When Milton Keynes' new £30 million theatre and gallery complex opened earlier this month, architects Andrzej Blonski and Michael Heard were present to witness the public's reaction. 'As it opened, people came in and looked around, pointing things out to each other', recalls Andrzej Blonski. He cites an earlier memory of visiting La Defense in Paris and watching an elderly couple discuss the merits of its design in a particularly animated way: 'This happens in France, I had thought, but not here.' The Milton Keynes scheme by Andrzej Blonski
For Blonski and Heard, the partnership continues a long working relationship begun in 1967 when Blonski, a year-out student, arrived at the office of Peter Moro where Heard was a partner. The pair worked together on a new theatre and television studios for Hull University before Blonski returned to his studies. (Formerly at the Hammersmith School of Building, he was persuaded to change to the AA by Peter Moro).He returned to the practice by chance, after bumping into Peter Moro on the way home from an interview at Arup's. 'Peter asked, 'Why didn't you come to us?' He looked over my portfolio and offered me a job!' Blonski and Heard then found themselves working together on the Theatre Royal in Plymouth and again in Hong Kong as Theatre Architect Consultants for the Jockey Club.
At the time the Jockey Club, not unlike the National Lottery, commissioned new community buildings, using profits from the former colony's only legal form of gambling - horse racing.
Following Peter Moro's retirement and the subsequent closure of the practice, Blonski and Heard parted company, occasionally working together on projects of common interest, none of which came to fruition. Heard, taking a five-year sabbatical, opened an art gallery which 'I loved but which rapidly ran out of money'. Blonski teamed up with other practices (including Arup's, with which he worked on the Concert Hall in Istanbul) while trying to develop his own work.
He met Nadiadi in 1993 through a mutual friend.
'We co l laborated on an ad hoc basis on var ious projects and then Milton Keynes came off, which cemented the partnership, ' says Blonski. Heard was keen to finish his career on the Milton Keynes project, so the three formed a project partnership.
'We run a democratic practice which is sometimes very difficult', says Blonski. 'You have to be strong about your ideas whilst at the same time encouraging others to contribute towards them.' He compares the practice to a marriage: 'Each partner has different strengths'.
They approached the project in a very site and brief specific manner, while obviously drawing on their pooled experience. 'The Milton Keynes theatre embodies our combined experience and stretches it into something quite new, ' says Heard.
'It is totally different to anything the two of us have done before'.
Between them, they have been short-listed for numerous projects, but until Milton Keynes, have never actually won. Indeed, within two or three months of winning the Milton Keynes competition, the developer for the scheme pulled out.'We thought that was that, ' recalls Blonski.As a result of the practice's sheer determination not to lose its first winning scheme, it persuaded the client to apply for full lottery funding which ultimately proved to be successful. They are nostalgic about the 'ones that got away', the Mercury Theatre in Notting Hill Gate for the Ballet Rambert, a concert hall in Bristol which, says Heard, 'could have been very exciting.' Generally they feel that the lottery process is kinder towards larger 'fashionable' practices that are often chosen in the misguided belief that a named architect equals a successful lottery bid.'If a project requires you to be bigger, you can easily build up a team'.
They have been praised for producing the complex within a very limited budget. 'How the project has retained its integrity amazes me, we had to make huge savings on the hoof, ' says Blonski. They all agree, however, that the effect of such a 'paring down' has ultimately helped to create the character of the building. 'It's not perhaps finished in the English tradition, ' says Blonski, admitting that he was fairly worried about the public's reaction to the completed complex. 'They actually responded very positively - it has been thrilling to see the building used'.
The character of the building is something to which they return repeatedly. They cite their individual passion for the theatre and the arts as being of great import in their constant quest for the genus loci. Heard finds that 'knowing how to achieve that intangible atmosphere of the auditorium and knowing how the theatre works is very helpful'.
His own enthusiasm for the theatre in architectural terms was fired by his experiences of amateur dramatics: 'What I really wanted to do was theatre, and this seemed a way to be involved.'
Similarly, Blonski, who used to be a Polish dancer, finds his experiences of the stage invaluable.
Heard admits that he still occasionally indulges his desire to act, normally as entertainment when site meetings get a little dull!