I write about travel and the arts on a freelance basis – ‘Gosh, this painting / village lacks depth!’ – that sort of thing. I’ve written for Time Out, What’s On Stage and Ideas Tap. I am also editor of the culture pages (‘The Library’) at The Holborn magazine. Here’s some work:
The Postcard: Milton Keynes
Every now and again a postcard lands on the mat at The Holborn’s hypothetical central London offices. This one came from Milton Keynes:
Despite its ‘rational’ design, Milton Keynes is oddly disorientating. But it is not disorientating in the nice way that Venice or Strasbourg is, where getting lost is somehow part of the charm. Moreover, cities like Venice and Strasbourg have pleasing landmarks and features from which one can rediscover their bearings: a cutesy gelato parlour, say, or a statue of Louis XIV. In contrast, because of Milton Keynes’ age – it was built in the late sixties to alleviate crowding in London – and because of the rational principles that underpinned its design, when you get lost here it’s hard to intuitively get back on track. As with a churchyard under frost, everything looks the same. One car-park can only look so much different from another, and the same is true of the Horizontal and Vertical grid-roads that form the town’s chassis. The many office-buildings are also eerily similar: rectangular, reflective, TO LET. Taken together, the TO LET insignia stand as a leitmotif for any tuneless stroll about the town. If Milton Keynes were music it would be some sort of German Electro. You wouldn’t play it on your wedding night.
Another reason the town is hard to navigate is because there’s no one to ask for directions. Or so it can seem. The lack of human traffic is partly because the town’s planners had in mind a town on a city-scale; a settlement with the population and facilities of a town but the size and infrastructure of a city. Milton Keynes has half the population of Portsmouth but double the space, making it very easy to wander around the place for two hours – taking in the vast shopping mall, the vast Campbell Park, the vast array of entertainments (ski-slope, casino, concrete cows) – and not see another person. Even the 125 miles of scenic walk- and cycle-ways go mostly unused. Why? Because each of the town’s 100 ‘grid squares’ (or micro-communities) is self-sufficient, so that no one needs to walk between them. Thus, with one aspect of their design (the self-sufficient grid-squares) the town planners negated the need for another (the 125 miles of pedestrian ways). How rational is that?
But this lack of conviviality, of hustle and bustle, wouldn’t disappoint the man whose ideas inspired and guided Milton Keynes’ development. Melvin Webber was a German-American architect and urban theorist in thrall to modernist and rationalist principles. According to Webber (and his mentor Ludwig Mies), buildings – and by extension town and cities – should be no more than ‘skin and bones’, shorn of any superfluous features like, I don’t know, a heart. Further, Webber considered traditional town-planning models to be outmoded because of new communication and travel abilities, holding that in the modern age people socialize and trade in more virtual, disembodied ways, and that a new town ought to facilitate and reflect such changes. How? Well, by offering what Webber called ‘community without propinquity’. No longer was it necessary to head down to a central plaza to buy apples or chat with Socrates; one could do both online. As such, the plaza becomes redundant space, and so doesn’t make the final cut. The money saved on elegant paving and benches and an iconic fountain is invested in broadband.
Webber’s conception of community without propinquity can be seen as a precursor to online social networks. As with Facebook, Milton Keynes demonstrates a bias toward virtual rather than actual society, and its reflective plate-glass buildings encourage the casual narcissism and self-absorption made possible by social networks. Just as a style of architecture might be said to reflect the values and attitude of its epoch, so a town might be said to reflect the values and attitudes of the people that conceived it. In which case, what does Milton Keynes say about us (or, if not us, then the dominant ideology that steers us)? That we are self-centred rather than communal? That we are rigid rather than protean? That we are heartless? One thing Milton Keynes certainly tells us is that we are increasingly American in our instincts. The town’s landmark building is a central glass tower called Manhattan House, and its road signs don’t direct traffic towards a centre but to its ‘SHOPPING’.
In his defence, Webber’s ideas are not illogical – new developments ought to, and are probably bound to, reflect new inclinations. But when one spends an afternoon walking around Milton Keynes it is hard not to reach the conclusion that, even if Webber was right in his analysis of modern social dynamics, he was wrong or misguided to encourage them. Even the sandwich-shop on Midsummer Boulevard seemed to echo the town’s founding principles. Behind the counter an assembly line of employees awaited my order. One of them fetched my bread; another inserted the filling; another salad and sauce; another seasoned, bagged and wondered if I wanted a cookie or a hot drink; and a final took the cash. The process was certainly effective – I was out of there within a minute – but the atomized transaction made it impossible to connect, however briefly or trivially, with any of the human constituents, making for a more efficient but less nourishing experience. It was Milton Keynes writ small.
Here’s a theatre review: http://www.ideastap.com/ideasmag/all-articles/edfringe-the-nose
And here’s a piece about producing a play on a budget: http://www.ideastap.com/ideasmag/the-knowledge/how-to-produce-a-play-on-a-shoestring
And here’s a creative guide to Portsmouth, my home town: http://www.ideastap.com/ideasmag/all-articles/Portsmouth-Creatives-guide