Samuel Mockbee, Rural Studio

September 8, 2013

LibraryBirthNov2012 042altBecause of my long time interest in low cost housing, I kept coming across the name of Samuel (Sam/Sambo) Mockbee, associated with Rural Studio, Auburn University, in connection with the housing for poor Black communities in Hale County in Alabama. This was not an association I expected to come out of USA and decided to look into this unexpected phenomenon in more detail.

This journey of discovery was exciting but turned sour when I heard of this remarkable man’s death from leukaemia at the age of 57 in 2001.

Europe is full of examples where architects, planners, philanthropists made significant contributions to develop social architecture (housing and schools) over last two centuries. Africa and Asia also saw some modest developments during late 20th century but the population, urban growth and poverty have given this problem urgency and much higher profile.

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However, USA had no history of this ‘liberal–nonsense’, and for a white man to emerge in the heart of one of the most bigoted areas trying to ‘buck the trend’ was noteworthy.

This may be the right time to visit this man, his contributions and ambitions at the time when Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech is having its 50th birthday with consensus that dream has hardly come true.

Mockbee often quoted Alberti’s call for choosing between fortune and virtue, which he considered a question of value and principle. He thought architects to be by nature leaders and teachers, offering their ’subversive leadership’ for the shaping of environment, breaking up social complacency and challenging the power of status quo. He was repulsed by the thought that architectural profession was coming under the influence of consumer-driven culture and becoming part of the corporate world and corporations. For him architect should not wait to be told which problems need solution, architect should assert his own values that respect and are for the greater good.LibraryBirthNov2012 049alt

“Architecture, more than any other art form, is a social art and must rest on the social and cultural base of its time and place. For those of us who design and build, we must do so with an awareness of a more socially responsive architecture. The practice of architecture not only requires participation in the profession but it also requires civic engagement. As a social art architecture must be made where it is and out of what exists there. The dilemma for every architect is how to advance our profession and our community with our talent rather than our talents being used to compromise them.”

Mockbee managed to disassociate himself from the bigotry of prevailing racial attitudes of American South and had a look at the effects of poverty and how architects can step over the threshold of injustice and address the true needs of neglected American family and their children who may also come of age without any vision of how to rescue themselves from the curse of poverty.

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Mockbee once told one of his clients, a Catholic nun named Sister Grace Mary, that he’s not Catholic but “Christian by birth, Buddhist by philosophy, and heathen by nature”.

The main purpose of the Rural Studio has been to enable each student, tomorrow’s decision maker, to step across the threshold of misconceived opinions and to design/build with a ‘moral sense’ of service to community, being more concerned with the good effects of architecture then ‘good intentions’.

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“On a triangular patch of land, next to the dirt road that serves as the hamlet’s arterial, stands a dramatic sculpture of glass and aluminum, cypress and steel and rust-red earth. This is the MasonsBendCommunity Center, designed and built as a thesis project by a team of fifth-year students at AuburnUniversity’s Rural Studio. The cost was approximately $20,000.

The building is processional in outline, gathering the community within arms of rammed earth, funneling them through a slender entrance sheltered by a fold of aluminum, and delivering them into a space that leads the eye through a fish-scale-glass membrane to the sky and trees beyond.”  Chritine Kreyling

 “Mockbee founded what is now called the Rural Studio, ‘Redneck Taliesin South’. Towards the end of his life he used to bring a group of his students to rural HaleCounty to design and build homes for the poor. One of the poorest regions in America, the county has more than 1,400 substandard dwellings, nearly all lacking electricity and running water. According to the 1997 Alabama County Data Book, about one-third of residents there live below the poverty level, with a per capita income just over $12,000 and an unemployment rate of 13 percent.

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The Rural Studio not only fulfills an overwhelming need for decent housing but gives architecture students the kind of hands-on experience virtually all other educational institutions in the field lack. The houses are built for about $30,000 each using a variety of recycled and discarded materials (tyres, bottles) and funded mostly with grants from a local power company. Designed through a collaborative process involving students and local residents, the homes boast an unconventional modern flair that incorporates the cultural vernacular of the region. Lucy’s house made of 72,000 carpet tiles is now well known all over architectural community.

They may be cheap, but these are nice houses.”   Mockbee thought that these should be good enough for him to live in with his family.

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That Rural Studio is not only self-regulating, but it produces buildings of exceptional quality in direct response to the needs of the community, suggests that it has evolved from a teaching exercise to an alternative and compelling practical asset.

