Saturday, June 11, 2011

Is this the end of the Agora? 3 - A summary

  1. Yesterday I posted a review of the Agora written last year by the architect Iqbal Aalam. I don't know a great deal about Mr Aalam except that he came to Milton Keynes in the early 1970s and worked on many developments over his career. Like many of his contemporaries he brought a fresh view to the creation of a new city out of settled communities and green fields. Judgement about how well this worked will have to wait for another time.

    Wolverton must have presented a difficult challenge. It was a 19th century new town which at one time was the largest town in North Bucks and the second largest town in the whole county. It had acquired its own character and traditions and pride in itself. Wolverton would win no prizes in a beauty contest but beneath that austere surface lay a vibrant town full of people who had every reason to be confident about their past, present and future.

    It is my sense that MKDC wanted to do something for Wolverton but were no quite sure how to go about it. Some bright spark  came up with the idea of a market centre which would also double up as an entertainment facility. In the context of the times, Bletchley had recently acquired a Leisure Centre and supermarkets (as we know them today) were still a future concept. I imagine there was a fair amount of enthusiasm in Wolverton at the time for the new market which was to adopt the Greek word for market place.

    After Mr. Aalam's review of the Agora in 2010, I wrote this comment.

    Bryan Dunleavy Says:

    While I largely agree with your description of the architectural qualities of the Agora, I can’t accept that its location is brilliant. Rather, it appears to me as another example in a chain of poor planning decisions that started in 1837.
    Wolverton, as you note, grew on a grid foundation, and nothing wrong with that except that the commercial centre ended up in an eccentric position, largely due to ad hoc planning. Nonetheless people learned to live with it and the Stratford Road (The Front) became the commercial centre, in time spreading to Church Street and to Morland Terrace and the Square at the turn of the last century. the residential parts grew to the south and west with two through streets, Radcliffe Street and Windsor Street, to provide essential connections to the shops. The decision to build the Agora across Radcliffe Street severed one of those arterial connections with poor consequences for the Stratford Road which once hosted important shops and banks and now is distinctly seedy.
    I am not blind to the other factors that lead to High Street decline, but I rather suspect that the Agora’s location accelerated that decline.
    My own preference in retrospect would have been to develop the Agora to the west of Radcliffe Street, even developing another street on the west side to create a complete commercial square.
    For all that the Agora remains one of the few architect-designed buildings in Wolverton. As I observed in my book, “The Lost Streets of Wolverton”, Wolverton was an “architect-free zone’ almost from the beginning, traceable, I think, to the railway engineer Edward Bury’s distrust of architects.
    • winslowhub Says:

      It is most interesting to know the background through your detailed insight into the road patterns and development of the town. I am certain you are right in your opinions about the commercial aspects of the development and of course you are correct in hinting at the decline and the possibility of other contributory factors. I look forward to reading your book to know more details. My comment on the buildings location within the town was more about the ‘geometrical’ placing, its connections, changes of levels and creating space hierarchies in and around it to respond to the town.
      The admiration for Victorian architecture is almost universal and I don’t blame Edward Bury for distrust of architects. It is most unfortunate that the recent housing and its layout near college is of such poor quality, out of character with Wolverton and has caused serious damage to it. It matters little as to who adds to the existing communities, it requires planners, architects and even house buyers to understand the existing built fabric and demand additions to compliment and enhance it rather than clashing with it.
      Let me summarize.

      My original critical point was that it could have been better sited. Building it to the west of Radcliffe Street would have preserved an arterial link with the residential part of the town at the cost of demolishing perhaps six additional houses. Perhaps that additional cost was a consideration amongst the bean counters.

      The shops on the south side of Church Street never had he commercial profile of those on the north side of the street. I suspect that the steps up to them from street level deterred some customers. There was a baker and a butcher on the corners which were popular, but the rest of the row was a secondary retail location – a music shop, a Co-op gents outfitter, a Coal Merchant, a solicitor’s office and a newspaper office. There was also a garage with its service entrance in the back alley. The front window tended to display tires. None of these would have survived the commercial realities of the last 30 years.

      I might also observe that the Agora was out-of-date a few years after its construction. One of its central functions (I was led to understand) was to be a new home for the Wolverton Friday Market which had operated in the old school on Creed Street since 1906. Weekly town markets still flourish across the country but this one seems to have lost its way and what I saw inside was a more-or–less permanent display of cheap “under a pound” goods. The vibrancy of an organic weekly market had withered away.

      Another factor has been the growth of supemarkets and shopping malls, which have left the old small town shopping centres with personal services – banks, chemists, opticians, hairdressers, estate agents. In Wolverton’s case this need appears to have been met by shops around the Square and along the north side of Church Street.

      This would lead me to the conclusion that the Agora has neither been adopted by nor adapted to by the residents of Wolverton. 

      It is also worth making a comparison with Eastleigh in Hampshire. Until 1890, Eastleigh was  very much like Old Wolverton in 1838. Then they built a railway town with redbrick terraces laid out on a grid pattern and a large railway works. Sounds familiar? As with Wolverton Eastleigh went into decline as a railway manufacturing centre but they seem to have managed the transition  better. They built a big covered shopping centre at one end of the High Street and a Supermarket at the other and thus maintained the integrity of their main and subsidiary shopping street. There is also parking. This appears to me in 2011 like a piece of successful town planning. I can't say the same for Wolverton.

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