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A star is born

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Imagine it’s early evening. Not the humdrum early evening of the average week, all too often swallowed up by the working day. But the beingon-holiday early evening when people begin to gather in the streets. Early evening with a hint of promise.With its new theatre and gallery complex in Milton Keynes, Andrzej Blonski

Milton Keynes’ theatre complex is a place to gather and to linger: between a meal at the new restaurant and a play at the new theatre; after a visit to an exhibition at the new art gallery; for no particular reason at all. For this is a building - or rather, a collection of buildings - which is civic rather than commercial in its ambition. It is designed as much for the public at large as for those prepared to pay to sample its various delights.

It is intensely idealistic in its conception, but then this is Milton Keynes.A city which may not be to everybody’s taste, but which nevertheless has proved that idealism and workability can exist side by side. It is also a city with a thriving public life. The site for the new complex was selected for its position as a ‘gateway’ to the city, located between the main shopping centre and Campbell Park. A popular location for summer events, the park is one of Milton Keynes’ very few outdoor public spaces, and Andrzej Blonski

‘In a way Glyndebourne is an influence, ’ Blonski concedes. ‘But Glyndebourne is not available to everyone.’

From a distance the complex reads as a single building, with the auditorium and flytower rising above a single wavy roof (the undulations are a means of uniting a series of spaces with different height requirements). It is in fact a series of buildings arranged around a civic square which - in comparison to Glyndebourne - is very much available to everyone. Blonski hopes to see the square peopled, Covent Garden-style, with casual buskers or with organised events, and ‘with people actively or passively enjoying the space’. Partly an extension of the street, and partly a forecourt to the buildings, the square eliminates the moment when a member of the public ‘commits’ to entering the building, and the glazed front wall to the theatre makes the front-of-house area an extension of the city square.

‘A theatre’, says Blonski, ‘has to work all day, but it has to change at night.’And while it is possible to enjoy the public space in the most casual way, the auditorium and surrounding spaces have been designed to encourage a self-conscious enjoyment of the rituals associated with an evening out. Take the over-generous WCs inspired by 1930s powder rooms, or the ‘Marilyn Monroe’ staircase to the upper circles, or the tunnel from the front-ofhouse area to the stalls designed to prolong the sense of anticipation of stepping from the real world into the magical fantasy world within the auditorium.

Concealed within a concrete drum, the auditorium is inscrutable from the outside, and surprisingly complex within. A colonnade which runs around the edge of the auditorium separates the animated circulation area from the body of the space.When illuminated, the ‘slip stream’ behind the columns reads as part of the main space.

When in darkness, the columns read as the edge of the auditorium, a trick which ensures that the proportions always appear ‘right’ despite the fact that the acoustic ceiling can be moved to any one of three different positions. At its lowest, the ceiling cuts out the upper circle, reducing capacity to 800 and producing a space which is visually and acoustically appropriate for intimate drama or recitals. For orchestral concerts, the ceiling is raised to its uppermost position increasing audience capacity to 1,600 (see page 40).

The complex planning of the auditorium and its servant spaces is the result of a desire to create ‘a space which gradually reveals its secrets’.

Blonski talks of the joy of finding a favourite seat or of discovering different routes to the foyer and bars. ‘With most contemporary auditoria, what you see is what you get’, says Blonski ‘Here you can explore … there is such a range ofseating positions that you can find your favourite … or discover little routes to the bar to beat the stampede.’

Backstage facilities are utilitarian - ‘we couldn’t afford anything else’ - but enhanced by imaginative touches. The rehearsal room is lined with mirrors giving the impression of infinite space, the manager’s office is painted bright red, while the green room, curiously enough, is bright yellow.

The main office area has a terrace overlooking Campbell Park and the Bedfordshire countryside, and an internal window looking down onto the stage. The window is emblematic of the general ethos of the building. It’s a bit of fun which will offer fleeting moments of enjoyment to those who use the building, but it is also serious in its intent.

This is a building which is concerned with the way people interact with each other. Put in at the manager’s suggestion, the window exists ‘so that people are constantly reminded that they are working here because of what goes on down there’.

Structure and services

Whitby Bird & Partners’ involvement with the project began in 1994 with an appointment for the combined structural and building services engineering. The challenging competitionwinning scheme saw the structure evolve as a combination of reinforced concrete and structural steel. Reinforced concrete provided acoustic properties to the building shell whereas the structural steel within was chosen for its lightweight nature and speed of erection.

An economic founding solution of a central raft foundation with discrete pad foundations was developed after thorough site investigation.

To deal with uplift on the basement, the construction programme incorporated a heave period for the main excavation, and the basement reinforced-concrete box was constructed with a number of weep holes to prevent buoyancy in the temporary case.

