“Want to live somewhere with clean air?.. Want to have an indoor toilet? Want an environment that encompasses the best of town and country? Higher living standards. Jobs for all… Beautiful parks and open spaces. Friendly connected communities. The best of modern architecture spacious family houses, all with internal bathrooms. Wide open roads lined with trees… Cutting edge, American style, grid structure, elegant, sophisticated road system, 364 pedestrian underpasses linking the city—take the redway and you never have to worry about crossing the road again. 20,000 jobs guaranteed, from bricklayers to PhDs.”
Aside from the obsession with indoor toilets and the terrible grammar, this depiction of urban utopia is as appealing today as when it was written in 1977. The place it describes sounds like an imaginary Modernist mecca of suburban luxury and plentiful employment, but is, in fact, a very real, and much-maligned British town named Milton Keynes.
Conceived by politicians and think tanks in the early 1960s as an overspill town for London’s booming population, in its earliest guise Milton Keynes was an almost 22,000-acre site of farmland scattered with small villages, designed to house over 250,000 people. Following in the footsteps of the New Town movement, established to rehouse large numbers of people whose homes had been destroyed during World War II, Milton Keynes offered a brand new style of urban living built specifically for the newly abundant automobile. Wide boulevards constructed around a strict grid system replaced the cramped, tangled webs of the country’s pre-war urban centers. Amenities were widespread and accessible to all, moving away from the concentric cluster that had become the de facto British city.
To achieve this, the planners of Milton Keynes looked to the work of Californian urban theorist Melvin M. Webber, whose ideas of “community without propinquity” assumed contemporary telecommunications would facilitate the expansion of urban living. The result was a new urban sprawl in which every element had been designed; from the low-rise buildings to the flow of traffic, the subterranean walkways to the many, many roundabouts.
In fact, Milton Keynes was so meticulously designed that its main streets near the city center frame the rising sun on midsummer’s day.
After all that effort, Francis Tibbalds, president of the Royal Town Planning Institute, described Milton Keynes as “bland, rigid, sterile, and totally boring.” As with many new towns, the press were quick to criticize the Americanized aesthetic and homogeneous design, coining the term “new town blues” to describe the dislocation suffered by residents who had been plucked from their former homes and set down in a new “utopia.”
In the half-century since, Milton Keynes and other towns and cities of its kind have become the butt of jokes, renowned for their dull, gray Brutalism and cultural shortcomings. But this snobbery belies a much more complex and interesting place which, in its 50th year, seems to be enjoying a slight resurgence, particularly where its design community is concerned.
“It’s still not a design hub. We’re not talking about an overlooked gem here,” says Daniel Chehade, a graphic designer who grew up in the surrounding area and now lives in Milton Keynes. “When I left to go to London almost 15 years ago, the town didn’t look anything like this. There wasn’t a gallery, and to me Milton Keynes was just a cinema and a shopping center, like it is for lots of other people. It was only when we were priced out of London that we started to look at it again.”
In London, Chehade ran a one-man studio working for an enviable list of cultural clients. He studied at London College of Communication, and having worked under John Morgan he counted Alan Kitching, Phaidon Press, and The Hayward Gallery as close collaborators. He even established Alan Fletcher Studio, along with Raffaela Fletcher, to develop the archive of the late Pentagram founder. Having relocated his young family and studio to Milton Keynes he still maintains a broad base of clients in London, but has become increasingly involved in shaping and developing Milton Keynes’ own cultural landscape in collaboration with the Milton Keynes Arts Centre, where his studio is located.
Being part of a smaller community has held a particular appeal. “They do things with homeless charities, primary schools and wider community groups, old and young,” says Chehade of the Arts Centre, “and I’d rather be more engaged with the people around me. I would feel like a sucker to have gone through the same steps as everyone does; go to London, run out of money, and then commute in. It would be so predictable.” So Chehade has made sure to find more clients in Milton Keynes.
He’s also committed to engaging the design community more. “Otherwise I would just moan about it all the time and get on the train to London and say how bad it is, or how quiet things are at the weekend. Instead I feel a sort of responsibility to start making things happen. When I’ve actually started to dig, there are loads of little groups around doing interesting things. I think it’s perhaps going to be about finding a way of tying them together somehow, to let a wider audience know them.”
One particular group doing interesting things is Studio Santi, whose founder Vincenzo Clores is Milton Keynes born and bred. After dropping out of university, Clores taught himself the basics of design, then set off around the world with his laptop taking on freelance clients as he went. “I was just working for independent businesses, giving them a front like a big business would. In Milton Keynes there was a severe lack of any independent businesses,” he says.
Clores is acutely aware of the town’s reputation and its ability to inspire new town blues. “Visually, Milton Keynes is really poorly branded,” he says.“It’s got a real bad name for itself in terms of just being this concrete city, and I just wanted to bring that to life a little bit, and give Milton Keynes an identity it could be proud of.” To this end he started out working with small local businesses, like cleaning companies and local restaurants, from which he’s picked up higher-profile work. “I started working with a couple of guys who were doing this project called Grid City, and I made an icon for them that was based on the grid system here.”
Like Chehade, he feels a responsibility to put his town on the map through design.
“At the end of the day, it’s home for us, and coming back we have that appreciation for what it really is. I think we just want to create that little bit of community and bring people’s stories to life.”
“One thing I’m doing at the moment is working on a line of clothes inspired by the road signage of Milton Keynes. The roads came before the buildings, before the people—the grid was the dictator of what we have now, and I want to bring that out in our style.”
“They’ve picked up on the visual language of Milton Keynes,” says Chehade of Studio Santi’s work. “There’s this kind of playful hybrid of street signs and road markings. When I saw it, I suddenly thought, ‘this is how Milton Keynes looks,’ and I like the way they’re being a little bit playful with it.”
Beyond Chehade and Clores there’s not much more to the Milton Keynes design community, but both are optimistic that there’s a movement starting to form. The Arts Centre plays host to photographers, illustrators, animators, sculptors, and studio artists, and Clores’ network of collaborators includes filmmakers and illustrators. But a creative community needs clients to survive. On that front Chehade and Clores are fairly optimistic.
“As London and other cities start to price people out, there’s more people coming back this way and sort of repopulating Milton Keynes with people who were born and bred here, as well as new blood coming into the city to shape its future,” says Chehade. “It always happens with food first, and there’s now a lot more interesting places to eat and drink. There were no independent coffee shops, and now there’s two or three. There’s food festivals and lots of local street vendors, and loads of them were brought up in Milton Keynes. There’s starting to be an emergence of something, and I want to be part of the community that helps kick it off.”
And how much does this new community value the input of local designers? “Once I show them our work and what we’ve achieved with other clients it really does break down the barrier,” says Clores. “It’s just about creating those links and making sure there’s a community for you to connect with. I get the impression that everything in Milton Keynes is still quite separated—there’s a lot of closed doors, and it needs to come together.”
Chehade believes that the local community is already participating in the cultural life of the city, engaging with exhibitions and events at the Arts Centre. It’s also benefiting from funding from The Arts Council and The Community Foundation, a charity helping deliver corporate grants into the local area. “They produced a report recently called Vital Signs, and one of the amazing figures was about participation,” says Chehade.“When there’s stuff going on in Milton Keynes, a high percentage of people go out and go to that thing.
“A client told me recently that at the beginning, Milton Keynes had grand ideas, grand plans, artists working with the community, the community involved with their local parishes. However, at the beginning no one was here. Now Milton Keynes has a larger population, I believe they are hungry for culture. It’s a sensible time, at 50, to reexamine old ideas, not with nostalgia but to refocus that original energy of the 1970s into the future.”