A new iconic beginning for our city

Aug 29, 2007

I HAD lunch recently with Milton Keynes’ city centre manager, the charming and lovely Kay Greenhalgh. She said that I was “a really good writer but why did you have to be so mean? Why can’t you be more constructive?”.

Once I’d recovered my composure, it got me thinking. Is there a way that Urban Eden can genuinely advance the growth agenda by suggesting something that will garner support from English Partnerships, Milton Keynes Partnership and Milton Keynes Council?

Something, that while it’s unlikely to ‘save’ Milton Keynes from the worst of the tree-felling, road-closing, high-density-instant-slum excesses against which we’ve been campaigning, nevertheless can draw us all together behind a common cause? Something which will give these protagonists the opportunity to prove that, deep down, they do love Milton Keynes and that they really do want to do something to prove it?

The answer, I think, is something I’ve been suggesting for years informally but now, I believe, the time is right to put it on the table as an open invitation to English Partnerships, Milton Keynes Partnership and Milton Keynes Council to adopt as official policy.

In its way, it will solve some of their issues too because it will be about high density, it will be an ‘extension’ of Milton Keynes, it will encourage higher average rents and it will be something Grant Seeley of Invest Milton Keynes can use in his campaign to attract high-profile businesses and residents.

And, of course, if the powers that be ignore it or sideline it, it will demonstrate to many, once again, that they really don’t have pride in our city and they really don’t acknowledge it as a place that ‘thinks differently’.

So, here it is. EP will designate a good-sized plot of land in Central Milton Keynes – Station Square, for example – for a unique, breathtaking, signature building which defines (and I humbly propose is called) The Spirit of Milton Keynes: a building which people will flock to see, to visit, to invest in and to occupy.

In short, a stunning landmark structure which pushes at the very boundaries of architectural thinking, which sets the bar for 21st-century building design and which contains offices, homes, restaurants and shops. A building so stunningly beautiful it will make your jaw drop in wonder and delight. Just imagine the impact of that.

The justification is simple too. In many ways, iconic buildings in one form or another have shaped our very world and changed the perception of places, even in ancient times.

For instance, Rome demonstrated its power and invincibility as much with its Pantheon, Hippodrome and Coliseum as it did with its armies. Greece did the same with its Parthenon and Temple at Delphi. Egypt similarly impressed the world with its Pyramids, temples such as at Karnak and the Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the seven ancient wonders of the World.

Ancient Britons have a proud iconic-architecture tradition too, dating back to Stonehenge and Avebury and in more recent times demonstrated with works of ‘shock and awe’ such as St Paul’s, Salisbury, Canterbury, Wells and St. David’s Cathedrals. China has its Imperial City and Great Wall: India, among other stunning gems, the Taj Mahal.

In the 20th century, the Sydney Opera House helped to shake Australia out of its ‘cultural cringe’ which had lasted from convict times and which, at a stroke, gave the nation its new, confident, ‘can-do’ face. Designed by the Danish architect Jørn Utzon, the Sydney Opera House not only served its designated purpose magnificently but with its UNESCO World Heritage Site status continues to define not only Sydney but Australia itself.

In modern times, Sir Norman Foster’s ‘gherkin’ in London, Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim gallery in Bilbao and Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles and Daniel Libeskind’s project for Ground Zero in New York have all remade the way we see those cities.

Gehry’s Guggenheim has totally regenerated that tired northern Spanish fishing port, transformed its economy and made Bilbao a truly global destination. Other architects such as Peter Eisenman, Enric Miralles, Zaha Hadid, Coop Himmelblau, Renzo Piano, Will Alsop and Rem Koolhaas have all created architectural icons that have attracted publicity and controversy equally.

Perfect for Milton Keynes So, instead of spending millions on filling in underpasses why not put some money into this, EP? I heartily recommend this proposal and look forward to your response.


Theo Chalmers is also managing director of Verve Public Relations. For more information, visit

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