Lauren Piko-University of Melbourne

“…there was little about Milton Keynes that seemed unusual…”

For the latest in my series about urban historians at work today, I speak to the University of Melbourne’s Lauren Piko about her interest in Milton Keynes; and what the much maligned the new town can teach us today.

What is your background?

I studied British history at the University of Melbourne as an undergraduate, yet despite the History department’s fine urban history tradition, I was very much a subcultural studies enthusiast at that time. After finishing my honours thesis in 2008 I spent a few years working in education administration in London, Bath and Melbourne, before returning to the University of Melbourne to undertake my PhD with Professor Andrew May and Dr David Nichols.

What led you to choose your subject matter?

My thesis examines the depiction of Milton Keynes in national British media and popular culture from 1967 to 1992, particularly with reference to ideas of national decline. This was specifically motivated by my experience of negotiating English urban spaces as an Australian. I moved to Milton Keynes in 2009 directly from Melbourne, knowing nothing of it other than that it was a cheap place to live while working in London. To someone who had grown up in Melbourne’s north-eastern suburbs, there was little about Milton Keynes that seemed unusual, and so I was taken aback by the scorn and derision directed at Milton Keynes whenever I happened to mention where I lived. I was intrigued by these tacit value judgements of “good” urban landscapes, which were somehow lost in translation to my Melbournian ears. To someone with a background in subcultural studies this set off all the requisite alarm bells about Gramscian “common sense”, and so the stage was set for me to explore this in my PhD.

“To someone with a background in subcultural studies this set off all the requisite alarm bells about Gramscian “common sense”…”

Is there anyone (historian or otherwise) that particularly inspires your approach to your topic?

E.P Thompson’s “Time and Work-discipline in Industrial Capitalism” is a perfect model of the “world in a grain of sand” approach to history I find the most exciting and politically powerful. The work of Sara Ahmed, along with Stuart Hall, are also constant touchstones, for their ability to use the tiniest iterations of culture as entry points.

My supervisor Professor Andrew May has suggested in the past that there may be a specifically “Melbourne way” of doing history; a sort of Greg-Dening-esque focus on language and meaning. I think it’s very likely that my ethnographic instincts and curiosity about hidden cultural boundaries have been shaped by being based at Melbourne’s history department.

What do you hope that readers take away from your work?

I hope it makes them think twice about the political implications of beliefs and ideas that they consider to be “normal”, innate, or automatic.

How has your work evolved over the course of your project?

I have been constantly delighted by the range of subject material I get to cover; the realisation that I needed to go back to Lockean ideas of nationhood was a shock, but so too was needing to spend so much time listening to Cliff Richard records. I really relish following the strange journeys of source material in cultural history.

What specific challenges do you face as a historian studying a subject that is located on the other side of the world from you?

“…negotiating distance has forced me to work very efficiently and more creatively than I would have otherwise.”

My work is borne out of being an Australian in Milton Keynes, so I think it’s very appropriate to be writing this thesis from Melbourne, back to exploring the tacit language of Englishness from the outside. A substantial amount of my research was undertaken from Australia, though I was lucky to obtain funding for two on-site research trips. This meant an exhausting and frenzied workload during those two-and-a-half months! Though I would have loved to have had the luxury of losing myself for months in the archives, negotiating distance has forced me to work very efficiently and more creatively than I would have otherwise.

Do you think there are connections between the denigration of Milton Keynes and other new towns in British popular culture and wider shifts in society since the 1960s?

Absolutely. It is very much part of a wider ideological rejection that has led tower blocks, council estates, and other new towns to be condemned and ridiculed. Much like how “the 1970s” are regularly invoked as the “bad old days” of British politics, condemning postwar urban planned spaces helps reinforce the idea that “there is no alternative” to the neo-liberal state. It’s an ongoing rejection that legitimates the status quo.

Does your research lead you to see the plans for Milton Keynes as fundamentally a radical or a conservative project?

To give a stereotypical historian’s response, it depends on the context. In terms of urban planning, The Plan for Milton Keynes was a radical re-imagining of the very idea of the discipline and what it should do. Politically, however, the very “flexibility” at the heart of Milton Keynes’ planning goals has allowed it to move with the times very easily, and through doing so it has become more conservative than the Plan itself ever envisioned.

