MK Photo Essay

13Elleke Boehmer, Dominic Davies, Alex Tickell

Milton Keynes—or ‘MK’, as it is identified by scrawls of urban graffiti—is the UK’s most self-consciously constructed, vivid and extensive large-scale urban planning project. The city is built around a geometrical grid of roads intersecting at right angles across swathes of land, specifically designed for the dimensions of the moving car. Located within the grid’s many large gaps are shopping areas and entertainment complexes, areas of social housing and suburban enclaves, rolling green parks and anonymous stretches of motorway. Semi-waste grounds and pay-and-display car parks lie unoccupied, bearing only the burned tyre-marks of boy-racers from the night before. At the height of summer their edges burgeon with masses of weeds and unregulated vegetation—the collateral damage of a city built around a grid of motorways and roundabouts.

MK’s infrastructural layout inhibits walking—the distances are inconveniently great. Pedestrians and cyclists are restricted to paths that run through and beneath the road network via low ceilinged underpasses, remaining mostly unseen from the perspective of the motorist. Words like ‘street’ or ‘road’ do not adequately describe these broad, straight channels designed to catapult cars from A to B. Houses are set back from them, hidden behind numerous trees and bushes. The networked pattern of dual carriageways recurs across the landscape, interrupted only by the numerous and disorienting roundabouts. The driver travels in straight lines, spinning in different directions at each intersection, only retaining their bearings by the mark of ‘H’ or ‘V’ that appears on every road sign to signify the direction in which it runs—‘horizontal’ or ‘vertical’ respectively. This prominent architectural grid makes Milton Keynes one of the UK’s most conspicuous landmarks from the air, as pilots flying into London at night-time position themselves in relation to the framework of street lights that criss-crosses the landscape.

What kind of writing could give expression to a life constructed around, and framed within, this grid of tarmac, concrete and manufactured green spaces? What sort of narrative would be needed to thread these dispersed, repetitive spaces together? In such a self-consciously spatial city, how would a linear narrative negotiate such dispersal? Would a cartoon or multi-planar graphic narrative, alternatively, be capable of doing so? It may be that only maps, replicating the geography of perpetual roundabouts and roads without the beginning or end-points of conventional narrative trajectories could come close.

Travelling through this city in a car or possibly on a bike, always limited to the infrastructural routes that facilitate and regulate movement through it, one feels like a human-shaped counter in a board game or an electron funnelled through the grid of a circuit board. The city’s inhabitants move along set pathways without volition and without protection. There are too many underpasses for the police to monitor. Citizens are subject to whatever random violence might cross their path—violence that is an expression of the alienation and structural violence built into very foundations of the city’s urban planning.

Milton Keynes was not always a synonym for urban alienation and failed planning, however. It was originally an ambitious attempt by the New Towns initiative and the Wilson Government of the mid-1960s to ease residential congestion in London and reinvigorate the early twentieth-century utopian model of the garden city. It is the built expression of a new ideal of the ‘decentred’ city in which the centre and suburb model is replaced by a radically decentred and cellular form, in which different local centres would act as hubs, or nodes, in a larger sprawling infrastructural network. Influenced by the work of the US urban theorist and designer Melvin M. Webber, the cellular plan looked forward to a time when telecommunications and car-ownership would make the concentric shape of the traditional city obsolete. In short, Webber envisaged a non-hierarchical urban space reminiscent of the organic, rhizome networks of post-structuralist theory. MK also anticipated the ecological concerns of today’s planners and was designed as one of the greenest centres in the post war New Towns project: a ‘forest city’ which, by 2006, had over 20 million trees.

These plans resulted in a town that effectively became an aggregation of suburbs. With planning restrictions on the height of buildings, MK lacked the kind of identifying landmarks that could have redeemed the modernist anonymity of its residential areas. Low population densities and decentred planning might have been an improvement on inner city slums, but Milton Keynes’s local zoning could also lead to ghettoised, isolated areas of poverty, and its underpasses and wooded walkways did little to protect residents from the criminal violence so often symptomatic of social deprivation. Indeed the ‘planned violence’ of MK is largely unintended or unexpected—arising from planning ideas that in another context would have made MK a positive place in which to live.

Nevertheless, MK is a monument to other major changes in post-war British society. It is more culturally mixed than many comparable towns in the English Midlands, and has functioned as a space of post-war immigrant arrival. Most of the local neighbourhoods in MK surround commercial ‘centres’ with rows of shops and sometimes small supermarkets. The impression these commercial areas create is at once resolutely modernist and idiosyncratically global-cultural, with chain stores and fast food franchises co-existing with Sikh temples, Polish delicatessens and shops selling Islamic prayer-carpets. These are all arrayed behind the tall palisades of starkly elongated shopfronts which in upmarket areas carry smart strips of metallic decoration.

On Sunday 20 July 2014 Planned Violence network members Elleke Boehmer, Dominic Davies and Alex Tickell set out on a photo tour of the city in order to observe its particular planning idiosyncrasies, and to consider the impact of its sites and situations on residents and on the environment. Among the first features that struck us was the vast spread of the city and the stark in contrast of this spatial spread with the relative smallness of its neighbourhoods. Unlike the sprawling American city where these developments are separated by no more than a road, here the communities of small terrace houses are turned in on themselves, separated by areas of open ground, or stretched out along a strip of road. In Oxley Wood, for example, the prefabricated new houses look something like Lego constructions neatly, if also hastily, put together by a child and placed incongruously on a field in a cluster. All the neighbourhoods are in some sense gated or moated, separated from each other by alienating areas of waste ground, weed-cluttered field-fragments, dense hedges and abandoned churches decorated with graffiti. In more upscale neighbourhoods, MK’s grid system and the generic separations of the estate (probably the most prolific residential planning idiom of contemporary Britain), mean that canals and leafy parks divide up areas of the city and allow versions of the pastoral to interleave the suburban geometry of closes, link-roads and cul-de-sacs.

