Hopeworld ’21

In July 2021 Saxon Court hosted an exhibition of student work under the banner Hopeworld ’21. The exhibition was the culmination of a year’s work by architecture students of studio unit 5A at the University of Nottingham, showcasing optimistic projects of the imagination for the New Town as it reaches middle age.

Hopeworld exhibition - Photo credit: Richard Woods
Hopeworld exhibition - Photo credit: Richard Woods

Pooleyville spoke with Alison Davies, studio unit head, to discuss the exhibition.

Why Milton Keynes?

Milton Keynes was conceived under the New Towns programme – ambitious post-war legislation developed in unison with the welfare state and concerned with ‘building a better tomorrow’. Lewis Silkin, then Minister of Town and Country Planning, described the undertaking as “not merely a great task in physical construction, it is also a great adventure in social construction”. In unit 5A we are very interested in the social implications of our built environment; the New Towns give our students tangible examples of community building.

Milton Keynes represents the last hurrah of this movement: the last and the largest town built under the legislation. The Milton Keynes Development Corporation had both the vision and the autonomy to design and construct a ‘total environment’ from scratch. Hence it represents a very complete example of a moment in time, and a perfect study tool. Furthermore, Milton Keynes is a special and unique place, from its extraordinary urban grid, to its 22 million trees, its integrated sustainable urban drainage system of waterways and lakes, and its public art legacy. It also benefits from a loyal contingent of original New Town pioneers – and those who continue to keep the flame alive – many of whom helped us with our investigations of place.

Why Saxon Court?

Saxon Court is a key civic building in Central Milton Keynes: originally built in 1980 as a speculative office block, the building was immediately occupied by the Development Corporation and subsequently the Town Council. It’s now facing a new phase in its life, as developers First Base - working with acclaimed architects Rogers Stirk Harbour and Partners - redevelop it for housing.

Saxon Court under construction - Image credit: Buckinghamshire Archives
Saxon Court under construction - Image credit: Buckinghamshire Archives

We were contacted by Pooleyville last summer to discuss being part of a programme of creative ‘meanwhile use’ activity at Saxon Court, as the development plans emerged. Pooleyville had encountered some of our students two years previously at the Milton Keynes Festival of Creative Urban Living and suggested the collaboration. The opportunity to be part of a wider creative programme was too good to pass up. Likewise, to be working in parallel with RSH+P on a real-world site.

Unfortunately, the pandemic put paid to much of the programme as initially imagined, and Saxon Court’s meanwhile uses during the course of the project to date have been as a food distribution hub during the initial lockdown, and subsequently as the CMK Covid vaccination centre.

We are therefore delighted that the collaboration managed to find a tangible outlet in the end of year Hopeworld exhibition, and that our students had the opportunity to meet their collaborators and show their work live.

Welcome to Hopeworld - Image credit: Lauren Chapman
Welcome to Hopeworld - Image credit: Lauren Chapman

Why ‘Hopeworld’?

The New Towns were conceived in more innocent times, in climate emergency terms, predating the oil crisis let alone the current awareness of the serious damage we are doing to our environment. Milton Keynes however quickly established itself as an environmental pioneer. In the 1970s and 80s passive and active solar technologies were piloted across the town – particularly in respect of housing – and the results monitored by the Open University in what was to be the precursor of the energy rating system we are now familiar with. The town hosted three progressive housing exhibitions: Homeworld, Energy Word and Futureworld, showcasing ‘homes of the future’ including ingenious environmental and construction features.

The first of these, Homeworld ’81, in Bradwell Common, is 40 years old this year, and we love an anniversary in unit 5A! Hence Hopeworld ’21: an imagined, next-generation housing exhibition, to showcase current best practice in environmental design.

By locating Hopeworld at Saxon Court, we were able to update the exhibition idea to consider some current priorities: an urban not suburban context to consider streetscape responsibilities; social housing not private housing for sale to take into account nationally described space standards; alternative demographics including co-housing, houses in multiple occupation and working from home models to reflect the way we live now.

Talk us through some of the projects

Homeworld index cards - Image credit: Ella Stoneham-Bull and Bonnie Coburn
Homeworld index cards - Image credit: Ella Stoneham-Bull and Bonnie Coburn

The studio cohort is a mixed group of second and third year undergraduate students and we began the year with a collective study of the local context. The students divided into small groups to consider various relevant aspects of the New Town: from its red, grey, blue and green infrastructure systems, to its three generations of housing exhibition site and a wider timeline of environmental projects. Other students audited the embodied and operational carbon costs of Saxon Court, as well as researching its architectural ambitions and its response to the CMK grid.

