Circular economy

The new gallery building for Milton Keynes is a simple but highly effective tribute to the optimistic spirit of a 1960s New Town, reports James Parker

Often architects talk about their projects being site-specific. They are rarely more imbued with their context, and potentially impossible to interpret without it, than the new gallery created in Milton Keynes by 6a Architects.

According to Tom Emerson of 6a, what the practice were “most excited about,” was “trying to rediscover the architectural and social DNA of the city.” Milton Keynes was conceived in the 1960s as a large ‘New Town,’ planned carefully on a grid which carefully integrated landscape with a range of proudly futuristic buildings.

Emerson says that over his six years working on the MK Gallery’s refurbishment and extension, he has “become a die-hard fan of Milton Keynes.” He says that, having investigated the story of the town, including its 60s ‘utopian’ ideals, “you realise what it succeeded in doing, and where the vision was compromised.”

The town is being seen with fresh eyes, the architect believes. “Its fortunes are changing, from being the subject of ridicule – roundabouts and concrete cows – it’s being revisited, people are realising it had fantastic potential, that is still unfulfilled.” The recent re-opening of the enlarged and greatly improved gallery, facing the eastern edge of the famous shopping centre, is a key stage in the town’s renaissance.

In 2012 the gallery’s director Anthony Spira, fresh from another cutting edge contemporary art gallery, The Whitechapel in east London, decided he needed to expand MK for its 20th birthday. Although the gallery already had a strong reputation, its audience was “quite small,” says Emerson. “Anthony wanted to create a much broader audience, and a local one,” and the means to this end would include bringing in much bigger exhibitions, particularly “historic shows.”

6a were appointed to design the publicly funded scheme based on the practice’s strong portfolio of gallery projects, including Raven Row, Spitalfields, South London gallery, Sadie Cole’s London Gallery, and the fashion galleries at the V&A. The modest £7m budget came via a combination of local council, Arts Council and SEMLEP local growth fund cash, and competing practices had to present to “quite a big selection panel,” says Emerson.

This was then followed by a feasibility study which looked at the client’s desired programme, which was “quite fluid for a long time,” says Emerson. For example, extended discussions took place around whether more than one cinema would be desirable in a new multi-purpose auditorium/performance space. This changing picture was challenging for the architects, particularly when they had no guarantee they would be chosen to take the scheme to completion, or that it would be given Arts Council funding, until it was officially green-lighted.

“There were big questions around what’s the best sort of revenue, and best sort of community outreach,” Emerson explains. He continues, “We were looking at lots of options, producing data.” This led to a range of models, including physical as well as digital versions. “The building was getting bigger and smaller all the time.”

The site is important and highly visible, marking where the eastern edge of the town centre meets the green space of Campbell Park. Right at the end of main central axis Midsummer Boulevard, that runs from the station to the park, it’s a location which gave 6a the opportunity to tap into some quintessential Milton Keynes design inspiration.

The building links to the landscape in a variety of ways, “in a very Milton Keynsian way,” says Emerson. The idea of a large central window in the main facade overlooking the park was identified as the key means of achieving this, one which also creates a playful, characterful landmark for the town.

It was also a helpful device for ensuring balance in the overall design composition, during the very fluid early stages, as Tom explains: “After we put this big circle in it, we realised it doesn’t really matter how the proportions change – as long as that circle stays in the middle the whole thing is balanced. It turned out to be a very useful idea, because it’s very flexible.”

The resulting building is a combination of retaining and refurbishing the original two cubic volumes alongside Midsummer Boulevard (and tucked underneath the adjacent MK Theatre’s distinctive, oversailing porte cochere). As a result of this, and adding a further, more striking building, the gallery space provided has been doubled.

The set of three joined buildings are arranged parallel to the boulevard, with the public functions ranged along it. The two existing gallery buildings retain their original layout to an extent, with the main entrance and book shop sitting beside two galleries in the first, and a new cafe and a further gallery behind in the second, slightly lower, blockwork-built form. However the openings have been widened, suspended ceilings have been removed to add height and expose services, and walls have been remade and upgraded to international exhibition standards. Facing onto the boulevard, the cafe benefits from an outdoor terrace which will be very pleasant in good weather.

The addition of a higher rectangular gallery and auditorium building to the east, adjoining the cafe/gallery block, not only delivers the greater space the client wanted, it also provides the setting for some architectural flair using a simple, steel-frame construction. By moving openings between the first two buildings to align with those in the new addition, a wide circulation running between a new window to the front entrance building and a window at the far eastern elevation of the new building has been created. It’s possible to see through the entire three adjoining buildings to the trees of Campbell Park.

The new building is simple, but precisely crafted, with an enormous 11.8 metre-wide hole cut in it, its top half glazed to visually connect the building with the landscape. Downstairs there are two galleries, including a large central one, continuing on the line of its counterpart in the adjacent, existing building. To the west is a learning and community hub, connected to an external play area, supporting what Tom says is “a big community outreach and education programme.”

On the floor above, the auditorium (the ‘Sky Room’), can seat up to 300, and gives spectacular views over the park. It will be the first independent cinema in the town, run in partnership with Curzon Cinemas, as well as hosting performances and lectures, and can be hired out for weddings or corporate functions. To the south, a cylindrical fire escape, also clad in steel, contributes to the “quite constructivist, modernist sense of primary forms assembled together,” says the architect.

