On the drawing board: MK Gallery by 6a architects

The UK’s largest new town has a small public gallery of contemporary art. At the end of Midsummer Boulevard, the axis of Milton Keynes’ town grid, it is separated by a dual carriageway from Campbell Park. A major extension of the MK Gallery, due to open in 2017, has given 6a architects opportunity to refer to and revive some of the ideas of the original town planners. Driven by his enthusiasm for Milton Keynes’ modernism and mysticism, 6a architects founder Tom Emerson talks with Herbert Wright about the project

Blueprint: The MK Gallery project is informed by its context of Milton Keynes. What’s special about the city?

Tom Emerson:
One of the reasons it’s exciting working in Milton Keynes is, on one level, it’s unbelievably English, completely based on some inventive, picturesque kind of imagination. These are all very English planners and architects. Quite a few of them came from the Smithsons’ office. There’s a slightly prehistoric symbolism - at that time the Smithsons were really interested in Avebury and Stonehenge. But they went to LA and they picked up Mies, the grid [town layout] and mobility. They came back and placed it over the Buckinghamshire landscape. And you feel a very strange sense of modernity. You’ve got a bit of LA, a bit of Superstudio, a bit of the garden city, a bit of Stowe.

Tom EmersonTom Emerson

BP: What exactly are you doing to the gallery?

TE: We’re extending it, and there’s some rehabilitation of the existing gallery. Under the canopy of the Theatre is the original MK Gallery [both by Andrzej Blonski], and in a sense this is a bit of an afterthought. It’s a box. Behind it is a second box, which is being improved, then a much larger box is being added at the end. It will double the gallery space, and add a multipurpose auditorium, education suite and a cafe-restaurant. The gallery has an amazing reputation in terms of contemporary programme, but it’s not big enough, it’s quite limited in terms of what it can do.

The auditorium window frames a picturesque view of Campbell ParkThe auditorium window frames a picturesque view of Campbell Park

BP: Are you reviving the more ambitious, unbuilt cultural schemes Milton Keynes originally had?

TE: There were several projects in the original conception for this epic thing called City Club. It had swimming pools, concert venues, art gallery. It was almost like a Cedric Price Fun Palace. We’re working with two artists - Gareth Jones, who is from Milton Keynes, and Nils Norman. They’re doing the public realm element, which is really about reconstituting part of the City Club project. The gallery fits in with that; it’s a conceptual living room for the city.

BP: What is the structure of the new MK Gallery?

TE: It’s basically a big steel-frame metal box, stainless steel, gridded up with a big circular window looking out on to the landscape. It basically combines the city and the landscape. The view on arriving sets out its case as a city landscape building. [With] the circular fire escape and this punched mesh opening [in top corner] where you have the services, you have this sense of anatomy of the building. It’s quite the modernist idea of making visible the key elements.

We kept the three original galleries then added this big gallery, and another one there. We’ve cleaned out the whole foyer. It’s much bigger. We’ve introduced an axis right the way through all the galleries, which again is one of the tropes of Milton Keynes, of the grid. So we try to restore the urban spatial idea back into the building. The cafe is a big one, double-height, all glazed. The big, glazed, gridded front is a direct reference to the Shopping Centre.

BP: And the auditorium upstairs?

TE: [Capacity is] 400 in total, but about 250 seated. That will be for cinema, gigs. When it’s split into two, you can have smaller events, seminars. When you come in there, there’s the big window, you’re 6m high, right over the dual carriageway with an unobstructed view of Campbell Park.

BP: Does this project fit in with a distinctive thread running through 6a projects?

TE: One of the big themes in all the projects is the idea of reintegration of architecture and the landscape as a singular force. It goes with [recent projects] like Churchill College, Cambridge with a patch of woodland [in its courtyard], and the Juergen Teller Studio [London]. This building, in a more technocratic way, is really about trying to simulate the urban and landscape tradition. Also, you could say, a fundamental appreciation, a critique, of the picturesque. In some respects, picturesque is responsible for quite a lot of the environmental crises we’re in. Picturesque turns nature and landscape into a picture. You frame it. The ha-ha [a hidden trench barrier creating a clear landscape view] is the first frameless window — keep the nasty things away but make it so we have a pretty picture…

BP: Isn’t that what you’re doing with the 9m-wide semi-circular auditorium window? You see Campbell Park but not the whizzing traffic on the highway?

Absolutely. It’s both an appreciation and a critique of it.

BP: Is there also a reference to the sun, and Midsummer Boulevard’s summer solstice alignment?

TE: Yes, the setting sun, and it’s bisected in the middle, like the sun dipping into the horizon. It’s almost those mystical, cosmological ideas that were very strong in Milton Keynes.

BP: So, the new gallery has very different design inspirations to the old one.

TE: I would consider the original building to be quite un-Milton Keynes. One of the things we’ve added is a porte cochère [portico shelter] that is one of the [city’s] original elements — Miesian structures, fairly beautiful, four legs and a roof. We’ve reintroduced one in front of the building as a sort of symbol of the city. I hope our building is deliberately unlike the original one… We’re much more interested in responding to the original idea of the grid city, the garden city.

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