Driving through Milton Keynes encodes a different kind of violence: the experience of the repeated dull gyre of the traffic roundabout, and the disturbing sense of moving in—and therefore not moving through—a landscape that does not change. The anonymously replicable appearance of MK’s notoriously disorientating intersections recalls the repetitiveness of the production line: the road system as an instrument of mechanical reproduction, and the driver as component in a wider flow of directed choice. In his latter day Robinsonade, Concrete Island (1974), J.G. Ballard maroons his castaway protagonist on a waste land bordered by motorway intersections; in MK, Ballard’s narrative conceit seems all too feasible as dead ground, the traffic island, the embankment, all proliferate.

Like all rigorously planned environments the space of MK is subject to a counter-violence, or rather a series of resistances. Existing within its grid its residents make it as much their own as they can. In Oxley Wood, communities picnic together and children play on the green spaces that surrounded the new prefab housing. Elsewhere, desire paths (the improvised tracks of short-cutting pedestrians) and personal constructions (the lean-to, the garden shed) wrote themselves across the predefined civic landscapes.

The geometry of both MK’s geographical infrastructure and its topographical architecture represents a comparative anomaly in the UK’s ever-expanding urban landscape. In direct contrast to the civic mythology of MK’s 1960s developers, who named its main thoroughfares after Neolithic monuments such as Silbury Hill and Avebury, giving the new geometry a mystical English pre-history, the civic appearance of MK’s ‘centres’ is cosmopolitan, transcultural and, because of the undefined modernity of its local architecture, ambiguously global in its effects. More than once we found ourselves in scenes that seemed to gesture elsewhere—to the radiating heat, long grass and ragged tarmac of vacant lots in an African city; to the distinctive crowded profusion of South-Asian grocery shops; to the momentary strangeness of food-packaging imported from Eastern Europe. Perhaps because of its background anonymity, communities in Milton Keynes inadvertently enhanced these moments: in a back garden we spotted not just the ubiquitous flag of St George, always a pallid standard of British small-town xenophobia, but the German flag too, flying in recognition of the German team’s recent world cup win.

The photographs that follow trace our unfolding, if gridded, journey through the city, visualising its urban and social spaces and giving shape to many of the perceptions introduced above.

New affordable housing still being constructed in some of Milton Keynes’s vast grassy open spaces has a distinctly modernist, geometric design.
Each house is equipped with fixed-frame windows and large red solar panels on their roofs.
These new houses are pieced together on site out of flat-packed segments, like Ikea furniture or Lego blocks.
Their rigid right-angles cut through the sky-line, adding a topographical dimension to the city’s infrastructural grid.
Milton Keynes’s older suburbs are distinctly less experimental in their architectural style, though all are built around and in relation to a proliferation of roundabouts.
Even the streets of these poorer, less developed areas are draped in vegetation in the height of summer.
The architecture of the housing in these ghettoised, isolated areas of poverty, is frighteningly minimalist, as houses are reduced literally to a series of cubes slotted together.
An abandoned church is now boarded up, its surfaces coated in colourful graffiti.
It is difficult to make sense of many of the images engraved into the concrete walls of Milton Keynes’s suburbs. They do not always take the form one might expect.
These images, painted onto the plasterboard of the abandoned church, signify a sense of community constructed around the now empty building, primarily through the creative practice that to which its walls are now host.
Everywhere in Milton Keynes weeds encroach on public life. There are so many grassy verges and empty wastelands that in the summer heat it is impossible for the council to keep all of them tidy and under control.
There is a strong postcolonial dimension to the city’s demography, surfacing in unexpected places and in bursts of aggressive graffiti.
The proud announcement of the city’s initials indicate that, despite its sprawling infrastructure, residents still identify a sense of place and community with it.
The slogan of self-identification reverberates through the city, marking otherwise empty walls and garage doors.
Patches of concrete separate rows of terraced-style housing blocks from one another.
Geometric angles and symmetries dominate Milton Keynes’s public spaces—in this case, a street of shops, the Afro-Caribbean hairstylists in the foreground alluding to the multicultural nature of the surrounding community.
In privately-owned spaces, these rigid boundaries are more rickety and unkempt.
Everywhere concrete and vegetation collide in urban spaces that, even on a sunny Sunday afternoon, remain conspicuously deserted.
The presence of crime, alluded to but remaining unseen, intensifies the post-apocalyptic feel of the city’s more marginal spaces.
Specifically designed for the dimensions of the moving car, smaller roundabouts are nestled within the gridded road system that is in turn held together by larger ones.
It seems as though Milton Keynes has no beginning or end, creating the disturbing sense of moving in—and therefore not moving through—a landscape that does not change.
The city-centre’s flats and shopping malls rise up out of an expanse of barren space, a conspicuous interruption on the skyline.
Pay-and-display car parks lie unoccupied, their borders burgeoning with weeds.
Their tarmac bears only the burned tyre-marks of boy-racers pulling doughnuts the night before.
One of Milton Keyne’s many disorienting roundabouts, spinning approaching cars off in different directions at each of the grid’s angular intersections.
Paths that run through and beneath the road network via low ceilinged underpasses, remaining mostly unseen from the perspective of the motorist. There are too many underpasses for the police to monitor and citizens are subject to whatever random violence might cross their path.
The centre of entertainment in Milton Keynes, Xscape, rears its head above the leafy car parks and is home to a cinema, outlets of chain restaurants and an indoor ski-slope. The golden arches of global capital are themselves visible in the bottom centre of this photograph.

(Hover over image to pause.)

 

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