Monday, August 07, 2006

Milton Keynes

Ahh, the city of roundabouts!

We made a Sunday excursion to Britain's newest city. Unlike the other human habitations in Britain that still have most of their pre-Norman architecture in place (and in use), Milton Keynes is about two weeks old. It was built overnight according to a master plan involving roundabouts and shopping malls using a compass, a ruler, a lot of UPVC-glazing and concrete tiles.

It is the fabulous place where the indoor skiing facility is conveniently located next to an indoor beach, for maximum contrast. There is no city center apart from a huge mall. All roads are straight, named with two-digit codes and have a lot of roundabouts. In fact so many, that they don't need an amusement park, all they need to do is take their cars and drive around town. In about 30 minutes everyone is feeling sick enough.

It's a plastic town. While in normal cities you have layers of history, an old building here, a new development there, in Milton Keynes everything is new. While in most parts of the world there are buildings with some shops at the bottom and housing on the top, in MK there is a central mall and housing areas a few roundabouts away. While in other towns there might be some bare land, grass, gravel etc., in MK there is conrete, asphalt, and landscaped lines of trees with flowerpots in between. All placed according to a plan: this should look nice.

There is a football team in all English towns and villages. They were all established about a hundred years ago and have grown as the villages that fed them grew. They have changed names, getting the right to use the term "City" in the name after the town they are in grew up, were re-named "United" after two or more of them merged. In Milton Keynes, however, you have MK Dons. A club that used to be Wimbledon FC, got into financial trouble and was bought by businessmen in MK and replanted to a hockey stadium with plastic grass in it. I don't know how many fans they bought and replanted in the process, but it wasn't that many. Many people did the unthinkable and moved to support the old arch enemy, Wimbledon AC, that was playing a few leagues lower than the former FC.

MK is a weird experience. It feels very American somehow. I mean, the mall could be anywhere in America and is every bit as sumptuous and excessive. Shops, services, entertainment, and a matching number of parking spaces. Some housing areas are actually quite nice and the Open University main campus that's on the outskirts is very pretty. And I had a fun day, made some good purchases from discounts, and am actually a bit tempted to try the indoor skiing, but I can't help that I was feeling a bit weird, like there was something wrong. If that would be my "world", I'd be seriously thinking that I would be in a Truman Show or some other human experiment. It's too smooth to be real, too new to be charming and too concrety to be comfortable.

Any real town has the signs of the numerous compromises the planners have had to make over several generations - here it seems like one group of constructors has planned the whole thing on a tabula rasa. No problems with old buildings being a bit too close together for this, the roads being too narrow for that... No controversy, no quirkiness, no fun. MK is like adult-oriented soft rock, Michael Bolton (before hairloss), Eros Ramazzotti and Il Divo on tour, Helmut Lotti goes Shopping. All that white keys only, please drive carefully and buy 2-for-1 -niceness. I can stomach it in small doses only. Or perhaps it's the roundabouts.

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