October 22, 2010
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.”
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 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.
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.
Filed in Architecture, Buckinghamshire, District Centres, Housing, Milton Keynes, Modern Architecture, New Town, Private Housing, Social Housing, Town Planning, Urban Renewal
Tags: Beanhill, Building Failures, Chris Cross, Coffee Hall, Derek Walker, Eaglestone, Ed Jones, Housing Act 1980, Housing in Britain, Jeremy Dixon, Jim Muldrew, Klas Tahn, Landscape, Milton Keynes, MKCouncil, MKDC, Modern Architecture, Netherfield, Prfabricated Construction, Private Housing, Ralph Erskine, Right to buy, Robert Maxwell, Social Deprivation, Social Housing, Thatcherism, Traditional Construction, Urban Renewal
People who have followed the development of Milton Keynes from its early days could not easily forget the names of these two grids, not only because these were the first few to get published in the architectural press but also because conceptually they were poles apart from each other, despite being neighbours. Their names could roll off the tongue as easily as Laurel and Hardy or Tom and Jerry, but I can assure you that their respective approaches to the large scale social housing were very serious but vastly different from each other. These projects continue to present us with the lessons in the housing layouts, renting and buying options, building construction and the resulting Kaleidoscopic social conditions these states were subjected to and resulting outcomes on offer now.
The Architectural Journal of 10 December 1975 published an article by Robert Maxwell* titled “Two housing schemes at Milton Keynes”. After considerable deliberation I have decided to quote significant parts of this excellent and uncannily far sighted article, including some of the photographs and diagrams from the same article** and then show the same schemes as these exist now with my own attempted analysis to the best of ability. I hope that this attempt would gather enough facts to examine and illustrate the role MKDC architects played in progressing the housing traditions by their own efforts and good patronage. The powers available to them ensured appropriate integration of the infrastructure in and around the housing schemes.
Robert Maxwell when reviewing these schemes in 1975 had a helicopter ride over the heart of the new city observing its early stages of birth and observed the toy town like housing emerging, varied in shapes and layouts. He anticipated MK’s future to be a city of motor cars served by a network of roads, saying that this gridded road system within the city was likely to neutralise relationships between the individual grids… each grid was equally accessible, and equally remote. Within each grid reigned a kind of privacy, and a kind of universality…a planning policy leading to dream of suburban bliss…private yet matey, buried in green countryside yet handy to school, clinic and shops. This, he said appears to be what people want, and it is what they will get.
Demand for new housing and need for speedy construction provided an extensive series of test beds of housing forms and layouts, almost to a point of too much choice and making differentiation between good and bad difficult.
EAGLESTONE. Architects; Ralph Erskine with Klas Tahn, Mike Linnett. Summary of Architect’s account.
- Attitude and aims. Living in groups from early years help form a coherent society.. avoiding isolation and social problems. A living area must be a complete and vital organism capable of change and growth. Here an attempt has been made to integrate dwell/work/shop/play/relax environments creating a sense of social community. The housing groups are subdivided into recognizable ‘gossip groups’ (30-50 dwellings) around pedestrian streets and squares car courts with arrival bays community rooms and play spaces. Work places, schools, play spaces and front door contact create activity along main pedestrian streams-strong social lines with urban qualities. These are offset by privacy within the houses and private gardens.
- Traffic.The 100 per cent car society is unlikely and Eaglestone offers a place where people can live, meet, and prosper away from traffic. A ring road serves the car harbours leaving extensive areas free of traffic for pedestrians.
- Housing Identity and Layout. The housing is for sale and rent and has been designed in various configurations to provide individuality and specific characteristics and avoid distinction between rental and private ownership. Existing site features and levels are exploited to provide variety of situations; hilltop, valley, bowl and slope. Houses are intimately grouped around common open spaces which link different areas yet contrast with open public spaces. Particular attention has been given to negate the separation resulting from busy grid roads by linking the housing to the housing on the surrounding grids.
