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6a architects’ MK Gallery: A spark of life within the city grid

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The extended and revamped MK Gallery aims to counter Milton Keynes’ reputation as a cultural cold spot, while celebrating its original utopian ideas, writes Fran Williams. Photography Johan Dehlin

This much-anticipated building proves that old-fashioned narrative-led design is not a dying art. After 6a architects’ South London Gallery and Raven Row, the flashy form of MK Gallery’s extension doesn’t seem as pared-back and layered as its predecessors. But as one delves deeper, the hidden story, inspired by a rigorous and complex thread of historical references, design precedents and strict rules, is revealed.

MK Gallery is located at the top of Midsummer Boulevard, next to Milton Keynes Theatre, and faces on to Campbell Park and Milton Keynes’ Grade II-listed shopping centre, a 10-minute drive from the train station. This point, where park meets city, is integral to 6a’s scheme.

Its intervention has involved extending an existing gallery building with the addition of a rectangular block to the north-east of the site – a characteristically striking silver form. The extra space now takes the total number of exhibition rooms up to five, more than doubling its size. On the ground floor, a café has been added to the centre of the existing building, which will open on to a proposed garden in front of Midsummer Boulevard, while the gallery’s main entrance has been retained to the south-west, facing on to Margaret Powell Square and the theatre complex. The new extension contains an accessible lift, a Changing Places accessible toilet and learning studio adjacent to a sculpture park. The upper floor features the Sky Room – an auditorium with 150 retractable seats and views over the park through a statement semicircular window which is highly visible even from afar on the new extension’s north-west façade.

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The gallery was established in 1999, became independent from the theatre complex in 2011 and began to consider expanding its facilities following substantial consultations with visitors. The gallery appointed the full design team with 6a as architect in 2013 – its ambition being to make MK Gallery feel more inviting while also improving environmental conditions within its spaces so that it could house historical art as well as contemporary work.

The theoretical driver behind the scheme is the idea of ‘City Club’ – originally the name of an unbuilt 1970s leisure complex with wave pool, rodeo and souk, which would have occupied a whole block of Milton Keynes. Its name has been taken to inspire a sequence of new public spaces around and within the gallery, designed as a collaboration between 6a, graphic designer Mark El-khatib and artists Gareth Jones and Nils Norman – known as the City Club Artists. 6a founding director Tom Emerson calls it ‘a unique project in the UK where two artists and a graphic designer have worked very closely together on the building’s conception.’ 

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A geometric ‘sphere-in-cage’ taken from City Club’s original utopian model became the working idea behind the gallery’s extension. City Club Artists visualised the new building as a red-caged box enclosing a large mirrored ball, the grid and circle neatly representing city and landscape sequentially. Prototypal in its aesthetic, it makes 6a’s new building feel ultimately contextual to the history of its location.

Milton Keynes was planned as the largest  of a generation of new towns in south-east England in the 1960s, covering 9,000ha. The government established a development corporation (MKDC) at its inception (1967) with chief architect Derek Walker strategising a city softened by landscaping while expressing ideals of Modernist architecture. Milton Keynes is most well-known for its hierarchical gridded layout as inspired by Californian urban theorist Melvin Webber.

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Given the city’s status as a cultural cold spot (MK Gallery is the only contemporary visual arts organisation within a 40-mile radius), it’s understandable that the new extension and refurbishment would want to revive the ambitious and generous spirit that originally drove the MKDC. The scheme is reminiscent of this urban ambition, encouraging you to think about the city you’re in with every step you make through the gallery spaces and up to the Sky Room. 

The gallery spaces are organised in a linear way, floor-to-ceiling heights varying as one moves through. By creating long views throughout and carefully framed pauses, the exhibition rooms constantly ground you within the urban fabric as you journey through. From New Gallery 2, for instance, you can glimpse the route towards the park beyond – a view Emerson says is intended to be like a ‘quintessentially Milton Keynesian underpass’.

