying of cars building and landscaped/water side walk is unresolved and to a degree lets the project down.

MKCrem1

The experience of washing your hands using the warm water in the toilets attached to the entrance vault on a cold morning was even more satisfying knowing that the source of heat for this water was provided by recent departed ‘user clients’. You can’t but say “Thank you and Thank you God for effective recycling….”

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Adrian Morrows web site with a video:

http://www.ajmarchitecture.com/envprojectajm.html

An excellent video showing Scarpa’s Brion Family Cemetry;

http://architechnophilia.blogspot.co.uk/2011/12/carlo-scarpa-brion-tomb.html

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Wayland Tunley intentions from the start were to have a wide variety of uses and housing on this site as he saw the dangers in housing 3000 people in a repetitive layout lacking amusement and joy.

A clearly understood street, cycleway and pedestrian network were to lead to a lively central area to be shared with the adjacent grid of Pennyland and to be linked to the city via the grid road. He intended to provide maximum variety of public areas surrounded by house types and designs which people were familiar with and liked. The layout consisted of varied building designs around streets, mews, landscape styles, offering surprises and vistas.

The trap of using unfamiliar building materials and contrived forms was also avoided by using red bricks, tiled roofs vernacular throughout the grid where the topography of this prominent site offered the variation sought by the designers to achieve a village plan within the grid with entrances marked with gate piers, timber oriels, lanterns, balconies, pergolas and its own ‘green’ and clock tower

A wide variety of mostly wide fronted one to three storey houses was employed often placing living rooms on first floor to take full advantage of the views. Most of the houses were originally meant for rent, some for sale. There was also specialist accommodation for Spastics Association, employment office, shops, a Pub, health centre, housing for elderly, schools. This variety building types was fully utilised to provide variation of scale and roof heights.

The streets and mews are named after old crafts, within context of a ‘village vernacular’ of a comprehensive newly designed picturesque village community lost within a modern large new city designed for cars.

The local centre lies within Neath Hill but casts its visual net to cover the adjacent grid of Pennyland and indeed announcing itself to the speeding motorists on the main grid road. Neath Hill and Pennyland are special grids as the local centre shared by the two adjacent areas is a departure from norm and addresses the main grid road to break the MK planning rule of hiding the centres in the heart of grids surrounded by housing and a lush belt of hedges and trees to keep the housing grids secret and private to the local population.

Wayland Tunley is the main ‘conductor and composer’ in this area. The housing varies from simple and plain to celebratory and elaborate, depending on the placement within a very rich mix of public spaces and pedestrian circulation. The hidden secret of these grids lies in the joy of walking on footpaths winding their way through matured landscape reminding you of intimate country lanes, village greens, with beautifully framed views of building landmarks. Grand Union Canal has also been included in giving an extra boost to this subtle experiencing of marriage between the social architecture and the best traditions of British informal landscaping by offering a mini ‘Venetian Corner’ with a British twist to the complete surprise of  casual newcomers.

By the time Pennyland come to the drawing board, the energy conservation was becoming a significant issue. The first phase was built to higher standards if insulation and employed quite a few energy conservation experiments and studies.

Wayland Tunley left MKDC in early 1980s and won a competition to build canal-side housing (I assume as a builder/developer partnership) which used traditional canal side architecture and language of Netherfield very effectively. Housing built further away from Neatherfield was carried out by other architects and developers.

The design team dealing with northern Milton Keynes was led by Nigel Lane and Wayland Tunley. They dealt with sensitive infill schemes in Stony Stratford (Cofferidge Close) and did infill projects in tightly built railway town of Wolverton including the Agora.  (see Blog: Agora, Wolverton MK: February 19, 2010)

Galley Hill was one of the first large housing schemes completed in 1971-72. At this point the problems of overheated building industry became apparent. The required speed of building new houses was not available and to meet the requirements, simpler layouts were needed along with the introduction of industrialised methods of construction whenever possible.

The small groups of terraces forming the public spaces were treated in fairly homogeneous manner as far as use of colours and  finishes of horizontal boarding and design of doors and windows was concerned.

However, as happened in other places, the subsequent private ownership of a large number of houses ensured an introduction of patch work of varying colours and materials to display individuality of their new owners, weakening the architectural coherence originally envisaged.

The pitched roofs helped in many ways – disasters of leaking flat roofs of southern flank housing schemes were not experienced and roof scape also helped to unify the appearance.

The densities were low and compared to modern housing developments these Parker Morris standard houses and large open spaces look almost lavish.

Buckinghamshire County Council was responsible for designing and building schools in Milton Keynes and one of their gifted architects, Brian Andrews, worked closely  with MKDC planners to build a traditionally built school closely integrated with the roads and footpaths. There was some bold ‘arts and crafts’ inspired brick detailing and a friendly open layout. Unfortunately the subsequent vandalism has meant that fences and gates have denied easy access.

Greenleys housing is more formal, using car free courtyards  on either side of car parking areas or courtyards large enough to bring cars into attached garages and car parking spaces. These schemes were worked out and built fairly quickly. The warm coloured bricks and pitch roofs were also a far sighted decision for this period. Landscaping, as usual is of high standards unifying the whole scheme.