- Construction. The shortage of traditional building materials and suitable craftsmen during this period and both these schemes were meant to be built using light weight timber frame but these houses were built using brick and blocks. The extensive use of timber boarding is an applied elevational treatment which remains from the original timber frame days. The house types are based on a simple box design modified slightly to suit the siting and individual desires and to certain extent avoid regimentation.
NETHERFIELD. Architects; Milton Keynes Development Corporation. Design Team; Chris Cross, Jeremy Dixon, Mike Gold, Ed Jones, Jim Muldrew, Don Ritson, Derek Walker, Philip Ware. Summary of Architect’s Account.
50 hectares, rolling farmland site with hedgerows and trees. Net housing site area 27 hectares. Brief asked for 1068 dwellings at a density of 179 bedspaces per hectare with ancillary social, commercial and school buildings.
Labour shortage and need to build quickly meant that various options, including precast concrete, rationalised traditional or timber construction were considered and contract for a timber platform frame construction was finally adopted.
Timber frames, including the party walls were bolted down to a power floated concrete slab. Walls were covered in a silver profiled metal sheet and back elevations were timber boarded. The 5 degrees pitch roof was covered in lapped aluminium sheeting. Windows were mostly in timber. A grp full height cheek is applied to ends of the party wall on public side. acting as a pilaster.
Attitudes and aims.
Certain city ground rules concerning access from grid roads, cordon sanitaire, placement of social buildings, pedestrian underpasses were already in place to follow. The initial studies involved the investigation of ideas to achieve spatial continuity in spite of grid system, but this proved an immutable barrier. On closer examination the housing densities were less relaxed than implied by the master plan and rather than inventing new forms for an imaginary suburbia, the sources that came to mind were more familiar. Also implicit in a scheme of this size was the problem of developing an organisation in which a number of different people at a design stage, and later, could contribute at different scales.
The need for this kind of comprehensible idea underlies the apparent rationalism of the layout.
The following summarise some of our preoccupations:
- Pattern of streets: the inevitability of the car in the house or on the plot as solution to housing layout, as opposed to Radburn principle with its semi-exclusivity and confusion of the public and private domains.
- Terrace housing: conventional house plan and with as many variants as possible – fronts and backs; one formal side addressing public space; the Regent’s Park analogy; one side open with possibilities of future extensions; a private garden having a sense of being connected to other open spaces.
- Landscape: the large scale interplay between informal landscape (existing hedges and trees reinforced by new planting) and the harder geometry of buildings – English landscape tradition. This is further established by the constant roofline , the interplay of which, with the undulating ground plans, begins to offer variety in sections (1-4 storeys) and plan types (there are 17 variants).
- Repetition; to make the most of the formal collective qualities of social repetition. The straight line of the terrace accentuating the low curves of natural topography; the sum of the parts etc as in the 18th to 19th century street architecture or as in Oud’s little houses at Kiefhook in Rotterdam. We believe it would be premature to evaluate Netherfield fully before the landscape had established itself and the evolutionary process had played its part.
The appraisal is based on Robert Maxwell’s AJ article.
* Robert Maxwell studied at Liverpool University where he met James Stirling and Colin Rowe. He has taught at Bartlett and Princeton, writes extensively, teaches and also practices. The part two of this Blog will deal with the environmental choices faced by each scheme as perceived by Robert Maxwell and finally the role ravages of time played on both schemes.
** Black & White photos from the same article as above by John Donat.
Filed in Buckinghamshire, Housing, Housing in 60s, Milton Keynes, Modern Architecture, New Town, Private Housing, Social Housing, Town Planning
Tags: 60s Housing, Derek Walker, Eaglestone, Early Grids, Ed Jones, Housing, Housing in Britain, Jeremy Dixon, Jim Muldrew, Klass Tahn, Landscape, Milton Keynes, MKDC, Modern Architecture, Netherfield, Private Housing, Ralph Erskine, Social Housing