The New York Times published a feature on Rural Studio in December 2005 resulting in crowds of ‘camera/map carrying’ tourists seeking location of Mason’s Bend. With this kind of background the appearances start to matter, the church which was lacking frequent cleaning and was underused by the community became an embarrassment. This brought a changing attitude towards future community buildings and their future upkeep by apportioning responsibilities to various community members from start.

Freear wondered if  Rural Studio has now reached its limit as a domestic housing endeavour, a well-intentioned educational experience benefiting a needy few, or could it evolve into a more serious and wide-ranging social project?

Projects are no longer conceived as isolated objects but links in a chain of essential social service.

The most recently completed final year projects exemplify this approach. Comprising a cell like lamella animal shelter, public park and hospital courtyard, rejuvenated as an attractive courtyard with expanded metal trellis serving staff.

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Freear feels that he is also nearing his own limitations as a Director and recently started to take some classes at AA with an Indian architect Anapama Kundoo.

On a personal level looking back at the contributions Mockbee made fills you with admiration but its significance and impact on the root cause of poverty, resulting deprivation and alleviating it remains a mere ‘pin-prick’.

Suffice to say that few hundred houses and community buildings for a deprived community means a lot. However, the hope for me lies in the generations of young architects coming out of this ‘educational exposure’ with some idea of what ‘needs/survival’ really means to people they hardly knew existed.

 I can only hope that even if some of them carry a small fraction of some of Mockbee’s generosity and wisdom the dream Mockbee had may be partly realized.

The information for this blog has been abstracted from Mockbee’s writings, interview and various magazine articles listed briefly below. The photographs are mostly attributed to my Flickr friends Ken Mccown and David Brown (odb). Their Flickr sites are well worth a visit.

http://www.flickr.com/search/?w=63216345@N00&q=Rural%20Studio

http://www.flickr.com/search/?w=45838449@N00&q=Rural%20Studio

Intereiew by Brian Libby April 2001; ‘Architecture without pretense’ by Christian Kreyling; ‘Community Hero’ by Jennifer Beck; Article by Andrea Oppenheimer Dean in Architectural Record.

 

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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.

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.

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.


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.


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I took some slides of these houses in mid 70s while looking at modern buildings in Bristol area. Two of my slides have been on Flickr for a while and I am surprised to find that these are still proving interesting to people. I discovered an old AJ article about these houses and thought that the background information including hinted idealism (a rarity these days) may even inspire somebody else to take up the baton in the 21st century.

AJ published a little article in their 12April 1972 issue by Douglas Frank. The following plans and words are abstracted from there.

“The firm describes itself and its work in its sales brochures in these words; ‘Artist Constructors Ltd was formed in 1968 with the sole objective of creating buildings of a very high architectural quality. The company only undertakes projects where it is able to control the design and production, ensuring that design ideas are worked through to the completed building. Its staff have studied architecture and town planning in Finland, Russia, Denmark, Holland, France, Italy and UK. Each site is carefully considered on its merits, and individually designed to integrate with the environment. The Parker Morris Commission’s recommendations on building standards and heating are always followed.

BristolPlans

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The company believes that the recommendations provide the minimum acceptable standards, and aims to increase these throughout its developments. Great attention is paid to the needs of individuals or individual families, the Serge Chermayeff’s six basic points on privacy, set out in his book Community and privacy, are observed in relation to the general siting and arrangement of space in each house. The company is pleased to select or advise on all internal fittings and furnishings, and also provide landscaping services where required.’

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The firm’s achievements have been remarkable; not least because most of the design work has not been carried out by architects. The planning, overall form, and detailing of their schemes have been under the direct control of Tim Organ, the builder, and his brother Bob Organ who is an artist and lecturer in the history of architecture. Local architects have been involved, but mainly for the production of working drawings and details to suit Organ brothers’ requirements.

Tim Organ also makes it clear to the planning committees that he will go to appeal rather than compromise. His powers of persuasion with planning committees and clients have clearly been considerable. Dedication and determination of this sort are rare enough anywhere and for them to be found in the private business today is particularly heartening.

If this thorough breakdown of barriers between the skills of all staff in office continues, even on a small scale, it will mark a welcome advance in house-building management; taking us a few steps beyond the achievements of Span and pioneering involvement of another artist, Victor Pasmore, on the design of housing at Peterlee.”

The above was written in 1972 and since we stopped hearing about Artist Constructor Ltd and their projects, we can only assume that sadly, their dream did not come true. Today I only know of Thomas Heatherwick as a sole surviving artist still prepared to tackle engineering, artistic and architectural ventures mostly against great odds but often producing exciting results.