I’m looking at a black and white photograph of children clambering over a large, steel animal-like sculpture by Swiss artist Bernhard Luginbühl installed in the Kunshalle Hamburg in 1967. One child has just jumped down from the head, while others clamber over the top. In the distance a woman navigates the precarious depths of an adjacent sculpture, as another child sweeps in at the bottom right of the frame, eager to get a bit of the action. There’s a joyous sense of boundless energy here, and, certainly within the context of a contemporary art gallery, even anarchy. It’s hard to imagine this type of activity being sanctioned in 21st century museum spaces – beyond the tightly controlled whizz down a Carsten Höller slide.
As benign as these types of photographs seem, there was revolutionary intent at work. In the 1950s and 60s there was a drive to create public spaces, playgrounds and artworks that harnessed the imagination of children and adults, expanded their physical and mental parameters and resulted in a playful, dynamic public realm. In post war Britain, educationalists and academics were keen to communicate their new-found research on the effect of the environment on the populace, and were fired up with ambition to make the world a better place for everybody.
Architecture and planning departments in local authorities were granted extensive powers to sweep away the old and bring in the new. An enviable combination of money, vision and ambition resulted in the development of a huge range of housing estates, town halls, civic spaces, cultural buildings, schools and even entirely new towns being built across the UK.
In the same year that those children were clambering over Luginbühl’s sculpture, Milton Keynes was formally designated a new town. Built predominantly on farmland, its main function was to relieve housing pressure in London. Its grid system, de-centralised city plan, and emphasis on car use that resulted in a ‘community without propinquity’ , gave the town a character that was clearly influenced by north American city planning and which resulted in a lived experience that was wholly and fantastically un-English. Learning from the mistakes of their predecessors working in the 1940s, emphasis was placed on public realm provision including broad boulevards, pedestrian-friendly streets and extensive tree planting, civic furniture, and public art schemes.
The city became a magnet for architecture students and critics who saw it as way to invent the future. Its reputation as the most ambitious social and architectural project of its kind in the UK gained traction and in the early 1970s it became known as a place where young architects could make their mark. Designs for the town were launched in internationally feted architecture magazines Domus and Architectural Digest – a marker of the level at which MKDC were pitching their plans.
Artists, designers and illustrators were installed in the architecture and planning departments where they were tasked with the job of making a beautiful, liveable city. Residency programmes with artists were developed as a way of bringing new inhabitants together. Illustrators such as the mighty Helmut Jacoby were employed to dream up visions of the future, creating an indelible sense of a town untroubled by the past. Jacoby’s exquisite drawings include expansive streetscapes, a profusion of plants that inhabit a world of sheet glass and steel, men with groovy moustaches, and futuristic blimps that roam the sky. These drawings are significant not only because they provide a sense of the atmosphere of the time, but also because they point to something we have since lost: the importance of speculative thinking. As designer and academic Fiona Raby has written: ‘Dreams…can inspire us to imagine that things could be radically different...and that we can progress toward an imaginary world’ . With the rise of neoliberalism, pragmatism, project managers and health & safety diktats, exacerbated by the economic crisis, the power of local authorities and architects to not only play a part in designing cities but also to dream about what might be, has greatly diminished.
It is these utopian ideals that artists Gareth Jones and Nils Norman were interested in unearthing when they approached Anthony Spira, Director of Milton Keynes Gallery, in 2013. They did so with a conviction that the audacious original ambitions of the city could be re-introduced to residents through a proposal that took the original ‘total plan’ logic of the scheme and applied it to the public realm area around the gallery. Confounding expectations concerning the role of artists in public realm projects, Jones and Norman drew up a set of rules within which they were permitted to improvise. No random ideas were allowed; everything had to link back to the original plan. This working methodology mirrored the Milton Keynes Development Corporation’s ‘Infrastructure Pack’ (1975) which was made up of design guidelines that could be used by other cities to spruce up their public spaces. This original pack included signage, furniture, play equipment and bins, all of which exuded a 1970s pop design aesthetic. The perforated steel bench designed by Brian Milne, in particular, caught on and became a feature of many high streets across the UK and an iconic piece of 70s street furniture.
