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Competition: MK:U, Milton Keynes

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An international contest has been launched to design an innovative new £188 million vocational and STEM university in Milton Keynes

The two-stage open competition – organised by Malcolm Reading Consultants (MRC) – will select a team for the ‘new model’ university in the heart of Milton Keynes. Five shortlisted teams will receive £30,000 each to draw up a masterplan and concept designs for the university’s 61,120m² first phase.

MK:U university – intended to reach ’beyond the scope of a traditional university’ – is scheduled to open in 2023 with 15,000 students and focus on vocational and STEM subjects relating to digital, cyber, autonomy, robotics and artificial intelligence.

The project – backed by Cranfield University and Milton Keynes (MK) Council – is one of the flagship elements of the MK Futures 2050 programme, which anticipates a more than doubling of the population within the Buckinghamshire new town by 2050.

A 10ha unused plot close to Milton Keynes station has been earmarked for its campus, bordered by Grafton Street, Witan Gate, Aylesbury Boulevard and Childs Way.

MK:U programme director and Cranfield University pro-vice-chancellor Lynette Ryals said: ‘MK:U is responding to this profound challenge with a radical new approach to higher education. MK:U will create an environment where innovation is a given and where students can learn alongside business mentors and apply their knowledge in business situations.

‘The headline theme both for MK:U, and the wider UK, is digital innovation. We want to commission architecture that is a call to action; drawing out human talent and equipping people from all backgrounds for the life-long challenges and opportunities of the digital economy.

‘We’re ambitious to set a new standard in university architecture, to create a memorable destination for citizens, and ultimately, a university with an exemplary and iconic physical presence.’

Milton Keynes Council leader Pete Marland said: ‘MK:U will have an exceptionally strong relationship to Milton Keynes because the city’s long-term future — and ambition to grow to half a million residents by 2050 — depends on retaining and attracting talent.

‘The city will be the university and the university the city. The welcoming University Quarter — the last major undeveloped site in the city centre — will mix university facilities with public spaces, invigorating the public realm with new energy both day and night.’

Competition director, Malcolm Reading said: ‘There is a global conversation underway about how our cities respond to new technologies and circumstances, and the vital contribution that the best architecture can make in shaping places where people want to be. The MK:U competition has these themes at its heart.’

Participating teams will be expected to feature an urban designer or masterplanner, landscape architect, structural engineer, civil or utilities engineer, and MEP services engineer.

The judging panel will be chaired by  Cranfield University chief executive and vice-chancellor Peter Gregson. An overall winner will be announced in summer 2019.

The deadline for applications is 2pm on 6 March.

How to apply

Visit the competition website for more information

Contact details

Malcolm Reading Consultants
8 Lincoln’s Inn Fields

Tel: + 44 (0)20 7831 2998



Fiona Robinson, MK Futures 2050 programme manager at Milton Keynes Council

Fiona Robinson

Fiona Robinson

Fiona Robinson

Why are you holding an international design contest for a new MK:U campus?

Milton Keynes has long aspired to have its own undergraduate university. The MK:U project gives us the opportunity to achieve this. MK:U is attuned to MK’s history as a place of innovation, able to nurture ambition and progressive in outlook.

In 2018 Leader of MK Council Pete Marland announced we would be holding an international design competition, and confirmed Cranfield University would be our lead Higher Education partner. We plan to showcase the project locally, including a public exhibition of shortlisted schemes this summer – as well as highlighting the exciting things that are happening in MK on a global platform. MK’s 50th birthday in 2017 created a buzz and generated a huge amount of local pride. It’s great to follow that up with another project that showcases MK as a unique cultural artefact.

MK as ‘different by design’ is integral to the ethos of the city. We’re looking forward to the competition giving us a range of innovative interpretations on how to develop the last remaining block in the city centre’s distinctive grid.

What is your vision for the new university in central Milton Keynes?

Milton Keynes is positioned as the hub of the Oxford-Cambridge arc and we have growth ambitions to reach a population of 500,000 people by 2050.

MK:U is about creating a 21st century higher education offer to match this potential. This new university will be distinctive in the way it teaches, through integration with business and opportunities for meaningful industry placements and condensed courses. A STEM-focused curriculum and cross-cutting skills development will mean its graduates are employment-ready. We want them to experience a state-of-the-art environment with cutting-edge, purpose-built facilities in our dynamic city centre.

A 10.1 hectare site has been allocated for the university quarter which will eventually host 15,000 students, and at the second stage of the competition we’re keen to see finalists develop solutions that provide real integration with the wider city centre, creating a welcoming environment for everyone, not just MK:U’s students.

What sort of architects and designers are you hoping will apply?

The MK:U brief provides an untouched, perfectly-positioned site within our more formal city centre grid pattern framework. We want international teams to work with local firms, and would be interested to see undiscovered talent partner with those experienced in previous higher education projects. With the growth of MK:U planned over three phases, we’re looking for multi-disciplinary teams to create a long-term masterplan for the entire site that can interpret the needs of a growing 21st century university, and including more detailed proposals for the first phase.

Which other design opportunities are on the horizon and how will the architects/designers be procured?

Central Milton Keynes, known locally as CMK, is the economic powerhouse of our sub-region and the heart of a future city bigger than Edinburgh. CMK is facing a renaissance. It will become home to many more residents, including MK:U’s students, along with new and growing businesses and a developing retail, leisure and cultural offer. We are already seeing the energy that a competition can bring, so with the scale of change planned over the next decade in CMK I am sure there will be more design competitions in future, perhaps even covering the whole of the city centre.

Are there any other new university campus projects you have been impressed by?

In developing the specification for the MK:U design competition, our partners at Cranfield University have visited several universities around the country, learning from recent developments and how students experience those institutions.

Personally, I would love to see MK:U provide the civic spaces and cultural venues that have helped to integrate education with everyday life like we’ve seen in the Stanton Williams scheme at Granary Square, Kings Cross. Our site is in a completely different context, but we’re always thinking big in MK.

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