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Gallery director Anthony Spira says he hopes the ground-floor café can become a key attraction for the gallery. Its Constructivist sculptural 1960s design narrative is directly attributed to Norman Foster’s 1970s SBI (System Building for Industry) prototype building at Wavendon Tower, known as ‘the Custard Factory’, which housed MKDC’s architects’ department. Like that building, every fitting in the café is yellow, within a red steel-framed structure and white walls. Replicating the colours directly seems fitting given that early exponents of structural expressionism included Foster – but also seems nostalgically right on trend.

Other colour references within the overall scheme similarly delve into Milton Keynes’ design history. In 1980, Terence Conran, founder of Habitat, established an architectural consultancy with a former general manager of MKDC, Fred Roche. This was taken as a lead by the City Club Artists which appropriated a chart of 14 colours for the gallery based on a Habitat catalogue. This includes colours ranging from ‘candy pink’ to ‘lettuce green’, categorised into pastel colours representing ‘Buckinghamshire landscape in late summer’ versus colours ‘more downtown, more neon, more urban colours of the city itself’. Emerson and Spira describe how the team painted toilet rolls in each of the colours, bringing them to every meeting so they could put them together in groups of three to determine a working colour scheme for each space. In the Sky Room for example, these colours have been picked up on a huge multicoloured curtain striped in the ‘landscape’ colours.

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Perhaps the scheme’s biggest move is 6a’s choice of reflective, corrugated annealed aluminium cladding to wrap around the new extension. One perceives the shininess as stripping back the idea of utopia to its very basic levels – the architects took inspiration from other Modernist buildings of central Milton Keynes as well as French precedents including SANAA’s Musée du Louvre-Lens. The cladding’s perforate nature is imperfectly transparent, allowing glimpses to the steel-framed structure beneath, particularly the undersold but fun red spiral staircase to the east accompanying large yellow doors to the loading bay. It’s easy to read how the new building’s rectangular form and horizontally banded cladding continue to play on the idea of city grid. They recall the shapes and vistas of Milton Keynes’ original urban design – ‘reflecting the surrounding landscape’ as Spira points out.

18. ad magazine cover, 1974

Outside, City Club is also promising a playscape, not quite complete at the time of the gallery’s reopening. Taking inspiration from a long-forgotten MK Infrastructure Pack and its designs of bins, bus shelters and street signs, a schematised ‘hand’ motif resurfaces as ideas for pieces of play equipment. Also reminiscent of the city’s conception is a large red neon heart which has been placed over the main entrance signalling Milton Keynes’ first ever logotype which featured on the cover of AD Magazine’s special edition dedicated to the city at the time – the figurative heart literally representing the epicentre of the city. It all seems a little sentimental though Spira insists that ‘we tried to avoid being over-nostalgic’. 

He describes MK Gallery’s opening exhibition, The Lie of the Land, as a ‘cabinet of curiosities’. It places the city in a new playful context, the fantasy collection drawing upon themes ranging from leisure and pleasure to exploitation and exclusion. In every room it picks up on aspects of Milton Keynes’ history as well as demonstrating the thorough research that went into this project.

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Despite being an extensively narrative project, there is no arrogance to the redevelopment. It reflects the city around both literally and intangibly. And it is exciting. There is promise of Milton Keynes becoming a new cultural spot outside of London; a destination, a day out, rejuvenating the original ambitious plan for the city. 

The expanded gallery is aiming to attract more than 120,000 visitors per annum, four times its previous annual footfall of 30,000. The building itself feels inspiring and energetic, a spark of life within the city grid. As Emerson says: ‘MK Gallery is properly public and civic.’ It is a blueprint for a new civic architecture. I would like to go back – there is still more to uncover.

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Architect’s view

Milton Keynes is a utopian urban project of the late 1960s – Los Angeles and the garden city woven together into a carpet grid laid over the rolling Buckinghamshire landscape. The new MK Gallery building is at the top end of Midsummer Boulevard where the city meets Campbell Park, establishing the centre of a new arts quarter. A new wing consisting of a simple rectangular form wrapped in corrugated stainless steel recalls the rigorous grid that underpins the city, once a playground for British Modernists and the early pioneers of High Tech. Its polished façade shifts ambiguously between reflection and opacity, while a circular window frames views over the orbital landforms and belvedere of Campbell Park. The city is within the walls and the landscape in the window. The gridded rectangle houses a simple assembly of gallery spaces and an education studio below an auditorium. The axial arrangement of galleries, with windows aligned on either end, recalls the city’s own layout. 