Jones and Norman have reinstated some of the Infrastructure Pack elements in their public realm scheme for MK Gallery which they named ‘City Club’, including the porte cochere (archway), sculptural trellises, paving grids and climbing frames. They talk of producing ‘interactive sculptures that act as triggers for imaginative play, visual pleasure, and new models of education’ in a way that is reminiscent of landscape designers, artists and educationalists working in the 1960s and 70s. Central Milton Keynes to them is a giant public sculpture in which the normal hierarchies of art, architecture and design are dismissed; a place where buildings, trees and boulevards combine to create a complete cityscape (a Gesamtstadtwerk! ) which is ‘porous and liberating, rather than closely identified with a signature style of an artist or architect’ .
It is important to remember here that although this approach is rare, it’s not new. Artists were employed on a number of occasions by local authorities and, in particular, development corporations in the 1950s, 60s and 70s, to treat housing, landscaping and the built environment as a total concept. In Peterlee, County Durham, in the 1950s, the artist Victor Pasmore was plucked from his job as Master of Painting at King’s College in Newcastle to become the lead visual art consultant on the development of Peterlee New Town. His interest in combining the qualities of cubist painting with contemporary architecture was realised in the development of flat-roof houses that were grouped together with patio gardens, courtyards and open spaces. Twenty years later, while the designs for Milton Keynes were being launched, Stuart Brisley was invited by the Peterlee New Town Development Corporation, under the auspices of the Artist Placement Group , to take an overview of the visual character of the town, carry out a programme of community workshops and develop a system of recording and archiving the history of the area.
What Jones and Norman have done at Milton Keynes is take the involvement of artists in civic design onto a new and playful level. The idea that public art can be infrastructure, and infrastructure can be public art, is a theme that runs through almost every element of their project, along with detailed references to the Milton Keynes of the 70s and 80s. A street lamp located in front of MK Gallery (based on the design of an original Central Milton Keynes lamp) assumes the guise of a climbing frame but could also be thought of as public art. A play mound for older children, that Jones and Norman have christened ‘Tri-stack labyrinth’, references the design of an unbuilt scheme for a park in Milton Keynes and boasts a zigzag pattern that is based on a climbing frame in the Infrastructure Pack. A pair of gates which take the form of two hands that became heavily identified with the branding of Milton Keynes in the 1970s, have been refurbished and installed flat on the ground in the public realm area outside the learning centre as a place for performative play. A sculpture that doubles up as a slide by Dhruva Mistry called ‘The Object’ (1995-97) has been relocated from a small piece of grassland behind the gallery to a more prominent site on Midsummer Boulevard.
This harnessing of the spirit of Milton Keynes and its original soaring vision is poignant, practical and provocative. Does it matter that some of Jones and Norman’s interventions will be ignored, barely recognized as something useful, let alone considered to be art? Here too, we bump into the ghosts of the past when we learn that part of the ambition for the city was for it to be so seamless, so easy to navigate, that you could ‘drive through it without knowing you’ve been there’ . Perhaps Jones / Norman’s climbing frame is a ruse – an under-cover agent cunningly disguised as a functional object, sparking the imagination of kids, invisible to the eyes of adults.