Coming full circle
The new building is an unashamed tribute to the design thinking that inspired the creation of Milton Keynes, tapping into to a certain strand of 1960s futuristic optimism, says Emerson. “It’s a little bit retro future, plays a little bit with ‘high-tech,’ and the sort of promise that architects in the 1960s and 70s were looking for. It’s quite fun.”

The volume’s somewhat abstract, simple presentation of a circle within a gridded rectangular box is far from accidental; it’s highly context-specific. “Campbell Park, which was designed and built with the city, has this kind of spiritual, orbital geometry, with all these circles and cones,” says Emerson (they were references to English prehistoric structures). “Our building is essentially the grid of the city meets the circles in the landscape – a very simple idea of reconstituting the meeting of the city and the landscape in one building.”

He says in this way it’s “a narrative of the city itself,” and it also fits into the idiom of clean-lined, modernist buildings which have appeared in the city since its birth. He compares it to the shopping centre – “a cross between Mies van de Rohe and Crystal Palace, essentially, an exquisite, repeating steel framed grid, really beautifully detailed.” However unlike that “incredibly expensive” building, similar characteristics were achieved for a far humbler budget here.

Internally, the grid-based layout is also “very Milton Keynsian,” says Emerson, “almost replaying the story of the city in the interior.” He says the idea was that “the city is also in its internal layout and details.”

The outside of the new addition has been clad in vertically corrugated stainless steel, producing a shimmering effect. A contrasting texture is provided by flat steel sections in the cladding of the great circular ‘window’’s bottom hemisphere, which forms the wall of the main gallery. Cut into this and offset is the square window terminating the axis corridor through all three buildings.

Although rolled steel is an established technology, cutting the Schueco curtain walling to the precise tolerances required placed demands on the UK-based fabricators MB Glass, says Emerson. Their task was made slightly easier by the size of the circle, meaning the radius of each section was not particularly tight.

The challenge, says Emerson, was around “tolerances – the most tricky thing is to get all the bits to fit three-dimensionally into that puzzle.” He tells ADF that a high level of co-ordination was needed to achieve precise interfaces between primary structure and curtain walling elements. It took “a lot of design work and a lot of discussion with the fabricators to make sure all those bits could come together.”

Emerson summarises: “It was stressful and a lot of pressure on everybody, but the kind of pressure that comes from doing big capital projects generally.” Adding to this was the need to keep this publicly-funded Design & Build project within budget: “If there had been a huge benefactor behind it, like a Guggenheim, maybe we would have been a bit more relaxed about spending a bit more here, a bit more there.”

One way in which the architects decided to help the new gallery bring in the public was to add a cafe in a former workshop space in the now central building of the three that comprise the scheme. Emerson explains an important aspect of the new arrangement for visitor comfort: “The ground floor was full of loos, they were all by the entrance, in wrong place, so we put them on the first floors.”

The new cafe is a capacious, double-height space, eight metres high, and has been painted in the “quite wild” red colour scheme of Milton Keynes’ original central design office. There are now five galleries in total, in a sequence beginning with a nine metre high space, leading through via the axis corridor, with glimpses of the exterior through full-height windows to the north, south and east, to four further six metre high galleries. They are all on the ground floor, making it easier for visitors and the gallery itself, in terms of logistics of staging exhibitions.

Through conforming to strict GIS environmental standards covering heating, cooling, humidity, lighting as well as security, the galleries are now suitable for major exhibitions, such as borrowed public art collections. Power points are concealed behind pristine white walls, reinforced to prevent attempted theft using vehicles such as JCBs. The acoustics, by Max Fordham, are of a high quality, larger spaces and openings mean larger artworks, and the floors are polished concrete.

As Emerson admits, meeting these standards “makes it hard to make many claims for sustainability with galleries – you can’t do it with passive ventilation for example.” However the energy take to achieve the necessary environmental control is offset somewhat with the roof being covered with solar PVs.

While the galleries are impressive, the star of the show is perhaps the auditorium, with its views over the park framed by the semi-circular window: a “great arc over the landscape,” as Emerson describes it. He hopes it “becomes a really significant public room, one that people really associate with Milton Keynes – the ‘last room in the city.’”

Engaging with the past
As well as the range of exhibits on the gallery walls, there are several mementos of Milton Keynes’ built heritage included in the front refurbished former gallery building. The black entrance portico is a remade porte cochere that originally provided shelter to one of the town’s street crossings. There’s also a pink neon heart on the facade (the town’s original symbol), original streetlamps, and the curtain in the auditorium – like many other items in the building – is coloured using a palette taken from a 1978 Habitat catalogue.

Tom Emerson sums up the thinking behind this retro, yet forward-thinking, and celebratory project: “We wanted to make a building that’s about the future, and a place that’s really fun to go to, where people enjoy being with friends, discovering art, but also food, performances, cinema. A real social, civic space.” He adds that, in this way, it “will end up being one of the most important cultural buildings in Milton Keynes.”

He says that the community is highly engaged, and have given the architects “quite vocal feedback.” He concludes: “People seem to be very excited by it in a way we haven’t seen on other gallery projects. They have bought into it.”

Project Factfile
Client: MK Gallery
Architects: 6a Architects
Contractors: Bowmer & Kirkland
Project management and contract administration: Jackson Coles
Structural engineer: Momentum
Environmental Engineer: Max Fordham
Quantity Surveyor: Gleeds
Artists: Gareth Jones & Nils Norman