There’s a drawing in the first exhibition at the newly extended Milton Keynes Gallery showing the largest and most ambitious of Britain’s post-war new towns as you’ve never seen it before. It stretches away symmetrically like some mythic Aztec metropolis, one dotted not with pyramids, but with low-rise blocks destined to be filled by civic workers and the UK headquarters of multinational corporations – with everything aligned towards the summer solstice along the city’s central dual carriageway called Midsummer Boulevard.
Milton Keynes was built on epic visions, but over the decades since this 1974 projection by the German architectural illustrator Helmut Jacoby the city’s original utopian spirit has been muted. Planned in the Sixties, built in the Seventies, Milton Keynes has been a resounding success: it’s one of the fastest growing cities in Europe with one of the strongest economies in the UK. Yet its popular image remains that of a soulless, corporate cultural wasteland: the industrial estate as metropolis.
If that’s a view held mainly by people who’ve never visited, it’s one the new MK Gallery is out to counter, with a £12 million extension by 6A Architects that has doubled the gallery’s size, following its closure for refurbishment in July 2017, and an exhibitions programme that would be the envy of many a major London gallery (there’s a major Paula Rego show and the biggest George Stubbs exhibition in 35 years coming soon). More importantly, the design of the revamped building harks back to the visionary utopianism of the original plans for Milton Keynes, but with an eye very much to the future. The atmosphere is not of a beleaguered provincial gallery putting up a valiant fight in a difficult economic climate. You feel as if you are at the crossroads of a number of very exciting cultural currents.
The new café sets the tone with a look that is immediately familiar: primary-coloured metal piping, exposed ventilation ducts and girders highlighting the structure of the building in brilliant red. It’s the Pompidou Centre, of course. And if you are wondering what Richard Rogers and Renzo Piano’s era-defining Paris arts centre – opened in 1977 – has to do with Milton Keynes, many of the key figures in “hi-tech” architecture, of which the Pompidou is a prime example, worked on the early planning of Milton Keynes, including James Stirling and Rogers’s sometime partner Norman Foster. Was the interaction of the arts and public space in the early Milton Keynes inspired by the Pompidou, or was it – contrary to everything you’d expect – actually the other way round?
The question isn’t directly posed, let alone answered, but the inference is left hanging tantalisingly in the air.
A Mondrian-red spiral staircase sheathed in semi-transparent corrugated steel mesh leads up into the Sky Room, a new multi-purpose space designed to accommodate film screenings, concerts and parties, with an enormous circular window looking out over the rolling green spaces of Campbell Park. For a second, you forget you are in the heart of the city with a dual carriageway thundering below and think you are in the depths of the countryside. This pastoral impression is reinforced by sounds of birdsong and church choirs and by curtains in bands of lovely autumnal shades – deep greens, browns and fawns.
These colours are drawn, however, not from nature, but from a 1976 Habitat catalogue, an era when design and architecture luminaries from Terence Conran to Norman Foster were falling over themselves to work in Milton Keynes. It was an atmosphere compared by local artist Gareth Jones to “Clement Attlee’s welfare state taking a ride in a yellow submarine”.
The sense of municipal development carried away on a tide of wide-eyed optimism is apparent in the opening exhibition, The Lie of the Land, which helps us locate Milton Keynes, and the whole new town phenomenon – getting the population of Britain’s bomb-trashed cities into ideal “garden” communities – in the wider story of how, in the show’s words, “the British landscape has been transformed by changing attitudes to free time, culture and leisure”.
Alongside works by Gainsborough, Turner and contemporary artists such as Bridget Riley and Yinka Shonibare, we’re shown lunatic plans from the early days of Milton Keynes such as the City Club, a madly ambitious, but never built, leisure centre, designed to house a rodeo, souk and wave pool. In more drawings by Helmut Jacoby we’re shown a discotheque in a lake and happy new-town families streaming towards a cone-shaped tor that hangs over the landscape like some ancient monument.
If you’re starting to think that everyone involved in the original planning of Milton Keynes was on the wacky baccy, I should point out that it wasn’t all castles in the air. The immensely long, tree-filled shopping centre inspired by the Crystal Palace, seen in Jacoby’s drawings, is now a listed building, which stands just over the road from the gallery, while the Belvedere, where the tor would have stood, can be seen out of the gallery windows: a grass-covered heap of building rubble, now topped by a sculpture by American artist Liliane Lijn, which lights up as a beacon on special occasions.
Extending from beneath the huge Eighties concrete awning of the neighbouring Milton Keynes Theatre, the new gallery culminates in a corrugated steel-covered box, like a giant toaster. Its gleaming surfaces reflect the sky and the surrounding greenery, referencing the intention of Derek Walker, the city’s original lead architect, to create a city of parks and tree-lined boulevards that would be “greener than the surrounding countryside”.
This is a building that takes us on a quirky journey into the past, attempting to embody the original Milton Keynes spirit of excitement about the future, while feeling very much of now. That’s a heady set of objectives. Goodness know how it will all feel in 10 years’ time. For now, the new gallery conveys an exciting sense that “history” and “culture” don’t have to be far away, and the best thing is that when you’ve visited the gallery and the exhibition, you’ve got the reality of Milton Keynes as it exists today to compare it to.