The artists’ involvement in the redevelopment of MK Gallery is so wide-ranging it’s hard to get a sense of its edges – where their proposals bleed into other team members’ activities. Along with their public realm scheme, Jones and Norman worked with graphic designer Mark El-khatib to develop a colour chart that referenced both the urban and pastoral iconographies of the city (red, pink and yellow moving in to green, blue and brown); they engaged in lengthy discussions with Tom Emerson at 6a Architects about the design and character of the foyer, the auditorium, learning space and café, as well as the decoration of the existing gallery envelope. Much of the outcome of these discussions is manifest in the bricks and mortar of the building, but is more evident in the form of an awning for the learning space; a curtain for the auditorium; and a colour scheme for the café and façade – all of which emerge from the artists’ colour chart algorithm. The red neon heart on the façade of the building (which became a symbol of central Milton Keynes in the 1970s ) and the early logotype for the city with its drop-shadows and curly ‘M’, are both overt references to the original character and exuberance of the city. The café is a joyful re-envisioning of the design of the now infamous Milton Keynes Development Corporation’s Architecture Department, with its explosion of yellow and red detailing. It is magical to see 6a Architects reach beyond the controlled, subtle aesthetic for which they have become so well known, to embrace the post-modern language of 1980s design – a bit of Milton Keynes’ unruly spirit edging its way into 21st century life. And it’s good to think that Jones and Norman had a role to play in this.
All this activity (the public realm and visual identity scheme) is grouped together under the banner of ‘City Club’, a name Jones and Norman took from an unbuilt leisure complex in the centre of Milton Keynes which was to become a playground for the city, where residents and visitors could ‘have a game of football, relax in a sauna bath, buy a book, meet friends for a drink in the bar, look at an exhibition and eat in restaurants without leaving the Club’ . The artists have reimagined City Club for the 21st century, to create a new social space in the area surrounding MK Gallery and Milton Keynes Theatre.
An unlikely structure that did get built in Milton Keynes was ‘The Point’, a huge multiplex cinema designed by Building Design Partnership which opened in 1985. It was the first of its kind in the country and for a while became the UK’s most visited cinema complex. With its giant red pyramid frame, reflective glass, and block-like elevation, it looked like something dreamed up by utopian architects that never left the drawing board - a sort of Po-Mo take on Joan Littlewood and Cedric Price’s never realised ‘Fun Palace’ for east London (1959 – 61). Conceived of as a ‘university of the streets’ and a ‘laboratory of fun’, the ‘Fun Palace’ strikes many parallels with the ambitions of City Club and the MK Gallery of today, with its porous relationship to the public realm, its desire to create a flexible, democratic place of play, activity, engagement and debate, and its insistence that creativity should be at the heart of a city.
The history of modernism and post-modernism is strewn with examples of developments that placed these ambitions at the centre of their projects. Very few have managed to turn vision into reality. Lina Bo Bardi’s ‘SESC Pompeia’ in Sao Paulo (1977 – 86) is an exception. A converted 1920s oil drum factory, this sprawling and fantastic cultural centre offers a space in the tumultuous city of Sao Paulo in which residents can sunbathe, play football, take a ballet class, see a play, have a barbeque, hang out with friends. The conflation of ‘high and low’ culture and different art forms is at the route of its success, but so too is a deep-seated understanding of the way the city works and what the people want. Like much of the architecture of Milton Keynes, the physical manifestation of SESC Pompeia seems strange, out of scale, even ugly and confrontational to some people, but both schemes are truly audacious, bold propositions that shocked and enthralled, and continue to do so today.
The reinvented City Club project constitutes a kind of ongoing historical, visual, conceptual palimpsest, involving the layering of multiple fictions. The introduction and re-imagining of proposals from the 1970s into the streets of Milton Keynes in 2019, is a scurrilous form of civic story-telling. By 1975, the grand plans for the city were being scaled-down and key proposals for the city were shelved. No doubt, a number of Jones and Normans’ proposals, which stem from the aspirations of the original design team, will graduate to the heady heights of the ‘unrealised proposals’ file. But this thinking through what could be, making drawings to visualise the possibilities, are a crucial part of projecting ourselves into the future in order to stake our place in the world. Perhaps in another fifty years, a partnership of dreamers will pick up where Jones and Norman left off, weaving new narratives from the past into the future.
Without the audacious planning, bold thinking, commitment to the importance of play and experimentation, the urban infrastructure of Milton Keynes might be said to amount to very little. The revised City Club proposals, and, indeed, the refurbishment of MK Gallery as a whole, are a challenge to the city to take care of its dreams.