“the… ‘flexibility’ at the heart of Milton Keynes’ planning goals has allowed it to move with the times very easily…”

Given contemporary ecological concerns, are car-centric development like Milton Keynes worrying anachronisms or can they be salvaged?

This is a great question. In reality I don’t think Milton Keynes is inherently as car-centric as its reputation suggests. It’s also incredibly pedestrian and cycle-friendly, and while it’s been let down by public transport provision in the past, this is getting better overall. Milton Keynes is also a beautifully verdant town with a fantastically diverse urban ecology. Provided that public transport provision continues to improve, it will be exciting to watch how Milton Keynes continues to challenge preconceptions about density and urban functioning into the future.


You can read more about Lauren’s research into the genesis and cultural impact of Milton Keynes on her page. She can be contacted through the University of Melbourne’s graduate school. 

Otto Saumarez-Smith – Lincoln College, Oxford

“The architecture of the post-war period was a mixture of the humane, the beautiful, the banal, and the catastrophic.”

The latest post in my series about urban historians at work today, sees me talking to Otto Saumarez-Smith a post-war architectural historian based at the University of Oxford.

What is your background?

I studied Philosophy and Literature at Warwick as an undergraduate. Looking at architecture was a hobby, and I increasingly spent my time reading Pevsner when I should have been reading Eliot or Kant. When I left university I thought I wanted to be an architectural journalist, and I did quite a lot of freelance writing work, but couldn’t make the money stack up. So I applied for a Masters in Architectural History at Cambridge. During my four years at Cambridge I was taught by people from the History of Art, Architecture, Sociology, and History departments. I am now in the History faculty in Oxford. Throughout this somewhat circuitous disciplinary route, I’ve been very fortunate to have been looked after by many wonderful and generous scholars. Perhaps it’s a cliché to say so, but academic writing is always much more of a collaborative process than the finished product suggests.

“…I increasingly spent my time reading Pevsner when I should have been reading Eliot or Kant.”

What led you to choose your subject matter?

I work on British cities in the post-war period. The interest came from my hobby of looking at places and buildings. Ian Nairn was an inspiration, and I like this quote of his: ‘whereas people normally go to town centres to shop or to have a meal, I go there to read them like a detective novel, to try and unravel what has gone wrong, what has gone right, how the shape is’. That remains my ambition really – although I do it as much through archives as through urban exploration these days.

Also, I was bought up in the East End of London, and after the wonderful Hawksmoor churches, the most prominent landmarks are from the post-war period. That these were from the recent past, but nonetheless seemed almost to be from a totally foreign culture was significant – as was the sentiment that they seemed to represent a noble social commitment at odds with the present.

Is there anyone (historian or otherwise) that particularly inspires your approach to your topic?

I’d like to be able one day to write an essay as good as Raphael Samuel’s The Return to Brick.

What do you hope that readers take away from your work?

Depends partly on the intended audience. The ambition, always, is to write with imagination and authority in a way that sympathetically attempts to reconstruct complexity of motives, and the ironies of unintended consequences. I think arguments are important too; for structure, and to help a reader, perhaps from a different discipline, see what is significant about what I’ve found in the archives.

I also admire history that is fun to read. I am tremendously happy doing what I do, so it would be a failure if I weren’t able to convey some of this sense of enjoyment and engagement.

How has your work evolved over the course of your project?

I don’t find it is getting any easier, after having had a little experience. Every new project seems as daunting as the last on starting. I have my fair share of days of feeling like an imposter – and projects that grind to a halt, sometimes terminally. I tend to start each chapter or article as a fresh endeavour, trying to understand something I didn’t understand before. It would be boring if my ideas weren’t in flux. I also want to keep experimenting with different modes of history writing.

“It would be boring if my ideas weren’t in flux.”

Did modernist architecture and town planning ever have a broad popular following?

