Norfolk House and Ashton House


Norfolk House and Ashton House were opened in 1980, at the corner of Saxon Gate and Silbury Boulevard, are some of the earliest commercial buildings designed by Milton Keynes Development Corporation (MKDC). With sleek concrete frames, a glass-clad façade and a public garden, they mirror the famous grid system the city is built upon. The buildings are penetrated by portes cochère, with the movement of pedestrians carefully considered whilst the space was designed. Together with the nearby and stylistically similar Shopping Building, they create a set piece of Mies van der Rohe inspired modernism.

International influence

Milton Keynes stands as a remarkable illustration of a pivotal moment in British and international architectural and town planning history, capturing the transition from utopian modernism to a more nuanced approach to place-making. While it’s not a flawless model for a modern, sustainable city, it is a unique and enduring testament to a groundbreaking vision that diverged from conventional practices in the UK and took inspiration from around the globe.

Initiated by a masterplan crafted by Richard Llewelyn-Davies and his team between 1967 and the beginning of construction in 1970, Milton Keynes has a distinctive character marked by a vast grid road network interwoven with green landscapes and separate cycling and pedestrian routes known as Redways. Though subject to national criticism, largely due to its modern architectural approach and many roundabouts, the city’s significance lies in its unconventional interpretation and execution by Derek Walker, the chief architect of MKDC.

Walker’s unwavering commitment to a high-quality, modern architectural style defined Milton Keynes. Under his leadership, MKDC attracted both emerging and established external architectural practices, garnering widespread attention in professional journals. Early housing schemes showcased rigorous linear layouts and continuous facades, which adapted efficiently to building material shortages at the time.

“We had absolute control and if it wasn’t good, it didn’t get built. If it wasn’t brilliant, it didn’t get built. And we did produce some smashing buildings, some beautiful infrastructure.”

Ivan Pickles, Architect, MKDC

Despite the architectural significance of the city, the public realm takes centre stage in Central Milton Keynes (CMK). The city’s wavy grid transforms into a straight-lined framework, showcasing Mies-van-der-Rohe inspired buildings, tree-lined boulevards, and purpose-designed infrastructure, including around 300 unique ‘portes cochère’ structures which protect pedestrians from the rain and signpost walkways.

“Plainness is not an understood feature of CMK – modernist, simple, black painted portes-cochère, lovely grey paving slabs, grey concrete blocks…It’s deliberate, because the colour and animation is in the shops, in people’s clothes, their cares, the things they’re carrying and the way they’re moving around. Don’t want adverts in the street, thank you very much…This is civic space.”

David Lock, CMK Town Planner, 1979–82

Today, Milton Keynes receives visitors from across the world who come to see how this highly designed landscape has evolved into one of the UK’s most successful cities. It remains a place where international planners embarking on building new towns and cities come to learn from its successes and failures. Each year sees delegations from home and abroad, who come to learn how civic spaces and the heritage of a place can inform the creation of new urban centres.


‘Octo’ is one of Milton Keynes’ most memorable sculptures, sitting in harmony with the modern architecture which surrounds it. This sculpture made from stainless steel was made by Wendy Taylor in 1979-1980. It sits in the centre of a pool, reflecting the sky and mirrored surfaces of the buildings around it. Walk around the edges of the pool and see how the 4m high sculpture seems to change shape as you move past it and how the light plays on the water’s surface. The sculpture is a star of 80s pop music as it appeared in Sir Cliff Richard’s “Wired for Sound” video.  He struts around the artwork, headphones in ears, whilst rolling skaters in primary colours circle the pool.

It is of historic interest as an early example of the Milton Keynes Development Corporation’s (MKDC) public art programme and, along with the nearby Frink and Schottlander works, was one of the first sculptures unveiled in the city. In 1967, when Milton Keynes was designated as a New Town, MKDC held the power over its own planning and had a policy of commissioning outdoor works of art for public display. The sculpture commemorates Richard Llewelyn-Davies (1912-1981), the architect who inspired the master plan for the new city of Milton Keynes.

The sculptor Wendy Taylor often worked creating permanent commissions that spoke to the places in which they were installed. She is known for her sculptures in the public realm, especially in London, and she said to be one of the first artists of her generation to take art out of the galleries and onto the streets. Here in Milton Keynes, it forms part of the collection of more than 200 works which makes the city an open-air gallery.

Her work is typically abstract and much like “Octo”, they explore ideas of balance, material, and fabrication. Often her artworks suggest optical illusions and here the figure of 8 form suggests both the infinite symbol and a Mobius strip with an extra twist. A Mobius strip is a mathematical shape which is made by taking a strip, twisting it and joining the opposite ends so that there is only one surface, without and inside or an outside. Try it yourself, follow the one of the edges around and see how it joins up with what should logically be the opposite side of the shape!

“Octo” began as an aluminium maquette, a small-scale model, which was created without any particular commission in mind. Derek Walker, architect to the MKDC, and Donald Ritson, an MKDC Assistant General Manager, noticed ‘Octo’ in a portfolio. They visited Wendy Taylor’s studio and commissioned the work for Norfolk House and Ashton House.

Wendy Taylor suggested mounting the sculpture on a reflecting pool to bridge the gap in scale between passers-by and the large office blocks, while echoing their mirror-glass surfaces. Keen to convince them of the value of the water feature, she sprayed a plywood model of the sculpture in silver and flooded the yard of her studio. On seeing the effect of the reflections and thinking of the mirrored surfaces of the buildings, the sculpture was commissioned with the pool as a key feature.

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