Milton Keynes is a large urban development 50 miles northwest of London. It is the flagship of the UK’s postwar New Towns: settlements built to relieve the housing pressure in London. Designed in the early 1960s to a master plan, Milton Keynes was utopian in its conviction that modern architecture and bold urban design could embody and foster a good society. Very few towns in the UK have been planned in this way. Most have grown in an ad hoc manner, lacking any grand oversight. Indeed, Milton Keynes soon became synonymous with the whole idea of the planned town. By the 1970s however, much of that faith in modernism had evaporated in Britain, and Milton Keynes began to symbolize all that was bland, sterile, rigid, and boring about postwar urbanism.
As the reputation of modernism rises and falls, so does the reputation of Milton Keynes. While new civic buildings still hold to modernist ideals, British domestic architecture has reverted almost entirely to pseudo-traditional red-brick buildings with pitched roofs. In 2001 the Japanese photographer Naoya Hatakeyama had a fourmonth residency in Milton Keynes. Hatakeyama works in series, each time with a specific subject matter and photographic approach. His projects have the simplified quality of visual archetypes. Strong and distinctive subject matter is given sympathetic but confident and graphic form as a set of photographs. All the images in each set follow the same pictorial conventions, cohering them as a unified visual statement.
“Still Life” is the provocative title Hatakeyama gave to his suite of photographs of red brick new-build houses in the expanded Milton Keynes. They are photographed carefully, but with a feeling for the generic nature of the subject matter, and the conventional way it is often represented for functional town planning purposes or basic publicity. However, working with a camera positioned slightly above human height, Hatakeyama’s rectilinear views make the buildings and streets look a little like models of themselves. They are bathed in picturesque low sunlight—near dawn or dusk—or else in the almost shadow-less light of overcast skies. Both are typically English or at least typical of the way English towns and landscapes are represented in art, television, and cinema.
New but old-fashioned houses, toy-like depiction, clichés of light; all these elements combine to give a sense of suspended time. The forward-looking ambition of modernism, which was the great promise of Milton Keynes, has ground to a halt. The mute stillness of photography has not interrupted anything. Rather it emphasizes the enervation, and the feeling that history, or progress, might be at an end. What kind of people live here? What are their expectations? What kind of community is suggested by this arrangement? Several of Hatakeyama’s photographs are views down cul-de-sacs; this French word that the English use in everyday speech describes scenarios in which there are no choices left, no chance to move forward. The only option is to reverse and try something else.