Buckinghamshire County Council built another traditional looking school here. Ivor Smith built the Local Centre with Community and Sports facilities at low level and housing above.

Both are shown in the photograph below.

In early 70s, while the large scale housing grids were being developed on southern flank of Milton Keynes near Bletchley  (Coffee Hall, Netherfield, Eaglestone, Netherfield have already been covered in my earlier Blogs) northern flank started slightly more cautiously and more traditionally.

Milton Keynes, was badly suffering from shortage of skilled labour and contractors due to its huge building programme and distances from existing conurbations. There were attempts to design housing by using simplified and if possible use factory built or repetitive elements of construction where possible.

The first housing scheme near Stony Stratford, Galley Hill, was nearing completion and DOE’s granted permission for the same contractor to continue working on Fullers Slade provided the work continued from first site to the second. This imposed a much reduced design period (almost two months) and resulted in a simpler layout and quick decision making.  Long delivery periods for bricks made it necessary to use diagonal cedar boarding as external cladding and a concrete system using a box system of shutters was used  on a standardised 3.60m module for all dwellings.

In retrospect you can notice the direct or indirect influence of Wayland Tunley working with Derek Walker. Pithed roofs  and familiar building materials were used whenever possible. This was in contrast wit Grunt Group’s bold use of flat roofs and metal windows and cladding at Netherfield (Ralph Erskin at Eaglestone performed a similar function) which ran into all kind of technical difficulties and windows and roofs had to be changed to make the dwellings habitable.

The decision was taken to use simple terraces with houses of different sizes, generally following the contours of the site. An ancient existing mature hedgerow offered a natural anchor to the generous communal spaces around terraces. The stepped section offers maximum living accommodation on the ground level and daylight within the units also allowing sun to reach the private garden positioned on north-east side of the terraces.

After about 40 years use.

As usual the landscaping is wonderful. Some of the large trees perished during Dutch Elm disease but others were planted. Unlike unfortunate  disunity/disfigurement/multi-colour additions and ad hoc alterations to individual houses within the terraces of Netherfield, it is a relief to notice that there is a satisfying unity of colours textures and window designs despite quite a few major alterations to exterior design at Fuller Slade.

I read quite a few reports about fire incidents in local newspapers of Milton Keynes (unfortunately social housing schemes are often involved), I can only assume that the possibility of spread of fires with timber boarding and lack of vertical barriers may have added to this problem and perhaps explain the resulting changes.

The clay tile hanging has replaced the timber boarding between the window bands, simple (and controlled coloured) fins have appeared between dwellings. There is a relaxed and easy going use of car ports, stores and sheds which are often modified but are not offensive by any means. Children and families enjoy the public spaces in a safe and relaxed environment.

I must find out the reasons for this positive use after seeing the terrible failures in housing in other areas. This may be due to different ‘owner occupation’ ratios or the imposed rules on the new occupiers to conform with some acceptable communal responses to retain some visual unity. It is also possible that there is a large proportion of dwellings under a housing association control which carries out its own maintenance. There is no doubt that the north and south divide has some lessons to offer in Milton Keynes.

Westbury Farm is one of the hidden treasures of Milton Keynes. This ancient rambling farm has provided a shelter for many artists for more than 30 years and has also become a resting place for either insitu ‘installations’, unfinished, unsuccessful or experimental works which could not reach the desired standards or intended destination by the artists occupying the farm.

The following abstract comes from a case study for Westbury Farm carried out by The Price’s Regeneration Trust.

“Westbury Farm is a 17th century timber framed farmhouse with brick infill and is Grade II listed. Milton Keynes Development Corporation (MKDC) compulsory purchased the farm and farmhouse for development purposes with the intention to develop the site out as part of the masterplan for the new town of Milton Keynes. The farmhouse and land surrounding it today remain undeveloped in the south-west of Milton Keynes and are now in the ownership of the successor of MKDC, the Homes and Communities Agency (HCA).

MKDC were approached by the Silbury Group, an artist led not for profit organisation, to lease the farmhouse for use as artist studios. MKDC at the time were keen to promote art in Milton Keynes so to encourage artists to move to the new town, and the provision of artist studios at Westbury Farm was seen as an important step in achieving this aspiration.

Lasting outcomes

HCA has continued the arrangement which sees the farmhouse occupied rather than left vacant and vulnerable, resulting in reduced security and general holding costs while ensuring that the farmhouse remains in good condition.

Leasing the farmhouse to the Silbury Group has meant that any problems in regards to repairs and general maintenance requirements are reported to the HCA as and when they arise, preventing repair and maintenance issues escalating in terms of cost and scale as a result of such issues not being identified quickly enough. All of these benefits deliver value for money in the interests of the tax payer, as well as resulting in a sustainable temporary use for the farmhouse that benefits the local community.

A disposal strategy for the farmhouse will be identified when the land surrounding the farmhouse comes forward for development. As the farmhouse has been well maintained then it is unlikely that there will be any conservation deficit, making the asset more attractive to potential purchasers.”

The activity shown in the lawn infront of the farm is a weekend Raku Workshop which took place earlier this month.

