Every House on Langland Road

Every House on Langland Road is an exploration of Netherfield, a unique housing project built in the new city of Milton Keynes in the early 1970s. The houses were designed before the collapse of the post war consensus in an optimistic spirit of public housing and social mobility. They were however built under the pressures of the three day week and within the budgetary constraints of a remote central government with shifting policies. The unique length, presence and history of the Netherfield streetscape and the long form montage drawing of the architects' proposal for the estate provides a backdrop against which long standing and unresolved questions around the nature of housing, and social housing in particular, are brought into focus.

"Milton Keynes - A Village City", 1973
London Television Service online at the BFI

A man in a blue suit, wearing dark heavy rimmed glasses stands in front of a De Stijl image of black vertical and horizontal lines picking out a series of yellow, red and blue shapes. Fred Roche, General Manager of the Milton Keynes Development Corporation, traces with a pencil the lines and the future of his new city for the audience of a short promotional film from 1973. Milton Keynes will, Roche explains, “be a very mixed city. From the start there’ll be houses to suit workers, managers, vicars and doctors. Half will be owner-occupied. Many will be designed to be expanded as young families grow”. However, an unknown proportion of the new city’s population, “perhaps very few, perhaps not so few”, were expected to be prevented from achieving what others around them had due to financial or other disability.

John Donat image courtesy of Milton Keynes City Discovery Centre
Licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0

Chris Cross, Jeremy Dixon, Mike Gold and Ed Jones were invited to Milton Keynes in 1971 as part of Derek Walker and Fred Roche’s plan to speed up the house building programme in the city. This required bold and sweeping action and a number of 1km grid squares were allocated to a single architect or group of architects to be built quickly as a single contract. The Netherfield brief was for a relatively low density housing scheme of 1,000 dwellings to comply with the Development Corporation’s policy of mixed tenure. Local authorities also had to meet Parker Morris standards, a stipulation that would cause recurrent problems for many of the Corporation’s architects and quantity surveyors when the financial constraints of the government’s housing cost yardstick were taken into account.

John Donat image courtesy of Milton Keynes City Discovery Centre
Licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0

The proposal for Netherfield was a deeply engaging visualisation of the architects' intentions which took the form of a 1m x 6m tracing paper montage. This long form drawing reflected the grand scale of both the proposed buildings and of the landscape in which they would be built. It included preparatory work, detailed specification of the proposed setting, plan and elevation and an impressionistic view of how the estate would be lived in. The Netherfield scroll starts with representations of the whole site in its wider context which sets the scene for a narrative that buildis through a series of progressive scalar views. The draftsmanship of the drawings, their attention to detail and quality of line work, is a striking demonstration of a now rarely seen pre-CAD form of architectural practice. The Corporation's own archive is incomplete.

Architect's impression of Netherfield
© Chris Cross

When presented for approval from the MKDC board in 1971 a number of directors were concerned about the social and financial implications of the project. The acceptability of the scheme to residents was questioned: would the proposed four-storey end of terrace houses support a “satisfactory lifestyle for a new town?”; and more fundamental questions asked “was it human?” and could it “provide what people wanted?". It was nevertheless agreed that Netherfield provided a rich environmental setting for residents while also meeting both the exacting limitations of the Government’s housing yardstick and the Corporation’s own housing goals. The terraces, with their variety of layouts and plot sizes which could also accommodate cars, and the proximity to play areas and open spaces, would be one of the most interesting features of the city.

John Donat image courtesy of Milton Keynes City Discovery Centre
Licensed under the Open Government Licence v3.0

Early forms of personalisation on the Netherfield estate, constrained by the conditions of tenancy and the financial position of the residents involved, were limited to the exploration of different ways of decorating the porthole window found in every front door. A number of municipal upgrades to those houses which remain in public ownership have rendered the windows and doors into a less distinctive and anonymous uPVC aesthetic. The crisp white geometry of the fins has faded into grey and their once bright edges are now rare and disfigured into spalled fragments of faded colour. The combination of poor quality building materials, unskilled labour, the local authority letting policy and the unaffordable cost of maintaining the various landscape elements around the terraces, all demonstrate a crucial distance between the ideal and the actual.

Every House on Langland Road (section)
© Simon Phipps

Every House on Langland Road will open at Milton Keynes Gallery in June 2017. A more extensive collection of materials will be shown at the Architectural Association in London in January 2018. A related article is in preparation to be published in AA Files. The project is the latest collaboration between Simon Phipps and Darren Umney who both spent their formative years in the nascent new city. Simon is a renowned photographer of British post-war architecture. Darren is a writer and researcher with a doctorate in design. The project has benefitted from the financial assistance of Arts Council England and would not have been possible without the ongoing assistance and support of Chris Cross, Jeremy Dixon, Mike Gold and Ed Jones. The conceptual precedent of Ed Ruscha's Sunset Strip is acknowledged.

Ed Ruscha holding his book Every Building on the Sunset Strip, 1967
©Jerry McMillan, Courtesy of Craig Krull Gallery, Santa Monica, California.

MKDC Architects' Department elevation drawings. Images courtesy of the Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies
Every House on Langland Road terrace images © Simon Phipps