I think it is one of the major weaknesses of our understanding of this period, that we know what modernism meant to architects and planners, we know a little about what it meant to other decision makers such as politicians and developers, but we don’t know nearly enough about what it meant to the people we might define as the ‘users’. Of course this is not a homogeneous group and various buildings and places were experienced differently, but I think it would be fair to say that there was initially significant popular enthusiasm for many schemes (they were after-all often developed to be vote-winning), but that the reaction against it was significant and perhaps near pervasive. I’m on the look out for sources to understand this better. The narrative that this was all foisted upon an implacably hostile public by a sinister coterie of architects and planners is certainly inadequate.

Has your research thrown up any striking differences in the ways that the approach to the design and construction of private buildings (e.g. Oxbridge colleges) differed from the construction of public buildings (e.g. social housing or shopping precincts) in the post-war era?

Looking at different typologies has been instructive. Money and maintenance are important. People don’t like gimcrack buildings whatever the style. Damp is horrible. The architecture of the post-war period was a mixture of the humane, the beautiful, the banal, and the catastrophic.

“People don’t like gimcrack buildings whatever the style.”

Why do you think that post-war architecture and design is currently in vogue?

It is largely just a part of the natural generational swing in the pendulum of taste. The same sort of thing happened to Victorian buildings. But I think my slightly politically stimulated interest in it is not an unusual initial motive. This nostalgic political understanding doesn’t necessarily make for the best history though, and obscures as well as illuminates things about the period.

How do you think that historians can best engage with this growing area of public interest?

I think architectural historians have a particularly rich tradition of speaking to broader publics – going back at least to Ruskin. If anything it is a rather a crowded field at the moment, with a lot of hugely talented people. I’ve tended to look at spaces where the more contested aspects of modernism occurred. My PhD was on city centre redevelopment, and my new project looks at the growth of the inner city problem. I am a semi-detached supporter of the vital heritage efforts to save the architectural heritage of the period – and want to keep doing what I can for institutions like the Twentieth Century Society. But I hope my work will be read by those who are interested in the nuances it attempts to introduce into our understanding of the physical and social changes in the post-war period, and not just by concrete fanciers.

You can read more about Otto’s work on his University of Oxford Department of History profile. His page can be found here.

Tom Hulme-Centre for Metropolitan History

For the latest in my series profiling urban historians at work today, I was lucky enough to be able to grab a word with the University of London’s Tom Hulme.

What is your background?

I grew up in Buxton in Derbyshire, a small town with a big identity, and did all of my degrees (BA History, MA Urban History, PhD Urban History) in Leicester – a big town with a small identity! After my PhD I worked for a few months on an AHRC project which aimed to understand the transition of the area of St George’s into Leicester’s flagship regeneration area: the Cultural Quarter. This research uncovered all sorts of cultures in this former industrial area – gay, drag, rave, Afro-Caribbean, and swinger. Some are well remembered and cherished, such as the still-open gay bar Helsinki, and others are forgotten – or, at least, the city council wishes they were (the sex-club G-Spot being one example!). Two years working at King’s College London as a researcher for the fantastic historical pageants in Britain (1905-2016) project followed, before I took up a lecturing position in urban history at the Institute of Historical Research at the end of last year.

What led you to choose your subject matter?

Most of my work is about the culture of urban places, both large and small. My work has been shaped by growing up somewhere that has a sure and stable identity, and then studying for so long in a city that is harder to typify. As an undergraduate I was taught by Sally Horrocks, who turned me onto inter-war history and public housing. I was too slow and disorganised to secure Sally as my dissertation supervisor, but she passed me on to Simon Gunn – who went on to be my PhD supervisor and is still an ever-present mentor. The resulting work showed how housing policy was shaped by civic identity and civic culture. My MA, PhD, and resulting monograph (under contract with the Royal Historical Society) continued in a similar vein, but swapped Buxton for Manchester and Chicago (!), and replaced housing with citizenship. Buxton is close to Manchester, and the place where we escaped for a taste of Big City life. Chicago was a new city to me – but shares a similar position in the national imaginary: industrial entrepot, possible second city, former shock city, etc. Asa Briggs fantastic book on Victorian Cities was a key influence in this respect.

Is there anyone (historian or otherwise) that particularly inspires your approach to your topic?

