steel, producing a shimmering effect. A contrasting texture is provided by flat steel sections in the cladding of the great circular ‘window’’s bottom hemisphere, which forms the wall of the main gallery. Cut into this and offset is the square window terminating the axis corridor through all three buildings. Although rolled steel is an established technology, cutting the Schueco curtain walling to the precise tolerances required placed demands on the UK-based fabricators MB Glass, says Emerson. Their task was made slightly easier by the size of the circle, meaning the radius of each section was not particularly tight. The challenge, says Emerson, was around “tolerances – the most tricky thing is to get all the bits to fit three-dimensionally into that puzzle.” He tells ADF that a high level of co-ordination was needed to achieve precise interfaces between primary structure and curtain walling elements. It took “a lot of design work and a lot of discussion with the fabricators to make sure all those bits could come together.” Emerson summarises: “It was stressful and a lot of pressure on everybody, but the kind of pressure that comes from doing big capital projects generally.” Adding to this was the need to keep this publicly-funded Design & Build project within budget: “If there had been a huge benefactor behind it, like a Guggenheim, maybe we would have been a bit more relaxed about spending a bit more here, a bit more there.”


One way in which the architects decided to help the new gallery bring in the public was to add a cafe in a former workshop space in the now central building of the three that comprise the scheme. Emerson explains an important aspect of the new arrangement for visitor comfort: “The ground floor was full of loos, they were all by the entrance, in wrong place, so we put them on the first floors.” The new cafe is a capacious, double-height

space, eight metres high, and has been painted in the “quite wild” red colour scheme of Milton Keynes’ original central design office. There are now five galleries in total, in a sequence beginning with a nine metre high space, leading through via the axis corridor, with glimpses of the exterior through full-height windows to the north, south and east, to four further six metre high galleries. They are all on the ground floor, making it easier for visitors and the gallery itself, in terms of logistics of staging exhibitions.


Through conforming to strict GIS environmental standards covering heating, cooling, humidity, lighting as well as security, the galleries are now suitable for major exhibitions, such as borrowed public art collections. Power points are concealed behind pristine white walls, reinforced to prevent attempted theft using vehicles such as JCBs. The acoustics, by Max Fordham, are of a high quality, larger spaces and openings mean larger artworks, and the floors are polished concrete. As Emerson admits, meeting these standards “makes it hard to make many claims for sustainability with galleries – you can’t do it with passive ventilation for example.” However the energy take to achieve the necessary environmental control is offset somewhat with the roof being covered with solar PVs.

While the galleries are impressive, the star of the show is perhaps the auditorium, with its views over the park framed by the semi-circular window: a “great arc over the landscape,” as Emerson describes it. He hopes it “becomes a really significant public room, one that people really associate with Milton Keynes – the ‘last room in the city.’”

Engaging with the past As well as the range of exhibits on the gallery walls, there are several mementos of Milton Keynes’ built heritage included in the front refurbished former gallery building. The black entrance portico is a remade porte cochere that originally provided shelter to one of the town’s street crossings. There’s also a pink neon heart on the facade (the town’s original symbol), original streetlamps, and the curtain in the auditorium – like many other items in the building – is coloured using a palette taken from a 1978 Habitat catalogue. Tom Emerson sums up the thinking behind this retro, yet forward-thinking, and celebratory project: “We wanted to make a building that’s about the future, and a place that’s really fun to go to, where people enjoy being with friends, discovering art, but also food, performances, cinema. A real social, civic space.” He adds that, in this way, it “will end up being one of the most important cultural buildings in Milton Keynes.”

He says that the community is highly engaged, and have given the architects “quite vocal feedback.” He concludes: “People seem to be very excited by it in a way we haven’t seen on other gallery projects. They have bought into it.” 

© Johan Dehlin


© Johan Dehlin


Client: MK Gallery Architects: 6a Architects Contractors: Bowmer & Kirkland Project management and contract administration: Jackson Coles Structural engineer: Momentum Environmental Engineer: Max Fordham Quantity Surveyor: Gleeds Artists: Gareth Jones & Nils Norman


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