Centre for Architecture Theory Criticism History
School of Architecture

Janina Gosseye presents a paper on Milton Keynes’ Centre

Thursday, 31 March 2016

Janina Gosseye, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at ATCH, presented a paper at the ‘Architecture of Deregulations: Post-modernism, Politics and the Built Environment, 1975-1996’ conference, organized by KTH, Stockholm, Sweden from 10-12 March 2016. 

Title and summary:

Milton Keynes’ Centre: The Apotheosis of the British Post-war Consensus or, the Apostle of Neo-liberalism?

In 1979, in preparation of the official opening of Milton Keynes’ shopping centre by newly elected Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the Milton Keynes Development Corporation (MKDC) drafted an ‘Imaginary dialogue between the Chairman [of the MKDC] and the Prime Minister’. Expecting Thatcher to question ‘why the exchequer [should] continue to invest taxpayers funds in the future development of Milton Keynes’ and propose that ‘it should be possible for the exchequer to reduce dramatically the levels of public investment in Milton Keynes’, the MKDC was clearly troubled by the impending encounter and felt that Lord Campbell, its Chairman, needed to be well-prepared for the harsh line of questioning that (they imagined) would inevitably ensue. But was this fear justified? Admittedly, the new town of Milton Keynes was a grand outcome of the UK’s post-war consensus and stood for everything that Thatcher opposed. But surely the symbolism of the opening of (then) Europe’s largest indoor shopping centre – the architectural embodiment of a liberal economy and a harbinger of global capitalism – at the heart of this new town shortly after her election would not have gone unnoticed? Oddly enough, this symbolism did seem to elude the architects, planners and politicians involved in the development of Milton Keynes’s shopping centre. For them, the Centre was not a ‘shopping centre’ but a piece of civic infrastructure that would benefit the community at large. 

Questioning if Milton Keynes’ Centre was the apotheosis of the post-war consensus or an apostle of neo-liberalism, this paper demonstrates the complex ways in which public and private interests were interwoven in British post-war urban development. Already prior to the assumed ‘neo-liberal turn’ of the late 1970s, local governments worked in close collaboration with the private sector, leading to different public-private partnerships, the importance of which was highlighted by the construction of countless shopping centres. As a result, contrasting and (at times) conflicting goals and aspirations were projected onto shopping centre designs. This paper iterates how Milton Keynes’ architects and planners endeavoured to reconcile different interests in their design and exposes their struggle to relate the architecture of the MK’s Centre to new social ideals that emerged in post-war years and define a novel formal language able to respond to the ongoing political and economical transformations that gradually dismantled the welfare state and paved the way for the ‘triumph’ of neo-liberalism.