Simon has inspired and shaped my work while giving me enough space to make it my own. His book on the Victorian city is a classic, and sparked my interest in the public spaces of the city, and the rituals and performance of power that the city contains and enables. Chris Otter’s work on the materiality of the city – and how power works through technologies of sound and vision – has forced me to think of the city in both abstract and ‘real’ terms. My article on the materiality of the school would not appeared without his influence.

“…how power works through technologies of sound and vision – has forced me to think of the city in both abstract and ‘real’ terms”

What do you hope that readers take away from your work?

That the British inter-war city contained a citizenship and local government culture all of its own: one that remade Victorian civic pride for the age of mass democracy and entertainment. Analyses of decline in local government and civic idealism haven’t always captured this shift, and can be replaced with a more careful story of evolution. When the book comes out, I hope it will make us think about citizenship as being very strongly tied to the modern city in both Britain and the USA – complicating the story of national identity and patriotic citizenship with local examples from festivals, pageants, education, housing, and welfare.

What impressions have you built up of how people’s relationship to the towns and cities that they live in has changed since the 19th Century?

We should be careful of using crude generalisations, but I think we can see ebbs and flows in civic culture and individual relationships to the city over the last two hundred years. There are many different strands to this, so I’ll only mention one: civic belonging. The mid-to-late nineteenth century, according to a lot of historians, was the period in which people – especially the middle classes and civic elites – most commonly thought about their identity in relation to the place in which they lived. Municipal socialism and the Civic Gospel in places like Birmingham and Manchester – grand infrastructure (from sewers to trams), and civic betterment (such as art galleries and libraries) – was one result. A lot of the historiography of the inter-war period has seen the decline of local belonging, as the middle classes left the industrially-damaged city for the salubrious suburb, and central government began to take over local government functions.

But this can be overstated. In the 1920s and 1930s, as I hope my work shows, the democratisation of culture had a strong element of local belonging. Look at something like historical pageants – these events had up to 10,000 performers, and brought in crowds of even more. Storylines from the local past encouraged civic pride, and pageant-directors had few problems in recruiting the local population to perform on behalf of the city. There had been some decanting of the ‘better sorts’ from the city, and possibly a decline in ‘high-brow’ civic culture, but many left behind were still happy to subscribe to urban pride.

After WWII this did change: the foundation of a big central state, even more suburbanisation (especially through working-class estates), what Raymond Williams calls the ‘mobile privatisation’ of television, increased mobility and growth of university education that has drawn people away from their hometown, industrial decline, and arguably the weakening of an uncontested or simplistic sense of ‘place’ as the demographics and built environment have rapidly changed. But the last couple of decades are starting to see a returning shift. Think of the Buy Local campaigns, the return of city-centre living, urban regeneration and gentrification, and – as London becomes ever-more expensive – the pulling back of young professionals to regional cities. Whether we will ever see a return to a strong sense of local belonging in this age of globalisation is debatable, but *something* is happening.

“…as I hope my work shows, the democratisation of culture had a strong element of local belonging.”

How has adopting a comparative approach to cities and urban regions enhanced the research that you’ve conducted?

Back in the 1960s, when the discipline of urban history was getting going (see Shane Ewen’s book What is Urban History?) assessing the ‘urban variable’ was a central pursuit. Was the city an independent or dependent variable in relation to broader processes of change? Over the years the importance attached to the urban variable has waxed and waned, and it made an appearance at the recent Urban History Group Conference… but I’m a believer. Looking at cities in more than one place, and across national boundaries, has helped me argue for the city as not just a neutral or passive container of social change, but a key part of the construction of modern citizenship.

Can (if indeed they should) urban historians add anything to the current debates about local government and devolution in the UK?

I think so! Though I’m wary of making concrete value judgements, local government in the inter-war period seemed much more capable of connecting with the local community. This was partly because it was so entwined with their lives, providing almost all of the services that are now more commonly managed by the central state. But local government, and its many champions, also saw the locality as the place where people can be made into better citizens – actively taking part in local culture for the benefit of everyone. As cities continue to change, can we root a sense of continuity and belonging in urban residents? Inter-war local government, for all its faults and frequent moralising, can provide some useful lessons.

For more about Tom and his work; check out his page on the website of the Institute for Historical Research’s Centre for Metropolitan History. His profile can be viewed here.