6a Architects has rethought and expanded the MK Gallery in Milton Keynes with a monumental metallic volume and bursts of colour
Words By: Herbert Wright
The MK Gallery in Milton Keynes, transformed and extended by 6a Architects and re-opened in March, responds to a cosmic alignment. On the midsummer solstice, the path of the sun is exactly aligned with Midsummer Boulevard, and it sets beyond it over Campbell Park. Now, there is a visual echo in the cityscape — a semi-circular window above the equator of a 10m-diameter circle marked in MK Gallery’s new volume, a metallic box 15m high. It’s a simple, powerful architectural statement and it signals that this thriving yet strangely subdued town is back on the cultural map. The whole project offers a kaleidoscope of reflections and references to Milton Keynes’ extraordinary urbanist legacy.
In the 1970s, cosmic alignments were just part of what informed the planners and architects of the MK Development Corporation (MKDC) led by Derek Walker. Their vision was rational but tinged with the metaphysical. It appropriated the American grid city of the automobile age while immersing the urban into a landscape laced with prehistory. Architecturally, it drew on modernism from Mies van der Rohe to the radical experimentation of Cedric Price. 6a co-founder Tom Emerson finds it fascinating that Milton Keynes, the last and largest of the UK’s new towns, ‘is the idea of the welfare state; it was started as a lefty-hippy project, but it was opened by Thatcher’.
A porte cochere shelters the entrance and a neon sign signifies the ‘heart of the city’. Credit: 6a Architects
Nowadays, the town struggles with the original low-rise, car-centric MKDC plan. Midsummer Boulevard cuts through a downtown where street life is neutered beside car parks and rectilinear modernism. The town is virtually a cultural desert bar the vast, curvy post-MKDC Xscape leisure complex (by architect FaulknerBrowns), the pyramid-framed multiscreen cinema The Point (by BDP in 1985, now slated for demolition) and the Milton Keynes Theatre, designed — like the original gallery — by Blonski Heard Architects (now Andrzej Blonski Architects) in 1999.
What was not realised from the original MKDC vision was something called City Club, a matrix of leisure features recalling Price’s Fun Palace concept. The City Club name has been revived in public space in and around the new gallery by 6a’s collaborators, artists Nils Norman and Gareth Jones and graphic designer Mark El-khatib.
The new volume is metal-clad, but the stainless steel enclosing the circular fire escape is perforated. Credit: Iwan Baan
Blonski’s old gallery volume retains its original terracotta and sandstone colours, making it very different from 6a’s larger metallic extension volume behind it to the east. A large neon version of an original Milton Keynes graphic, a red heart signifying downtown, is mounted above the entrance door behind a black metal porte cochere. This minimalist, table-like porch structure is ubiquitous in Milton Keynes, elsewhere providing skimpy shelter at roadside crossings.
Inside, beyond the entrance lobby, loading and storage has been replaced by a double-height cafe that can seat 60. Windows look out on Midsummer Boulevard, globe lamps hang from yellow cords and red structural steelwork and yellow tubing frame the space in Cartesian right angles. The feel is high-tech industrial. A red door surrealistically faces empty space above the cafe — a spiral staircase once led up to old offices there, but that has gone. Norman and Jones chose the vivid colours to evoke the so-called Custard Factory, a now-lost system-built office designed by MKDC’s architects for their own use in the grounds of a nearby country house.
The new volume and its iconic window face east towards Campbell Park. Credit: 6a Architects
Parallel to the entrance and cafe is the original line of Blonski’s three galleries. They remain largely unchanged, but their connecting entrances are now aligned to give a long view, all the way into the new fourth gallery, the largest under a 6.5m-high ceiling, and its single-storey window. This supplies eastern light, mediated by trees beside a major road just metres away.
This fourth gallery is in the new volume, and on its north side, a second, smaller new gallery looks out over the pedestrian underpass from Midsummer Boulevard to Campbell Park. This gallery’s south side accesses a studio education room, where like the cafe, the feel is colourful high-tech. It looks out on a key element of City Club, a courtyard where Norman and Jones celebrate the town’s 50-year heritage with bollards and lampposts, and benches in the shape of a hand and an arrow, symbolism from MKDC days. Another window gives a glimpse of the fire escape, part of the electrifying exterior drama we shall return to.
The Sky Room is an adaptable events space overlooking the park, with curtains in historic Habitat colours. Credit: Johan Dehlin
6a co-founder Tom Emerson summarises the new volume as ‘basically a big steel-frame metal box, gridded up with a big [semi-] circular window looking out on to the landscape. It’s a very clear iconography of the city. It basically combines the city and the landscape.’
Upstairs in the new volume is the Sky Room, a simply stunning 20m-long, 150-capacity auditorium dominated by that great window, which floods it with light. A rectangular window looks out over the gallery’s roadside sculpture garden. A technical ceiling is set in its 6.5m height. All-round curtains carry bands of colours, which come from a colour palette found in a 1970s Habitat catalogue. It offers softer colours than the Custard Factory’s but a wide spread, suggesting both ‘pastoral and urban’ as Norman explains. He and Jones were so taken with the colours that they painted toilet rolls in them to take everywhere as they worked up their plans. Toilet facilities serving the auditorium each take on different colours from the range.
The fire escape’s red metal stairs are not apparent outside of the perforated steel tube enclosing the staircase. Credit: 6a Architects
Beside this new volume is the fire escape, a spectacular cylindrical object in itself. The steel spiral stairs inside are bright red, but this is only hinted at externally in thin horizontal lines where the perforated, polished stainless steel it is sheathed in join up. Internally it has outward transparency but externally it’s not unlike a silvery sci-fi rocket booster stage. It contrasts very subtly with the corrugated stainless steel of the adjacent main volume, in which is set a big yellow loading door.
Emerson says that ‘one of the big themes in all [6a’s] projects is the idea of reintegration of architecture and the landscape as a singular force’. That shows, for example, in the elemental forms of the extension’s box and cylinder, projecting their presence into Campbell Park. There’s something monumental but simultaneously lightweight about them, and their steel skins echo the weather. The semi-circular window could be a great eye looking out, harbouring an alien power. It’s quite different right up close, or inside — fun and energy animate the new MK Gallery itself, finally delivering that missing zing which Price’s City Club had once promised.