Architect of Milton Keynes who blended utopia and nostalgia

Milton Keynes took a while to be recognised as a pivotal work of British modernism but, in the end, it was. Its chief architect, Derek Walker, who died on Monday at the age of 85, lived to see it reassessed and his most prominent building, the Central Milton Keynes shopping centre, given protected heritage status.

The Buckinghamshire town was the last of the postwar new towns and became the most successful. It embodied the ambitions of a complex moment when Britain was looking back nostalgically to an idealised past of country roads and villages and forward to a utopian future of a gridded city dominated by the car and based on a rather English interpretation of Los Angeles. Walker's architectural and urban vision was at the heart of that success.

The original designs for Walker's shopping centre featured a facade of LED lighting to make it a huge electric billboard and the sketch showed an animated horse - a symbol which could be traced back to the ancient chalk horses inscribed in the British landscape.

That blend of technology and archaeology characterised the architectural approach. Streets were named after Neolithic monuments - Avebury Boulevard and Silbury Arcade whilst Midsummer Boulevard was aligned to sun at the summer solstice. He also apparently redesigned the town's sewage works to align with the ley lines at Avebury.

The town's trees were originally intended to be festooned with lights and to double up as advertising platforms. This was a kind of Pop Art/Folk-Rock hybrid, a very English modernity which was never quite realised in its full, colourful and commercial vibrancy.

Despite the fascination with technology though, the rural was given equal prominence in the vision with fast roads posing as tree-lined country lanes and the height of buildings being subjugated to the height of the tallest streets, so that architecture was always kept in check by natural dimensions.

Walker was born in Blackburn, Lancashire on June 15, 1929 and studied architecture in the city where he grew up, Leeds. He set up in private practice immediately on qualifying, an unusual thing to do but an act which demonstrated his confidence in his own ability. He began by designing houses, then a number of churches, some of which (notably the elegant Holy Family Church in Pontefract, 1964) have been listed. He was appointed chief architect to Milton Keynes in 1970, after difficult beginnings when the town plan failed to take off. He recruited a young team of designers, giving them the responsibility for big projects.

Walker indulged his love of the US. West Coast by teaching at both UCLA and USC. When he became head of architecture at the Royal College of Art in London (1984-1990), he made friends with artists and filled the walls of his Hammersmith house with their works.

Walker also ran a successful and very international architectural practice, more renowned abroad than at home. He designed everything from the city of Jubail in Saudi Arabia and the aborted futuristic 'Wonder World' theme park in Corby to a ski resort in Telluride, Colorado and the Happy Valley Racecourse and Kowloon Park development for the Hong Kong Jockey Club. His most recent major UK building was the Royal Armouries in Leeds (1996).

Walker was unusual in that he was interested in the architecture of commerce, the malls, theme parks, leisure centres, car parks and the roads - the components of the contemporary city that most architects disdained. He bridged the era between the state sponsorship of architecture (the housing estates and public arts buildings of the 1960s) and the pure private enterprise of the Thatcher era. He was a utopian with a pronounced streak of realism.

For the heart of Milton Keynes he had intended a futuristic structure to house a festival park, run by the organisers of the Isle of Wight Festival, but it was never realised. This place was where Folk Rock and Psychedelia were to come together with LA utopia and the modernist avant-garde.

Milton Keynes may have had difficulty shaking off its boring image but at its heart was a cocktail of fascinating architectural ideas.

He is survived by his third wife Eve Happold Walker and his two sons from his first marriage, Matthew and Alex.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.


blog comments powered by Disqus