The main theatre structure, including the auditorium, fly-tower and back of house, is formed as a concrete armature supporting the complex steel framework forming the seating and gallery tiers. Steel trusses support the roof providing a 30m clear span across the auditorium. Precast hollow planks extend to the flytower where steel beams span the depth of the stage. Both steel and concrete at roof level support a series of suspended flying systems, grids, walkways, ceilings and services.

A unique feature of the auditorium is the 30 tonne mobile acoustic ceiling suspended from the roof trusses using a counterweight and pulley arrangement. Virtually all the steelwork, including the mobile ceiling and theatre equipment, was procured from a single source with Whitby Bird & Partners responsible for the full design, reducing the number of interfaces of trade-contractor design packages.

The auditorium seating is formed from cantilevered steelwork enclosed by timber to provide an air plenum used to ventilate the auditorium.The penetrations required for this structure/services integration, along with very limited structural zones imposed by critical sight lines, demanded a creative but wellengineered steelwork grillage.

The waveform roof is a striking feature on the Milton Keynes skyline. Diaphragm action of the roof sheeting is utilised, completely omitting steel bracing, which would have otherwise been visible. In Theatre Square, the roof is held in position by cantilever fin columns. Working closely with the contractor, a concrete mix was developed for use with the steel shutters to achieve a high-quality fairfaced finish. In the foyer, balconies and staircases are partly suspended from the waveform roof with the expressive structure detailed with care and imagination.

The steel superstructure to the multi-storey car park was tendered with design intent information and let as a complete performance specification package. Similarly, the foyer glass wall, which incorporated bespoke steel mullions, was let as a develop-and-detail package.

At the peak of the frame-construction activities, it was unusual to see a straight steel beam on site. With steel members mostly curved, cranked or tapered, it is a credit to the contractors that such a fine landmark frame was erected to programme with little frustration.


The acoustics of Milton Keynes Theatre have been developed to accommodate a broad range of performances, from intimate drama on the one hand, to full orchestral concerts on the other; with large drama, musicals and opera in between.

Each of these performance genres requires different acoustic conditions. Drama demands particularly high sound clarity for the spoken voice. In opera, this clarity needs to be balanced by a degree of reverberance, to give fullness of tone to the singing voice and the orchestra. For symphonic concerts, yet more reverberance is required to give ample resonance for orchestral sounds.

These diverse acoustic requirements need extensive acoustic variability.To provide this in a positive and effective way, the auditorium ceiling has been designed so that it can be raised and lowered by up to 10m. This enables the acoustic volume and sound reflection sequence to be adjusted to change the critically important balance between clarity and reverberance.

There are three pre-determined settings for the ceiling height. The lowest gives the minimum acoustic volume, which is appropriate for intimate drama. The intermediate height provides a lyric theatre suitable for large drama, musicals and opera.

The maximum height gives a concert hall with ample reverberance for full orchestral sounds.

In this mode, the orchestra is partly enclosed from above and behind by a concert shell with curved and faceted surfaces to project sound into the auditorium and to help musicians hear each other.

Other surfaces in the auditorium have also been specially shaped, such as the balcony fronts and convex panels on the rear walls. This shaping helps to promote a uniform coverage of sound over all the seats. Additional fine tuning of the auditorium acoustics is obtained by adjusting acoustic drapes on the side walls.

Pre-opening listening tests and measurements have shown that each setting of the auditorium provides acoustic conditions closely matched to their function ranging from dramas and musicals to opera and symphonies.

cost analysis

Costs based on an interim position between contract sum and final account

STRUCTURE EARTHWORKS, DRAINAGE AND SITE PREPARATION £60/m 2 Excavations for deep basements, including sheet piling to orchestra pit.Cast iron drainage


SUPERSTRUCTURE FRAME In situ concrete raft foundations and walls.Concrete frame to back of house and other concealed areas, steel frame to irregular and exposed areas ROOF £19/m 2PVCmembrane roofing on concrete planks or metal decking

EXTERNAL WALLS/CLADDING, DOORS AND WINDOWS £134/m 2 Metal rainscreen cladding generally with blockwork backing, double-glazed curtain walling, insulated render to the flytower and gallery, aluminium windows and louvres, metal, timber and glazed doors, terracotta cladding to low-level areas

INTERNAL WALLS AND PARTITIONS £48/m 2Blockwork walls, stud partitioning and timber screens

INTERNAL DOORS £22/m2 Metal-faced and timber flush doors, including acoustically rated doors

INTERNAL FINISHES WALL FINISHES £46/m2 Painted fair-faced and plastered blockwork to BOH areas, polished plaster, timber and metal mesh cladding to auditorium and FOH areas.Ceramic tiling to showers and WC areas

FLOOR FINISHES £35/m 2Carpet to auditorium and FOH balconies, natural stone to main foyer area, vinyl/rubber flooring to BOH areas

CEILING FINISHES £33/m 2Plasterboard fixed to metal suspension grid system generally, acoustically rated ceilings to offices, rehearsal space and auditorium rear circle.Concrete soffit elsewhere in BOH areas

