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English Heritage can save our centre

I COULDN’T write this column about the changes to Central Milton Keynes without looking at the proposed developments at thecentre:mk. It is a unique building, not only architecturally but also because it’s a privately owned shopping centre which also happens to form almost the entire retail centre of a city – it’s basically an enclosed, wholly-owned high street.

As readers of this column may know, the organisation I founded, Urban Eden has been campaigning to preserve and sustainably extend the principles of the original master plan for Milton Keynes.

This has to include thecentre:mk, as its owners intend to build on the public realm, to narrow boulevards and to throw up ugly new buildings in front of the original glass and steel facades.

However, there is hope. Thanks to the efforts of our members and friends, I understand that English Heritage is once again considering listing thecentre:mk. In my opinion, it is a stunningly well-realised example of English Modernism as written up glowingly at the time in Architectural Design (No.8/74); RIBA Journal (Vol. 86, No. 5, May 1979); Architectural Review (Sept. 1980); Architects Journal (Oct. 1980) among other publications.

The building was inspired by architect and furniture designer Ludwig Mies Van Der Rohe, who died in 1969 and was one of the founders of modern architecture and a proponent of simplicity of style. Interestingly, he is often credited with the phrase “less is more”, which sums up thecentre:mk very well and may yet serve as a reminder to those who might seek to ‘make more, less’.

In August 1998 English Heritage carefully considered listing the shopping building Milton Keynes, as they called it then, which they said deserved Grade 2 Star status but held off in return for an explicit signed undertaking from its owners and Milton Keynes Council not to do many of things which are now planned, such as: Clause 5.1 i) Any further extension or reduction to the volume of the building.

Now, despite this agreement, the building, the surrounding parking areas, its two neighbouring boulevards and Secklow Gate are all seriously and urgently threatened:

– The building, by unwanted, ugly, linear extensions clad in toilet-like cream tiles blocking the light from its clerestory glazing and destroying forever its appearance. Indeed, it may end up looking like the longest public toilet in England;

– The parking, by overbuilding of its surrounding parking areas;

– The boulevards, because they will be narrowed and parts of the public realm, including trees, will be subsumed;

– The raised crossroad Secklow Gate; because it will be demolished, forcing drivers to use Avebury and Silbury Boulevards as a kind of ring road leading to two long, polluting queues of cars attempting to enter a new, monumentally hideous, aluminium-finned 1,900-place multi-storey car park planned for the far side of Silbury Boulevard;

– They are banishing the market to a site at the food hall and building a new House of Fraser on its footprint.

In addition, the owners will infill the two public spaces within thecentre:mk. Middleton Hall, the large public events space, will be significantly infilled with shops and Queen’s Court, the enclosed open space with large granite fountains, which will be demolished and significantly infilled with restaurants.

Thus, in a stroke, the owners are breaking both terms of: 5.1 i) Any further extension or reduction to the volume of the building.
Urban Eden cannot understand how English Heritage would allow this undertaking signed by itself, the owners of thecentre:mk and Milton Keynes Council to be so blatantly and cynically ignored. Milton Keynes does not need this kind of unthinking development – thecentre:mk, with its neighbour Midsummer Place, is already one of the largest shopping centres in Europe.

I would like to stress that Urban Eden is not against expansion, development and change per se. We simply exist to see the developments follow the principles of the original Master Plan, a plan that has worked so well for us for 40 years.

Perhaps Milton Keynes’ councillors will examine their conscience on this issue in the light of the undertakings the council made and may I remind them that outline planning permission does not automatically guarantee full permission.

In the meantime, let’s hope English Heritage will make one final desperate stand against this wanton act of desecration. Cheerio.

For more information, visit www.urbaneden.org
Theo Chalmers is managing director of Verve Public Relations. Tel: 01908 275271 or visit www.vervepr.co.uk