City Club, a new public art project led by Gareth Jones and Nils Norman, moves in and around the gallery building, quoting and updating the design history of Milton Keynes. In the 1970s, City Club was a plan for a visionary leisure complex inspired by the mixed-use Real Madrid club complex in Spain. In the 21st century, it becomes a sequence of new public spaces spanning art, architecture and design.

Tom Emerson, founding director, 6a architects

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Client’s view

The renovation and extension of MK Gallery was developed in response to substantial consultation with local visitors and non-visitors. The most common criticism was that the gallery lacked a café, while others complained that the building seemed austere and uninviting. 

6a immediately recognised the need in Milton Keynes for more than a gallery – a social, cultural and civic space that is independent, engaging and accessible. It opened up the spaces to the outside bringing natural light into the building and creating spectacular panoramas of the countryside and, perhaps more importantly, providing views into the building from the outside at ground-floor level, to demystify the inner workings and lure people in. 

The original galleries have been rationalised, enhanced and extended to create an exceptional sequence of new exhibition spaces. State-of-the-art environmental and security conditions mean the gallery can now bring the most vulnerable and valuable artefacts to the city. Another priority was a much-needed practical learning studio to increase the gallery’s extensive schools, families and community programmes. We are particularly proud to have a Changing Places accessible toilet facility to serve the 8,000 people in our catchment area who require such provision. 

A stunning Sky Room auditorium will provide the city’s first home for independent cinema in the city (with Curzon) as well as being used for concerts, conferences and corporate entertainment. 

These beautifully conceived new spaces provide a radical contrast to the chain hotels, restaurants, cafés and pubs that currently populate the city.

Anthony Spira, director, MK Gallery

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Working detail

The section shown is taken through a statement semicircular window, positioned on the north-east façade of our extension, to provide key views out over Campbell Park. The detail shows how the interior of the Sky Room interfaces with the external wall. 

The whole building is essentially constructed out of a steel frame system with concrete composite decks – similar to that of an industrial shed. The external envelope is clad with metal composite insulation panels. This type of panel – which is also mainly used in industrial shed construction – spans between the structure’s primary steel beams with lengths of up to 4m. On the exterior of the panels are rows of galvanised-steel ‘top hats’ supporting the gallery’s characteristic corrugated cladding of annealed stainless-steel perforated sheets fixed on to rails. 

This form of construction is straightforward and fairly cheap, meaning all of our details for the extension were similarly simple – basically a standard curtain-walling system with top and bottom supports for the windows. Due to its curved nature, the semicircular window of the Sky Room is not the same as other standard rectangular windows and so a secondary rectangular hollow section steel beam runs along the perimeter of the whole window, acting like a large circular piece of steel supporting all edges of the glazing. A stainless-steel pressing sits over the top of the profiled steel cladding to accentuate the circular window.

Overall, the use of standard components meant we designed a fairly straightforward and affordable construction system for MK Gallery’s new wing.

Martin Nässén, associate, 6a architects

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Project data

Start on site August 2017
Completion February 2019
Gross internal floor area 2,115m2
Construction cost £7 million
Construction cost per m£3,310
Architect 6a architects
Structural engineer Momentum
M&E consultant Max Fordham
Quantity surveyor Gleeds
Project manager/cost consultant Turner & Townsend
Project manager Jackson Coles
Approved building inspector MLM Building Control
Main contractor Bowmer + Kirkland
CAD software used MicroStation
Acoustic consultant Max Fordham
Theatre consultant Charcoalblue
Landscape architect Jonathan Cook Landscape Architects
Artists Gareth Jones and Nils Norman
Graphic designer Mark El-khatib 


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