STAGE EQUIPMENT £88/m2 Manually operated flying system, double-deck orchestra lifts, seating wagons, acoustic orchestra shell, large moving ceiling over auditorium

AUDITORIUM SEATING £13/m2 seating to stalls, circle and upper circle, with loose seats to boxes

BALCONY FRONTS £5/m2 Fibrous plaster front surface for acoustic reflection, timber panels to rear

FIXTURES, FURNITURE AND EQUIPMENT £19/m2 Catering equipment, roller shutters, blinds and other fixtures

SPECIALIST JOINERY £49/m2 Mobile dressing tables, bars to public areas, box office counter and cloakroom desk, serveries, sundry fittings


METALWORK Metal and glass balustrades to central and side staircases and to gallery areas in main foyer, isolated balustrades throughout BOH areas, high-level crawlways and steel access stairs, comfort rails throughout auditorium




















PRELIMINARIES PRELIMINARIES £110/m2 Site establishment, management staffing, craneage, insurances etc

EXTERNAL WORKS EXTERNAL WORKS £19/m2 Yorkstone paving at random lengths with terracotta brick infill slips to theatre entrance. Brick paving slabs to service yard loading bay cost summary

GROSS EXTERNAL FLOOR AREA 18,780m2(including Art Gallery and multi-storey car park)

TOTAL COST £24,500,000

STRUCTURE Earthworks, drainage and 60 4.67 Site preparation Substructure and 306 23.80 superstructure frame Roof 19 1.47 External walls/cladding, doors 134 10.42 and windows Internal walls and partitions 48 3.73 Internal doors 22 1.71


INTERNAL FINISHES Wall finishes 46 3.58 Floor finishes 35 2.72 Ceiling finishes 33 2.57 Stage equipment 88 6.84 Auditorium seating 13 1.01 Balcony fronts 5 0.39 Fixtures, furniture and equipment 19 1.47 Specialist joinery 49 3.81 Architectural metalwork and high 46 3.58 level metalwork


SERVICES Main and sub-main distribution 14 1.09 Standby generation 2 0.16 Small power 10 0.78 General lighting (including 43 3.34 emergency lighting) Security 3 0.23 Communications 2 0.16 Fire alarms 10 0.78 Stage lighting 18 1.40 Theatre sound and power 18 1.40 Chilled water installation 8 0.62 LPHW installation 19 1.47 Ventilation services 41 3.19 Sprinkler installation 3 0.23 Public health services 17 1.32 Sanitary fittings 5 0.39 Building management system 11 0.86 Lifts installation 19 1.48 Mains connections 5 0.39 Builders work in connection 5 0.39




TOTAL 1,286 100.00

Capital funding for the Theatre and Gallery project , built on behalf of Milton Keynes Council, has been provided by the National Lottery through the Arts Council of England (£20.1m), the Commission for New Towns - now English Partnerships (£5m plus the land) and corporate and community fund-raising within Milton Keynes (£2.5m). MK G acknowledges support for revenue funding from Milton Keynes Council and Southern Arts.


TENDER DATE July 1996 (first stage tender)



FORM OF CONTRACT JCT80, Local Authorities version, with quantities (two-stage tender)

CLIENT Milton Keynes Borough Council

ARCHITECT Andrzej Blonski/Michael Heard Architects





IN-HOUSE CONSULTANT Arup Facade Engineering



SUBCONTRACTORS AND SUPPLIERS infrastructure and site constraints Pell Frischmann Milton Keynes; fire consultant Arup Fire; clay tiles/masonry etc James & Taylor; car park Bourne Steel; wall coverings etcQuad Building Services; sanitaryware/cubicles/ basins/taps Vola UK; passenger and goods liftOtis; gallery and lozenge lift Kone Lifts; mechanical and electrical Hayden Young; curtain walling and glazing English Architectural Glazing (metal cladding), Spectrum Glass, Schuco International (windows); PVCmembrane Prater Cladding; roofing Prater Roofing; floor coverings Axiom Contract Flooring; ironmongeryAllgoods; doors/windows/louvres Accent Hansen, Kingfisher Louvre Systems; large acoustic doors Clark Doors; external folding doors/roller shuttersEnvirodoor Marcus; balcony fronts/Jesmonite column cladding Clark & Fenn; main entrance woven metal fabric cladding Boundary Metal; stage machineryEuroscene Accessories; moving ceiling/safety curtain Unusual Rigging; steelwork Hawk Structural Steelwork; external finishes Lockclad; internal finishes Grants of Shoreditch; stainless steel lift casings and skirtings Bassett & Findley; auditorium seating Audience Systems; specialist joinery Worrall Joinery, Ruddy Joinery; internal timber doors Bridgeman Doors; signs HB Sign Company; rainscreen cladding CGL Comotec; tanking Cetco Europa; external render Telling budget costing for Lockclad Taylor Maxwell (Lockclad); gallery glazing CAP Aluminium Systems

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