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A Meeting of Landscape and City: 6a’s Extended MK Gallery Opens in Milton Keynes

The London firm’s bold, contextually astute renovation of the 1990s gallery pays homage to the functional forms of Britain’s ur-New Town

Designed and constructed through the late-1960s and 70s, Milton Keynes was a fully realized, modern interpretation of a garden city, an update on Ebenezer Howard’s 19th-century ideal of dense urban communities surrounded by nature. Under the direction of the late Derek Walker and the influence of mid-century North American urbanism, the Milton Keynes Development Corporation (MKDC) architects’ department created a visionary city of boulevards, square blocks and underpasses that was ‘greener than the landscape around it’, in Walker’s words. In the years since, its profile has dimmed somewhat and, these days, the town is often associated with roundabouts and little else.  

Walking through the city is an uncanny experience, which only begins to make sense when you realize there are no billboards. The lack of visual clutter, in combination with the rectilinear architecture and planning of the ur-New Town in the south-west Midlands, means that the built environment is stark, almost minimalist, and new additions either fit in or they don’t.

The Milton Keynes Development Corporation's architects department at Wavendon Tower, Milton Keynes, 1970s. Courtesy: 6a architects and RIBA Collection; photograph: John Donat

6a architects’s new MK Gallery fits in. Viewed from Campbell Park, which directly abuts the hard northeast border of the city centre, the stainless steel facade of the box that extends the gallery’s 1999 structure (by architects Andrzej Blonski and Michael Heard) leans heavily on the high-tech Milton Keynesian vernacular. With its simple geometric facade – a circle contained within a square – the box cuts a clean figure above the park’s landscape and the B304 road. This meeting of land- and cityscape is seen as a vital theme in the history of the city, something reflected heavily in the gallery’s expansion and its opening exhibition, ‘The Lie of the Land’. 

6a’s work here is characteristically light and appears quite simple: more a cleaning up and clarification than a reconstruction. The most substantial addition is the steel box, which extends pre-existing gallery spaces and adds a second-floor events space, the Sky Room. From here, the circle on the facade is bisected, creating a large semi-circular window that gives uninterrupted views onto the fields of Buckinghamshire, while a square window on its north side looks back towards the city. 

On the ground floor, a simple circulation scheme puts the galleries on one side and the public facilities – a new café and shop – on the other. The three pre-existing galleries have been opened up, their suspended ceilings removed to create lofty cubic spaces. Realigned doorways and large new windows create a single sightline – a nod to the long views created by the city’s boulevards, according to Tom Emerson of 6a – culminating in two new galleries.

MK Gallery by 6a architects, featuring City Club by Gareth Jones and Nils Normal. Courtesy: 6a architects

Throughout the GB£7 million project, the London-based architects’s characteristically nuanced relationship with context – see their work with the South London Gallery for more – is evident, with nods to history that veer towards nostalgic reproduction before veering back to the present at the last moment. The colour-coded design of the gallery’s new cafe, for example, is based on the so-called ‘Custard Factory’: the architects’ department of the MKDC, ‘the place where Milton Keynes was invented’ (as Anthony Spira, MK Gallery’s director, puts it). The new Sky Room is adorned with a ceiling-height curtain whose colour scheme was lifted directly from a 1976 Habitat catalogue, while the building’s basic structure reflects what Emerson describes as Milton Keynes’s ‘archetype building: […] a steel frame shed’. While these references are rooted in particular histories, the use of strong interior colours, curved partitions and corrugated facade materials are ‘on-trend’ features of British architecture – see Assemble’s Goldsmiths CCA, We Made That’s East Street Exchange or SelgasCano’s Second Home Spitalfields – giving the project a markedly contemporary feel.

This chronological blend similarly makes its way into ‘The Lie of the Land’. Curated by a group of seven – Fay Blanchard, Tom Emerson, Niall Hobhouse, Sam Jacob, Gareth Jones, Anthony Spira and Claire Louise Staunton – the show explores the changing relationship between the British landscape and attitudes to free time and leisure, spanning Thomas Gainsborough to Rachel Whiteread. It’s a fittingly fun exhibition, whose greatest strength is in unexpected discoveries and juxtapositions between ostensibly disparate genres, eras and media. A room titled ‘The Leisure Principle’, for example, pairs the paintings of LS Lowry and British Cubist William Patrick Roberts with flyers for raves at Milton Keynes’s Sanctuary venue (‘happy hardcore played the way it should be’). Elsewhere, a Henry Moore sculpture overlooks a Milton Keynes bench – a ubiquitous feature of British public space in the later decades of the 20th century. 

This broad spread is a direct result of extensive feedback gathered by Spira and his team during the process of renovating the gallery’s spaces and programme. ‘A lot of people here said they don’t feel that comfortable with contemporary art, so we’ve been thinking about that,’ he explains. The result isn’t a dumbing down so much as a levelling of access and a facilitation of discovery; come for Edwin Lutyens – whose Wheelbarrow Bench (c.1920) gives visitors a chance to sit down – stay for Lawrence Lek – whose Play Station (2017) invites visitors into a near-future VR-landscape where the borders between work and play are completely dissolved.

MK Gallery by 6a architects, featuring City Club by Gareth Jones and Nils Norman. Courtesy: 6a architects; photograph: Johan Dehlin 

According to Spira, putting on shows with some relation to the city will be a focus of the new programme – although with upcoming surveys of the Portuguese artist Paula Rego and the 18th-century’s favourite painter of horses, George Stubbs, those links may end up a little tenuous. ‘We try and look for a connection to Milton Keynes’ he explains, ‘but more important than that, at the moment, we are trying to put on things we hope people will be interested in generally.’

This approach betrays Spira’s ambition, a focus of his ten-year tenure at the gallery, to draw in audiences from the city and the broader region. Milton Keynes Theatre, MK Gallery’s neighbour, which opened alongside the gallery in 1999, attracts considerable audiences from miles around, something Spira hopes the renovated gallery will do as well. And while the city is only a half-hour’s train ride from London (considerably shorter than the journey to, say, Margate), there seems to be a much greater interest in improving the city’s arts offering for local audiences than in attracting outside creative communities for wider culture-led regeneration. 

Perhaps most tellingly, one of the central exhibits in ‘The Lie of the Land’ is a scale model of Milton Keynes from the early 1970s, accompanied by Helmut Jacoby’s extraordinary renderings of how the city would pan out. At the core of this project, its architecture and the opening exhibition, is pride in the city: creative potential amidst its myriad roundabouts. The expanded MK Gallery will be a welcome addition as the young city continues to develop, in the words of council leader Peter Marland, ‘from being a plan, to becoming a place’.

Main image: MK Gallery by 6a architects, featuring City Club by Gareth Jones and Nils Norman, 2019. Courtesy: 6a architects 

George Kafka is a writer and editor living in London. He writes regularly for architecture and design publications including Metropolis, The Architectural Review, Blueprint and Disegno

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