Hopeworld models - Photo credit Richard Woods
Hopeworld models - Photo credit Richard Woods

Building from the initial research, second year students focussed first on the Hopeworld housing designs. The site behind Saxon Court was divided into a street of equal plots and each student was allocated one plot on ‘Exhibition Street’ on which to design their prototype house. The project subsequently developed into a ‘roll out’ scheme to test the prototype in a wider urban form: additional streets or squares. The carbon cost of each design iteration was part of the design process, and the resulting scheme imagined a community energy strategy, with on-site generation through photovoltaics on many of the homes, for storage and redistribution through a community battery.

Fig6 Hopeworld index cards 1
Fig6 Hopeworld index cards 8
Fig6 Hopeworld index cards 12
Hopeworld index cards - year 2 students

In parallel with the Hopeworld housing, year 3 students were designing ‘pop-ups’ for the Saxon Court exhibition site. This to confront the idea that architecture is necessarily fixed or permanent, and to introduce the idea of design life into design considerations. Students’ proposals were varied: from educational pavilions recording environmental phenomena, artworks reimagining some of Milton Keynes’ iconic public art by offsetting their carbon cost; temporary pods for homeless people located on the roof of Saxon Court stealthily relocating every lunar cycle to exploit a permitted development loophole; and modified Portes Cochère hiding in plain sight in the urban realm, ready for redeployment for environmental protest.

Fig8 The Temporary Township crop
Fig9 Pavilions of Hope crop
Fig10 The Protest Cochère crop
Fig7 Hopeworld Energy Pavilions crop
Temporary Township - Eve Isherwood | Pavilions of Hope - Ed Cooper | Protest Cochère - Grace Thomas | Hopeworld Energy Pavilions - Julie Yuanxin Li

In the second semester, year 2 students worked on creative re-use proposals for Saxon Court, considering its re-use after the exhibition as housing, workspaces and commercial uses. Working in groups, the students considered the potential of the existing structure through various environmental lenses: fabric, daylighting, ventilation, passive solar gain and potential for onsite energy generation. Radical interventions included lifting the atrium roof off to open a central courtyard to the elements, and slicing a redway route through the building.

Saxon Court creative re-use projects - Photo credit: Alison Davies
Saxon Court creative re-use projects - Photo credit: Alison Davies

Third year students developed their own thesis projects for sites in the town, encompassing both new-build and creative re-use projects, and a range of contemporary programme concerns from City Club cultural renaissance, to densification, urban food production and affordable public transport inspired by the original Pooleyville concept.

All were projects of the imagination grown from the students’ own investigations, but many addressed real sites, and in some cases advocated for their creative reuse against current proposals for demolition.

How was it to work through a pandemic year?

Robert De Grey views India Wilkinson’s proposals for the creative re-use of Saxon Court
Robert De Grey views India Wilkinson’s proposals for the creative re-use of Saxon Court

Challenging! We are extremely grateful to a whole range of local people who generously gave their time, enthusiasm and Milton Keynes expertise to the project - and acted as our ‘eyes on the street’ during the period that we couldn’t visit due to lockdown restrictions. This included our Pooleyville collaborators, residents from all three exhibition sites, representatives from various voluntary sector organisations such as Transition Towns, Milton Keynes Council, the inestimable Tim Skelton from MK Forum, and Robert de Grey, one of the original architects of Saxon Court. We are also delighted to have been sharing a platform with Rogers Stirk Harbour, and for their interest in our student projects en route.

Yr 3 thesis projects

Fig12 City Club for Everyone 2
Fig12 City Club for Everyone 1
Fig12 City Club for Everyone 3
City Club for Everyone – Julie Yuanxin Li
Fig13 Densifying the Grid 1
Fig13 Densifying the Grid 3
Fig13 Densifying the Grid 2
Densifying the Grid – Eve Isherwood
Fig14 Fullers Slade Suburban Renaissance 2
Fig14 Fullers Slade Suburban Renaissance 1
Fig14 Fullers Slade Suburban Renaissance 3
Fullers Slade: Suburban Renaissance – Lauren Chapman
The Gateway to MK – Isabel Wretham
The Gateway to MK – Isabel Wretham
Fig15 Altruistic Connections Pooleyville reimagined 1
Fig15 Altruistic Connections Pooleyville reimagined 2
Fig15 Altruistic Connections Pooleyville reimagined 3
Altruistic Connections: Pooleyville Reimagined – Holly Watkins
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