Walking a straight line in England is a funny thing—it just doesn’t happen. In a place where historic city squares and quaint cobblestone alleys are the norm, the grid is largely regarded as a monotonous eyesore. Its cool logic is rejected just about everywhere, save for a little experimental post-war town called Milton Keynes, now home to 6a architects’ MK Gallery, which opens to the public on March 16. The new venue builds upon Milton Keynes’s avant-garde past while filling a significant void in its contemporary art culture.
Dreamed up in the ’60s by liberal hippies in Camden and miraculously supported—at least financially, for a time—by England’s conservative government, Milton Keynes was an ambitious techno-pastoral utopia too radical to be fully realized. Equally inspired by the Neolithic history of the nearby landscape and the psychedelic optimism of post-war counterculture, the leisure-loving, car-centric, roundabout-filled vision of Milton Keynes met an early end through the rise of 1980s Thatcherism. Many of its most ambitious public projects—not least the City Club, a sprawling building that promised such joys as a wave pool, rodeo, and souk—were left suspended in a future fiction that would never arrive. Not until 6a architects came to town, that is.
Echoing the infinitely scalable, cosmic order of the city’s grid structure, 6a’s £12-million renovation and expansion of the old MK Gallery aspires to be the next chapter in Milton Keynes’s unfinished history. Teaming up with artists Nils Norman and Milton Keynes–born Gareth Jones, plus graphic designer Mark El-khatib, 6a have resurrected the old ambitions of the City Club proposal. Their artwork—also dubbed City Club—features a playful aesthetic and supersaturated color palette that blends seamlessly with the building’s architecture, enlivening its walls, floors, and decor; it also enters the public realm in the form of new arts and culture programming helmed by the artists.
To get to the new MK Gallery, visitors must first go through its past. The soft glow of a neon heart—Milton Keynes’s original mascot—leads visitors to the gallery’s original entrance. (The preexisting mustard yellow and brown building, built in 1999, is tucked beneath a large steel overhang of the adjacent Miesian theater, which was built the same year.) The 1999 gallery feels like a retro gas station crammed beneath a L.A. overpass. However, it melds seamlessly with 6a’s corrugated stainless-steel extension, which features three new gallery spaces, an education center, and an auditorium.
Inside, the transition is just as smooth. Entering through the gift shop in true Milton Keynesian fashion (“the grid and the half mile-long shopping mall facing MK Gallery across are the heart of the city,” Tom Emerson, codirector of 6a, tells Metropolis), visitors have the choice of heading right into the gallery or continuing straight on to the café-bar.
Oozing old-school American diner charm, a network of cheery yellow piping wraps the bar, which is adorned in Superstudio-esque grouted tiles and topped off with an oak countertop. 6a says the café-bar was primarily inspired by a Habitat interior design catalog from 1978. (For non-U.K. readers, Habitat is a household furnishing retailer founded in the ’60s that aims to bring cutting-edge yet affordable design to the masses.) “We used the aspirational nature of the Habitat catalog as an emblem for Milton Keynes Gallery,” Emerson says of the artists’ and architects’ selection.
Visitors will notice yet another grid in the axial arrangement of the galleries, which offer unobstructed views from one end of the building to the other. It’s a perfect backdrop for MK Gallery’s inaugural exhibition, The Lie of the Land (curated with London architect Sam Jacob), which offers a critical multimedia examination of Milton Keynes’s architectural history and unfinished dreams, framed in the larger context of pastoral land ownership in the U.K. and how it shaped the city’s genesis.
Follow the brightly-colored striped walls up to the second floor, where a 160-person capacity auditorium gazes over Campbell Park through a gigantic semi-circular window. Floor-to-ceiling curtains mimic the urban-rural color index stipulated by the original plans for City Club. (The index’s “candy pink” and “pillarbox red” would serve as backdrop to the buzzing metropolis, while “Aquarius blue” and “lettuce green” would frame the countryside). Here, you’ll find the latter earthy hues on the curtains, which can be drawn to cloak the entire room in an artificial landscape. The urban palette awaits you in eye-searing combinations at the end of the floor, embellishing what are probably the jazziest bathrooms in Milton Keynes. “We’re using colors that really, absolutely shouldn’t go together, and that’s the fun of it,” says Emerson.
A cherry-colored spiral staircase leads down to an outdoor playspace designed by Norman and Jones, where popular motifs of the city, like the helping hand and civic Victorian lampposts, have been transformed into swingable, climbable amusement points.
When visitors have tired of the world-class art they can travel under one of Milton Keynes’s many iconic overpasses and move into the sublime expanse of Campbell Park, where sheep graze amid rolling hills and the circular motif of the city repeats ad infinitum.
No more than 20 years ago, the 34 square-mile city of Milton Keynes (population 350,000 humans and 22 million trees) was considered a mass failure for its sprawling grid, excessive roundabouts, unending pedestrian underpasses, and shameless reliance on the automobile. However, the town’s optimistic belief in nature and technology speaks to many of our present-day anxieties and desires. As “this dystopian vision looks increasingly similar to our own present condition,” suggest Norman and Jones, Milton Keynes is being seen in a new light. So too has MK Gallery been given a second shot at life—and with 6a at the helm along with a couple of daring artists, it’s a riotous reincarnation indeed.