A Ramble through Lie of the Land

On 21 June 2007, I joined my partner, artist David Cross, on an airfield outside Milton Keynes. I was groggy, the sun was not yet up. But that was the point. David disappeared with a pilot into a helicopter, and I watched as they took off. The helicopter’s dawn flight was lit up by ‘night sun’, a bright searchlight attached to its front, and drew a great logarithmic spiral across the city. The centre of that spiral marked a point for the helicopter to hover, so the searchlight could fix on a group of druids and New Age revellers gathered below, celebrating the arrival of solstice at sunrise in a circle of stones.

Trance Nation (2007), an artwork by Cornford & Cross, was commissioned by the late Michael Stanley to celebrate the fortieth anniversary of the founding of Milton Keynes. As the artists write, this is ‘a town remarkable for its combination of urban grid and utopian origins. Sleek corporate head offices line broad avenues whose names evoke the sites or mystic rituals of ancient religion: Silbury, Avebury, Midsummer…’[i] Trance Nation made a connection between two different kinds of spatial practice conducted in relation to land: one generated through actions of surveillance onto the land as object, through the militarisation of the design of the helicopter and related searchlight technologies; and the other developed out of the land itself, as rituals connected to the earth and its place as matter in the solar system.

An extensive archaeological dig by the Milton Keynes Development Corporation, which preceded the building of the new town of Milton Keynes in the mid-1960s, revealed the area to have a long and deep history of settlement dating back to Neolithic times. As part of the design process the original layout of the transport grid was shifted so that the key arterial road, Midsummer Boulevard, would align with the passage of the setting sun looking East. The application of a grid – as a critique of the tradition of the design of earlier English New Towns –was key to the non-hierarchical and devolved approach to urban design taken at Milton Keynes. Milton Keynes’s so-called ‘centre’ did not follow the new town precedent – consisting of a core ringed by concentric zoned circles, and their sectors – but rather took the form of a central business and shopping district, which was intended to complement many other districts, each one also located at a point on a grid, allowing people to travel easily between these distributed nodes.

‘A city is not a tree’, is the title of a famous essay from 1965 by the architect and architectural theorist Christopher Alexander, in which he argues that the structure of a city needs to be a ‘semi-lattice’ – an idea later developed into a theory of complex networks – that allows for overlapping and interconnected groupings of objects and subjects, rather than a tree-like hierarchical structure, which separates specific activities, and fits more with the modernist ideals of zoning.[ii] Alexander’s essay was a major inspiration to Melvin M. Webber, advisor to Richard Llewelyn Davies on the master planning for Milton Keynes. As the planning historian and theorist Peter Hall has discussed, Webber’s work argued for ‘a town freed of all conventional concepts of place or hierarchy’, where ‘freedom of action was the governing principle, and automobility would be the key’.[iii] Webber’s key papers, ‘Order in Diversity: Community Without Propinquity’ and ‘The Urban Place and the Nonplace Urban Realm’, which were published in 1963 and 1964 respectively, challenged the physically based concept of place that was considered to be the root of urban studies and planning of that time. As Michael B. Teitz has noted, this work shifted the ‘focus of attention’ in urban planning ‘from place to connectivity,[iv] and ‘the traditional meaning of “city” into networks of relationships at varying distances’.[v]


[i] Cornford & Cross, Trance Nation (2007), MK Gallery. See for example http://cornfordandcross.com/projects/2007/trancenation/index.html (accessed 12 July 2018).

[ii] Christopher Alexander, ‘A City is Not a Tree’, Architectural Forum, Vol. 122, No. 1, April 1965, pp. 58-62.

[iii] Sir Peter Hall, ‘Melvin M. Webber: Maker and Breaker of Planning Paradigms’, Access Magazine, special issue, winter 2006-2007, pp. 17-23, p. 20. See https://www.accessmagazine.org/special-issue/melvin-m-webber-maker-and-breaker-of-planning-paradigms/ (accessed 9 July 2018).

[iv] Michael B. Teitz, ‘Melvin Webber and the “Nonplace Urban Realm”’, Access Magazine, special issue, winter 2006-2007, pp. 29–34, p. 32. See https://www.accessmagazine.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/7/2016/07/nonplaceurbanrealm.8.pdf (accessed 9 July 2018).

[v] Ibid., p. 30.



Jane Rendell, ‘A Ramble through Lie of the Land’, Fay Blanchard (ed) Lie of the Land, (Milton Keynes Gallery, 2019).


The Lie of the Land


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