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“What is missing in the American landscape is not so much the absence of historical memories, as the romantic illusion has it, as the fact that no hand has left a trace in it. This relates not merely to the absence of farm-fields, the stubbly and often tiny scrub-like forests, but above all the streets. … They bear no imprint. Because they know no traces of shoes or wheels, no gentle footpaths along their edge as a transition to the vegetation, no side-paths into the valley below, they lack that which is mild, softened, rounded in things, on which hands or their immediate tools have worked. It is as if no-one had combed the landscape’s hair. It is disconsolate and inconsolable. This corresponds to the manner of its perception. For what the hurrying eye has merely viewed from the car cannot be retained, and the latter sinks as tracklessly, as the traces on such fade away.” *

Two popular attitudes to Milton Keynes are to treat it as a joke, or to applaud the “utopian” “idealism” of those who planned and built it. The former camp imagines it to be inauthentic and soulless, deriding its “concrete cows” and its “plastic” football team, guilty of identity-theft from another, more authentic club ; some still, perversely, associate it with “Thatcherism”, largely on the basis of a couple of once all-pervasive TV adverts and a song by the Style Council. The other faction remembers it as a late flowering of “herbivorous” post-war thinking, a sincere attempt to harness modernism to provide a cleaner, more pleasant way of life (in the tradition of the garden city movement), with a herbal-scented whiff of hippy mysticism. Some of these (particularly those who live there) are fiercely defensive of the purity of the original concept against compromise, as if fearful that their “city” will become what its detractors imagine it to be.

My only previous experience of Milton Keynes involved being driven around it at night (in the pre-satnav era), and getting hopelessly lost. In theory, looking at the grid plan around which the “city” is based,

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that should be hard to do, the intention being that you should drive in at one side of the “city” and proceed in a straight line through to the other. This might be true if you have understood the principle behind the arrangement of streets and are happy to have your movements dictated by the logic of the grid, or, perhaps, if you have lived there long enough for landmarks (even individual roundabouts or trees) to have lodged in your mind. If not, then like many things that are logical, the arrangement feels counter-intuitive (in fact, willfully anti-intuitive), the effect disorientating, as if you were an animal (a spider, a cat) climbing a sheer wall made of some man-made substance that offers no natural purchase.

One of the first things I saw, having arrived in Central Milton Keynes by bus, was a sign confirming my prejudice (as a non-driver) that it does not aim to be hospitable to the aimless stroller :

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drivers, cyclists and pedestrians all have their allotted spheres here, their predestined routes, and the walker’s realm lies through a web of underpasses.

The shopping centre itself (there are, in fact, two a little way apart) is also arranged in a kind of grid of alphabetically labelled blocks, with exits at regular intervals between them.  There is no hierarchy between these exits (no main entrance or exit), few of them give any indication where they lead, there are few landmarks other than shops and few maps ; our stroller** soon loses his bearings, becomes disorientated and finds himself with no idea where he is in relation to where he came in, or whether he has passed the same place twice (for reference, the exit nearest the bus-stop from Northampton is the one closest to Burger King).

Once outside the shopping centre, the impression is of endless straight lines : walkways, “boulevards”, flyovers, underpasses, dual carriageways, all of which seem to lead straight to the vanishing point of the horizon, as if a child has drawn them to demonstrate their grasp of perspective :

It is so unlike anywhere else (the patchwork tracings of civic and private needs and desires that make up the mind-map of the average English town) that the mind gropes to relate these “boulevards” to constructs of the imagination, such as “Huysmann’s Paris”or “Chandler’s Los Angeles” or the ideal fantasy cities of Le Corbusier.  Everywhere our stroller has the sense that behind it all there is some central controlling consciousness, that it is, as it were, a product of intelligent design, and that there is – if only we could see it – a plan.

In Milton Keynes two idealisms rub against each other : the desire to give concrete expression to a world of ideal forms struggles with the need to provide a benign habitat for its human inhabitants. Central Milton Keynes is not designed to be inhabited, but used purely as a zone of consumption (of fancy goods and burgers in the shopping centre, of “culture” in the cultural quarter, of religion in the ecumenical “cathedral” that embodies the modern belief that emptiness is next to holiness), but it has, nevertheless, attracted inhabitants, hardy life-forms rolled in sleeping bags under every underpass, taking tenuous root in routes which were meant for perpetual motion ; in shanty towns, on the fringes, fringe religions take hold

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and everywhere, mucking up utopia, are the traces of habitation – fag ends, cartons, cracks in the pavement, weeds, detritus, vomit, scribble.

The place that I was reminded of most was Magna Park, a 550 acre distribution centre in South Leicestershire, which is its doppelgänger or twin, a denial of one of its kinds of idealism and the fulfilment of the other. Milton Keynes is inviting to visitors (“Come to Milton Keynes”), Magna Park discourages them (it describes itself as a “private estate”, and I was unsure, when I visited it, whether I was meant to be there at all). The architecture of Central Milton Keynes is meant to be seen (the main shopping centre has been listed by English Heritage) ; that of Magna Park is not designed to be seen (it is assumed that there should be no-one there to see it), but to be invisible (the only attempt at design of the vast, windowless sheds is that some are painted sky-blue, to make them, from a distance, blend in with the sky).

There is no philanthropic idealism behind Magna Park, no thought of better lives ; it represents pure functionality, and, in that, represents the fulfilment of long nurtured dreams.

In the hour-and-a-half I spent in Magna Park I saw three other human beings (one a security guard and one in a high-visibility jacket, spraying luminous hieroglyphics on the pavement). No-one lives there, and there are none of the amenities that inhabitants require (no shops, no pubs, no cafes ; no playgrounds, no lavatories, no homes or homeless ; no production and no consumption ; no libraries or churches (so no religion too – it’s easy if you try)).  But it is, in many ways, an ideal place to live. Like Milton Keynes, it has wide, tree-lined boulevards arranged, logically, around a grid.

It has excellent public transport links, with three bus stops and a half hourly service to both Hinckley and Lutterworth. It has its own secluded wood, with a willow-fringed pond, that gives the impression that yours are the first human feet to tread there :

Above all, there is no trace of human habitation : apart from a defiant scattering of fag-ends around one of the bus stops, there is no litter ; there are no cracks in the pavement, no moss between the paving stones, the hedges are precisely and immaculately trimmed, there are no dogs, no children, no chewing gum, no sound of human voices, no laughter or crying (and weirdly, when I visited it, no birds). It is almost pre-lapsarian in its pristine perfection.

Although they are invisible in their big sheds, there are said to be 7,500 workers in Magna Park, but the dream is, of course, that automation will soon enable their elimination. If the same principle that drives the driverless cars which are being trialled on the wide, straight boulevards of Milton Keynes can be extended to the caravans of lorries that connect it to Magna Park, the last traces of humanity there could be eradicated, leaving it a heavenly, immaculate place, where no-one goes and which no-one ever sees, both Utopia and atopia.

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*Theodor Adorno – Minima Moralia.



One thought on “From Utopia to Atopia : Milton Keynes and Magna Park

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