A presentation by Elly Ward
on Tuesday 3rd March 2009
as part of Celebration Week at London Metropolitan University
In his 1978 manifesto ‘Delirious New York’, Rem Koolhaas celebrates the experience of living in a metropolitan, hyper-dense environment. He defines this urban condition as a “Culture of Congestion”.
Living in London’s ‘Culture of Congestion’ it is sometimes easy to forget that the majority of people in the UK prefer to live in low density suburban neighbourhoods. The definition of suburbia now embraces a wide range of developments from New Towns to Council Estates. National Census figures show that 86% of the British population now live in one of these 3 suburban categories:
It is clear that the old stereotypical associations are no longer relevant to what are actually vibrant sites of social mobility and ethnic diversity.
Many examples of modern suburbia in fact now offer a model for local living in a global society.
[Read over advert]
Milton Keynes is considered to be one of the most successful, large-scale development projects ever undertaken in England. Recently celebrating its 40th birthday, Milton Keynes has enjoyed continuous population growth, up from 65,000 in 1970 to 210,000 today, and created 60,000 new households. It hosts 7,200 employers, and has been rated fifth of 48 UK cities for overall business environment. Even Coutts Bank recently opened a branch in Milton Keynes in response to research suggesting that the city is “a haven for the millionaires of the future”.
…..“Wouldn’t it be nice, if all cities were like Milton Keynes.”
Manhattan is the archetype of the high density, urban city and in Delirious NY Koolhaus describes it as the ‘20th Century’s Rosetta Stone’:
• a blueprint for the Culture of Congestion;
• a laboratory for the invention and testing of a metropolitan lifestyle and its attendant architecture;
• the grid as a framework for a collection of blocks whose proximity and juxtaposition reinforce their separate meanings.
Milton Keynes is the UK archetype of the low density, suburban city and could perhaps become the 21st Century’s Rosetta Stone; a test bed for this new, increasingly prevalent, and therefore important, type of urban form.
Like Manhattan, Milton Keynes has been developed within a planned, robust grid, one that actively encourages a diversity of designs and seeks to avoid the homogeneity associated with much modernist city-making. 49 distinct grid squares provide 49 individual experiments into suburban living. The grid squares accommodate a variety of typologies, tenures, uses and forms – an existing village sits happily between a Dixon Jones-designed linear modernist housing scheme and a Scandinavian-inspired development of cul-de-sacs.
In an attempt to conduct an open minded and non-judgemental investigation into Milton Keynes we adapted the techniques pioneered by the ‘Learning from Las Vegas’ studio at Yale, taught by Venturi Scott Brown in 1968.
In the first semester, each of us took a Milton Keynes grid square as our site of enquiry. We began by approaching it from a distance using Giambattista Nolli’s plan of Rome as a precedent for developing our own understanding of how the suburban public and private spaces worked.
Next, we visited the site, stayed a night and established our own visual lexicon for Milton Keynes. Establishing a vocabulary of forms for residential buildings, infrastructure and a variety of civic typologies provided both a shared language of references for the studio and an understanding of how the suburban experiments of each grid square worked.
Towards the end of semester one’s investigations we visited Philadelphia and Manhattan. In Philadelphia, we met with Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown and presented our ideas to them at their studio in Manayunk. In the meeting, we explored the importance of symbolism in architecture, the nature of the suburban context and the development of a suburban civic.
Through both this meeting and subsequent building visits in Philadelphia (including theirs, Louis Kahn and Frank Furness) we began to develop a shared studio conversation about designing in suburbia.
In Manhattan, each of us carried out comparative analysis of our grid square with a similar New York neighbourhood. The comparison provided further insights into the similarities and differences between Rem’s ‘Culture of Congestion’ our own ‘Suburban City’.
Having both interrogated the neighbourhood and the notion of the centre, and having identified the needs and aspirations of those who live there, we have now each developed a brief for a neighbourhood centre. A new proposal for a building, or collection of buildings, that go some way towards defining a Suburban Civic Architecture for the 21st Century.
So, what did we learn from Milton Keynes? And what are we designing for this suburban city?
Findings to follow in future posts.
To conclude, in Learning from Milton Keynes we have developed an understanding of the formal, social and programmatic demands upon civic buildings in the archetypal suburban situation. As part of our explorations we have invited a number of practising architects to present buildings that suggest possible tactics for designing an appropriate architecture for suburbia in the 21st century.
Drawing from these contemporary examples and our own investigations we are now each making proposals for our individual grid squares in MK. On one level this can be viewed as 21 individual interpretations of a neighbourhood centre for 21 sites in a suburban city. On another level it is a collective proposal for a new suburban civic architecture.
Words & image selection by Elly Ward & Geoff Shearcroft