Why can't new British towns be more like Milton Keynes?

Architect Sam Jacob places practicality above beauty in future urban planning

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The Independent Online

Britain needs a “minister of social planning” to combat a housing crisis that has left swathes of the country unaffordable to ordinary people, according to the leading architect behind the UK pavilion at this year’s Venice Architecture Biennale.

Sam Jacob, founding director of the London-based practice Fashion Architecture Taste (Fat), said that making cities practical places to live was more important than making them beautiful.

The planned towns built after the Second World War should be considered “amazing visions of how a modern Britain might work”, rather than as symbols of modern urban ugliness, he added. Mr Jacob described Milton Keynes – a town notorious for its concrete cows, grid system and endless roads – as “one of the most exciting ideas in the British landscape”.

Ensuring that people can actually afford to live in the country’s towns and cities is more important than focusing on the look of places, claims Mr Jacob, whose latest creation for the Venice Architecture Biennale will celebrate British modernity over the past century.

The town’s grid system (Alamy)

Speaking to The Independent ahead of the festival, which starts in June, he said: “It is generally agreed that there is some form of crisis with the general built environment of Britain. The most obvious thing is the housing crisis – the unaffordability of housing in London for example, or the inability to attract investment to other parts of the country – these are the major issues.”

Mr Jacob added: “For a long time we have focused on the aesthetics of architecture and I don’t think that aesthetics is the problem.

“Of course we’d love to have very high-quality, beautiful cities but it’s understanding how the city works which is the fundamental thing and making sure they are affordable places for people to live.”

He said a new top-down approach was needed, led by a “minister of social planning, someone who could think about the relationship of economic policy, housing policy, infrastructural policy – joining up, for example, Help to Buy on the one hand, HS2 on the other hand, and announcements of new garden cities”.

The role is something which would “help make more sense of Britain as a built environment”, said Mr Jacob.

Architect Sam Jacob, far right, whose practice, Fashion Architecture Taste, designed the development at New Islington

Britons should be proud of our “new towns”, argues Mr Jacob. For the creation of places like Milton Keynes, Harlow, Cumbernauld and Basildon represent Britain’s leading role in “modern-day town planning”.

He also pays tribute to Sir Ebenezer Howard, the Victorian inventor of the “garden city” concept – something he describes as “the greatest contribution that Britain has made to planning and architecture worldwide”.

The garden city is “not just a place with lots of trees and houses, it’s not just normal suburbia. It’s actually a really radical idea which almost combines a form of socialism, the idea that it would take agricultural land and it would hold that land in trust for the community.”

Mr Jacob, who is also a visiting Professor at Yale School of Architecture, believes that the old concept, given “a contemporary reworking”, is a “really viable idea for the future of new development in Britain”.

And “new towns” also have a part to play. “They are no longer new towns in the sense they were in the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s. Now they are just part of the landscape of Britain.”

The development at New Islington, Manchester (Alamy)

Visitors to the British Pavilion at this year’s Architecture Biennale (a sister event to the better-known Venice Biennale art exhibition), at which 65 countries will be exhibiting, will be in for a surprise.

In contrast to the gothic exterior, the gallery space inside will contain a bizarre assortment of images. From William Blake to Sir Cliff Richard, the band Joy Division, and homage to “new towns” and “garden cities”, the six-month exhibition, “A Clockwork Jerusalem”, showcases diverse cultural influences which have featured in British modernism over the past century.

There is no longer a “polarised debate” pitting fans of historical heritage against modern buildings, and Mr Jacob argues: “There’s much more fluidity as to what is actually historic, it’s all part of a continuum... as much  to do with the past as it is  with the beaming towers of tomorrow.”