[Building study] Milton Keynes Shopping Centre’s Queens Court has been thoughtfully transformed for modern consumers, writes Alex Maxwell. Photography by Dennis Gilbert
Milton Keynes Shopping Centre was designed as a new model for town centres. However, its striking design, that once prompted Nikolaus Pevsner to describe it as ‘the best-looking shopping centre in the British Isles,’ has contributed to its dip in fortunes.
In 1973, Derek Walker, Stuart Mosscrop, and Chris Woodward – the Milton Keynes Development Corporation’s architects – proposed a spacious and democratic building. It drew upon the structural principles of Mies van der Rohe and the sense of scale found in Milan’s Galleria; ground-level access to shops, stretching along two long arcades.
Yet the fashion for contiguous mega-malls has not waned and the popularity of Trafford Centre, Bluewater and Lakeside have impinged on the fortunes of smaller town-centre malls like Milton Keynes.
Allies and Morrison was brought in to look at ways in which the mall could be expanded. A larger masterplan with outline planning was pegged back due to the financial crash of 2008, and the renovation of Queens Court, an open-air garden square in the shopping centre, was brought forward as phase one of the centre’s development.
The lack of retail frontage and access problems between arcades, were the main reasons attributed to the square’s failure. Allies and Morrison has enlivened Queens Court by inserting 1,430m2 of new high-quality restaurant units, while improving a smaller public space.
The crosswalks have been widened, and rebranded ‘winter gardens’. Seating for the restaurant units spills across them optimistically. Blankets on some chairs allude to the fact that these are not weather-tight spaces.
A glazed concertina wall folds away on warmer days, allowing the units to take full advantage of the square. The paving slabs stretch across the square providing a shared surface that eliminates the threshold between the layers of new space. The architects intended it to be open and transparent at ground level, a reality that harks back to Helmut Jacoby’s illustrations of Queens Court published in the Architectural Digest in 1974.
The changes can be seen as rationalisation; once-clumsy elements have largely been retained, but have been designed to accommodate and encourage a more natural movement through the square. To the south, large, solid-set benches squat underneath a grove of cherry trees. Its northern side is flanked by a raised pool with weirs at each end.
The central area of the space is laid out as a simple stone carpet, interspersed with a linear series of energy-efficient lighting features that emphasise the north-south axis.
The original building’s six-metre grid is maintained throughout the addition. Modules are based around the 300mm unit that was devised for the original. There are a few playful alterations, noticeably above the glass concertinas, but the new window modules generally mirror the 1,200mm centre-to-centre sizes used on the main building, giving the feel that the facade has been combed over the new.
Spend a moment looking at the facade though, and it becomes apparent that time has been spent on the detailing. Everything is cleaner, crisper. Its reference to the original Miesian curtain walling makes it stand out from the rest of the city centre. This wholly modern approach fits perfectly within its context, something rare of today’s Arndales and town-centre malls.
Mammad Tabatabai and Chris Bearman, the project architect and partner delivering the scheme, talk gleefully about applying new technology while preserving the ethos of the original. Gone are the clumsy, bolt-on frames, replaced by bespoke frames. Multiple iterations and full-scale mock-ups were made to get the right proportions. The quantity of black gasket on show between modules – a feature synonymous with the old facade – was deliberated and tested. It all comes together to create a building that is a seamless transition between old and new.
One of the features that contributes to the spaciousness associated with the shopping centre is the natural light that floods in from the lanterns that soar above the retail units on both arcades. It’s a unique feature lacking from any of the larger malls, and lost in the nearby GMW-designed Midsummer Place extension of 2000.
As part of the management directive, these had to be preserved. So Allies and Morrison took an innovative approach by stepping back the retail units by six metres at the upper level, creating a courtyard in each corner. This maximisation of daylighting, along with sustainable design and management processes, have helped achieved a BREEAM Excellent rating of 70.8 per cent.
Allies and Morrison’s redesign had to work within a strict management guidance document, drawn up in part by English Heritage. In the scheme’s enforced restraint lies its success. Any grand gestures would have devalued the original building, creating a whole less than the sum of its parts.
The centre was Grade II listed last July after the completion of works on Queens Court, against the owner’s wishes, making future significant improvements to the shopping centre all the more difficult. The pressure on this scheme to succeed is greater because of the listing. This will be the remodelled Queens Court’s first summer. Whether it works as a vibrant public space, enabling the mall to compete with contemporary shopping centres, remains to be seen. But as an example of modern conservation, it can be held up as an example of understated excellence. n
Alex Maxwell worked for the European Architecture Students Assembly, 2010
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