Stephen Bayley

Ideal homes

We may snigger at the roundabouts and the concrete cows but let’s not forget this new town’s utopian spirit

Artists, poets and philosophers have not paid much attention to Milton Keynes …although comedians have. This urban experiment has been mocked by lazy satirists who find ambition derisory and concrete cows hilarious.

Milton Keynes is 50 this year and it has an honourable place in the history of that ancient chimera, the Ideal City. It was conceived in a decade when the improving influence of the ‘white heat of technology’ could be cited without irony (or embarrassment). In those days, technology involved calorific value, not cold, invisible bytes.

The name sounds like an ad-man’s invention. But until 23 January 1967, when the new city was designated, Milton Keynes was an old, quiet Buckinghamshire village near Bletchley, one of 15 that were absorbed into the whole. Its history involves utopias, the picturesque, Garden City idealism, a naive infatuation with America and a quaintly touching faith in the possibility of a tolerable future. Given the government’s recent announcement of the creation of 14 ‘garden villages’ (for what appears to be a bargain price of £6 million), it’s instructive to reflect on how Milton Keynes became very nearly, but not quite, the world’s greatest example of new place-making.

Hippy architects were crucial to it — they aligned the central boulevard with the trajectory of the sunrise on the summer solstice. But cars were even more fundamental to the Milton Keynes idea. Indeed, 1967 was something of a miracle year for the automobile with the launch of the technically advanced NSU Ro 80 and the Saab 99. You can still smell the fumes. The plan of the new city was drawn up when the 1963 Buchanan report, Traffic in Towns, was still a white-hot intellectual property. Addressing the minister of transport, Ernie Marples, Buchanan explained: ‘We are approaching the crucial point when the ownership of private motor vehicles, instead of being the privilege of a minority, becomes the expectation of the majority.’

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