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.

A lot has been written about James Stirling and his journey from modernism of his ‘red buildings’ to postmodernism of No1 Poultry and since I lived through this rollercoaster period, desperately trying to follow these inexplicable twists and turns, I think time is ripe for me to look back and attempt to discern some hidden logic for this strange journey.

Understanding some of the personal traits of Big Jim, and reading anecdotal tales which abound, attempting to discover any linear development where there is a predetermined slot for all his creative activities would be futile.

There is no doubt that he was a brilliant designer, who always guarded his ‘creativity’ against any attempt to stop him reaching his clear goal of the end product, which he always crafted after thoroughly studying the given brief and context. Any attempt by the clients to change any aspects of presented design was never well received. This I discovered did not happen only after he acquired an international reputation, as Jim was equally hostile to even minor suggested changes on his very first scheme at Ham Common housing in late 50s.

It is said that the staircase leading to Jim’s office were lined with letters of complaint and dismay from clients and users of buildings and displayed proudly as badges of honour giving ample warning to any unsuspecting newcomers.

I am of the opinion that two closely spaced events may well have been the precursor of a major shift in the direction of his creative process; one was buying Thomas Hope’s furniture and second was to employ Leon Krier. These events coincided with the period when he was involved with Olivetti towards the end of 60s and early 70s.

Colin Rowe draws our attention to a perspective drawing (I think that there were at least two) that Leon Krier drew in 1971 for James Stirling’s un-built Olivetti Headquarters at Milton Keynes.

This drawing was meant to be homage by this young draftsman to his master, hinting at his interests in Thomas Hope’s furniture and also history. Stirling sits in his beloved chair, slightly outside the frame of the perspective, with an open book at the table in front, assumed to be a volume of Le Corbusier’s Oeuvre complete. Leon Krier depicts himself as a classical bust looking at the whole scene. Jim is ticking off some young office junior, who, judging by his body language could not care less.

The style of drawing is reminiscent of Le Corbusier and also various other 19th-century neoclassical architects Jim acknowledged being influential for him. Thomas Hope also produced engravings in this style for “Household Furniture” showing neoclassical furniture.

Olivetti Training Centre project came to Stirling on recommendation of Kenzo Tange. I feel that Scarpa and Corbusier’s previous connections with Olivetti would not have gone unnoticed by Jim. Edward Cullinan was asked by Jim to take care of the renovation of the existing Edwardian building and he started to work on the design of the new wing. This was to be his first and the last project where the design is influenced and inspired by clients work. It must be remembered that at that time Olivetti held a place in industrial design world not dissimilar to ‘Apple’ today. Their streamlined colourful injection moulded products were trendy and coveted items.

It is interesting to note that this is one of the few projects from Jim’s office where the building failures and defects of the completed projects have not been brought in the public domain. It is possible that these were not present or it can be assumed that a well-off corporation would quietly take the appropriate steps to resolve any problems as these arose. After all, for them to have a building designed by an international celebrated architect was like a prize business card.

The design of Headquarter building in the new city of Milton Keynes followed the completion of the Training Centre. Unfortunately the computer age had greatly undermined Olivetti’s market position and the HQ was never built.

It is clear that this time Stirling firmly decided to steer away from client product based design and went back to his own familiar way of using various historical and contemporary references to other architects and his own buildings.

Kenneth Frampton suggests ‘evidence can be found of the roof of Leicester but flattened, the tented greenhouse roof of the History Faculty, and the urban galleria and circus hall of Derby City Hall. Outside influences include Aalto’s staircase wall of his Jyvakyla University of 1950, Niemeyer’s organic dance pavilion at Pamphlua in 1948, to Le Corbusier’s Olivetti Computer Centre, projected for 1965. Instead of the singular industrial design references, Stirling is back to his own court.’

Mike Girouard noted that  Krier’s … “outline drawing take objects out of space and time into a Platonic world of pure form, undisturbed by accidents of texture or light and shade.”

He thought the impeccable quality of the lines unify the disparate elements represented, helping the viewer to apprehend the underlying qualities that unite a chair by Thomas Hope with Stirling’s design for the Olivetti Headquarters at Milton Keynes.

Was this drawing ‘watershed’ announcing the arrival of “Postmodernism” in Stirling’s work?

PS. A quick look at the time line shows that the work in next ten years or so was; Staatsgalerie Stuttgart, Sackler, Wissenschaftszentrum, Clore. some of this work can be seen here