Some of the ‘left-over’  works are constant reminders of artists who lived and worked here in the past and their works are only recognizable by their distinct styles.

Quiz: Below is the out come of most of  the Raku day. Can you hazard a guess as to which part of the table houses the handiwork of a ‘cranky’ architect?

For some strange reasons Linford Grid managed to produce more successful housing schemes than many other grids developed at the same time. This may be partly due to small parcels awarded to better known architects and possibly due to  abundance of existing trees and hedges and some notable existing village buildings. This scheme by Brian Frost for 113 housing units in terraced and courtyard houses was like most schemes  designed for rental housing and once again has mainly ended up in private ownership with all associated problems damaging the architectural unity of the original scheme.

The strength of terraced houses around the edges of the site is as powerful as ever despite the bruises and unfortunate alteration occasionally ruining the roof line and fenestration rhythms. The local planning office must take a more rigid line to stop this damaging process in most early housing schemes specially designed as unified communities which is gradually being destroyed.

The fair-faced concrete walls are still looking good and some inventive roof extensions in courtyard housing are logical and witty. The damaged soft clay vertical hanging tiles are easy enough to replace but the ownership problems are stopping even this to be carried out in most places.

The quality and variation of external spaces and circulation with good landscaping still retains the coherence and yet again proves that good intelligent, creative designs are street ahead of acres of soul-less Barratt/Wimpey type mass production of mediocrity currently sweeping the city and even the country.

The plans and B&W photos are attributable to AJ 23 January 1978. B&W photos by John Donat.

The colour photos were taken recently. This series hopes to cover most of the early significant housing in the new city in its early days of development.

The story of early housing in Milton Keynes now looks at Central Milton Keynes grids with higher densities.

Fishermead was developed at a higher density than that of housing in other areas of Milton Keynes. In this scheme the residential density range is 219-224 people per hectare. The result provides an interesting comparison with the draft government circular published in 1966 which suggested that the suburban densities could be raised to 120 persons per hectare where appropriate.

The Central Area consisting of nine grids including Fishermead was to house approximately 30,000 people, together with related local commercial, social and educational facilities. At the time of inception 75 % of dwellings were designed for renting and 25% for sale (this proportion is possibly reversed by now). Various reserved sites were retained for future growth and possibility of change. Because of the flexibility in the structure plan, it was hoped that the continuity, growth and change could be accommodated consistently rather than fortuitously.

The predominant housing form is three-storey perimeter development around the edges of 180 x 130 m grid enclosing semi-private spaces which are directly accessible from the gardens of the surrounding houses. These spaces provide protected, safe areas for toddlers’ play, sitting areas and landscaping. The back gardens opening into these spaces were originally designed with little visual protection resulting in under use due to lack of privacy but at first opportunity timber and brick walls started appearing almost excluding the visual connection between home and the landscape space in the middle. Architects realized the need for privacy in these higher densities and the fencing for 2nd phase offered more privacy to the tenants.

Family houses are built in terraces along the streets and the smaller dwellings are accommodated in corner blocks. Space is reserved at each corner to provide for possible future community use: shops, office, residents’ club room etc.

If you have seen my previous Blogs on early grids of Milton Keynes, you would have noticed there are lots of common factors at work to make this look like a ‘deprived’ estate.

At one time the property prices were rock bottom and people were not prepared to live here unless there was no other available option. The economical factors have made this estate a ‘honey-pot’ for recent Somalian migrant population in Milton Keynes. The original architectural intentions to obtain flexibility on corner spaces to cater for ever-changing future needs seems to be working. There are thriving grocery shops and fast food stalls in corner locations serving the specific needs of the currently occupying community. This gives a certain ‘cohesive’ feel to the place and in some ways comes quite close to Jane Jacobs’ ideas of communal living.

Once again the original dream of housing a burgeoning middle class community with ‘Habitat’ furnishings and ‘comfortable’ living had a head on crash with the arrival of ever-changing disadvantaged communities struggling to survive. If you are prepared to ignore the architects compulsion to follow niceties about correct appearances, colour matching, sympathetic alterations and litter in key positions, you would have to concede that the discipline and the rigour of the original design has done its job differently, but adequately to offer a safe haven to a distant community (among others) whose arrival could not have been further away from the minds of architects of this remarkable office at the time of designing this project.

PVC windows are the biggest destroyers of the architectural fabric, closely followed by flimsy asbestos panels as these buckle, fade or get damaged. The age old wish to put personal stamp of ‘ownership’ results in a Netherfield type ‘rainbow’ effect which goes against the intention of the original design. The overhanging eaves of added pitched roofs tend to softens the personal touches and strengthen continuity.

The poor maintenance of infrastructure and building fabric remains woefully inadequate but the landscape continues to give this area a real environmental boost basically because it mostly looks after itself. What a shame that before selling the properties some long term strategy could not be created in an attempt to encourage and help the new owners to understand their role in maintaining their houses to enhance the original intentions and consistency required for a healthy and safe community living in a nice place.

The B&W photos, plans and some of the information is attributable to an article by Michael Foster in AJ of 11th May 1977. Old photographs are taken by Martin Charles.