University competition winner stamps Milton Keynes, in bold, on the architectural map!

Today’s announcement of the winning design for the new University of Milton Keynes, opening in 2023, is excellent news for MK. The bold clarity of Hopkins Architects’ winning design looks as if it always belonged in Central Milton Keynes. Apparently, the designers took their inspiration from the ‘infinity street’ at the world-famous MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) as well as the unique design of Central Milton Keynes (CMK). MK University winning design Capture

Hopkins has recently completed a new campus at Harvard University, while other world-class projects include the London 2012 Olympics Velodrome, and the WWF-UK’s Living Planet Centre.

According to the official press release, “The winning team described their competition scheme as an open quarter with a bold new urban frontage made up of a series of orthogonal academic pavilions, showcasing the university’s activities in new technologies such as AI and robotics; their vision taking its inspiration from the famous infinity street at MIT in the US. The scheme both echoes the format of the original MK vision with calm super-rational buildings surrounded by greenery,
while also envisaging a pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly future. A new civic realm for the proposed new university quarter includes a graduation lawn and formal water feature.”

Designed and built in the 1970’s, CMK continues to prove how good architecture can boost the quality of daily life. From the design of its benches and street lights to the heroic scale of its leafy boulevards and grid roads, CMK was designed as a single, sweeping entirety. Hailed as a strangely beautiful place in the early years, it suffered from the breaking up of the Milton Keynes Development Corporation in 1992, and the original vision and infrastructure of CMK came under increasing attack.

Modernist Milton Keynes

Typical infinity vistas in CMK (Norfolk and Ashton House)

Xplain grew out of this conflict, as a handful of local citizens who loved MK refused to stand by while its original design ethos was being misunderstood or deliberately trashed. After many local battles to retain its unique character it’s reassuring to see that a fresh generation of architects is rediscovering CMK. New projects such as the MK Gallery extension by 6a architects, and the Aubrey Place residential development by Assael architects, shows that the message that MK is different by design is finally getting through.


Six of the original architects of CMK with Xplain supporters celebrating a local win (Saxon Court, Spring 2018).

Petition – Save our Grid Roads!

If you want to save Milton Keynes’ grid roads for the benefit of present and future generations please click on the following link and share with friends.  Save Our Grid Roads petition

Grid Road news, Spring 2019

Marlborough Gate

A classic MK grid road with leafy landscape and no pedestrian crossings!

April 2nd, H5 Portway: despite objections MKC looks likely to approve official guidelines for a huge new housing development in Campbell Park which encourages developers to build pedestrian crossings over busy links in the H5 Portway grid road network. Xplain has warned that every time a pedestrian sets foot on one of these new crossings traffic will have to stop and tailbacks are likely onto the congested roundabouts on H5 Portway. However MKC says these are essential to deliver their ‘vision’ of 1500 new homes overlooking Campbell Park. We say that MKC should forget ‘visions’ and get real! It might be cheaper for developers to build unsafe crossings and toxic ‘City Streets’ rather than decent, MK-style development, but the Council owns all this land on the public’s behalf, and should set higher standards.

Update: after finally listening to the voice of reason MKC has agreed that it’s Development Brief will NOT now encourage house-builders to install pedestrian controlled traffic lights on vital links in the central grid road system (Overgate and Skeldon Gate). Not only will this help protect mature avenues of trees it will also protect pedestrians and cyclists who will be perfectly safe using the original underpasses just a few yards away!


Overgate, Campbell Park, a vital link in MK’s grid road system

April 4th, H2 Millers Way: Aldi wants to build a new supermarket with a Toucan pedestrian crossing over the H2. Incredibly, MKC Highways department has not objected on safety grounds! Let’s hope Councillors on the Development Control Committee understand the importance of separating pedestrians from traffic and decide to reject the application on 4th April.

Update – Aldi’s application was refused because it would draw business away from Wolverton town centre. Although one member of the planning committee also objected on safety grounds, due to poor access for HGVs, there was no wider debate on the issue of encouraging pedestrians to cross grid roads! 

And prior to that – on March 7th MKC approved another Toucan pedestrian crossing between the massive Eastern Expansion Area and the rest of MK. The V4 Watling Street pedestrian crossing will now be joined by another over H4 Dansteed Way, putting pedestrians and cyclists at risk and halting buses and cars. The excuse is that ‘alternative solutions’ to underpasses were agreed years ago and the Council doesn’t have enough money to build underpasses today. We say, that was then – this is now! How about bridges as a second best? Or a cross-party solution to this fiasco? And how about spending some of your huge reserves to keep people safe?


Save Our Grid Roads!

Before and After - Countess Way (with text)

MK Council is steadily dismantling our famous grid road system.

Milton Keynes’ grid roads are clearly one our most important assets and vital to our success. The grid system consists of fast, safe roads separated from housing and commercial areas by beautiful landscaping with underpasses and bridges for pedestrians and cyclists to cross the roads in safety.

But over the past 10 years MK Council has made a series of disastrous decisions to replace our innovative grid roads with old-fashioned ‘city streets’. These have slower speed limits, traditional pedestrian crossings, and housing built right up to the roads, making for bleak, treeless landscapes.  These ‘city streets’ in the Eastern and Western Expansion Areas and around the Hub in CMK now suffer from the same problems as traditional towns –  parking,  congestion, and delayed

public transport.  (See ‘before’ and ‘after’ images from Broughton in the Eastern Expansion Area.)

Despite MK Council saying it has “learned lessons” it still on the same destructive path.  In a recent consultation 98.5% of MK citizens who responded objected to building more pedestrian crossings and voted for underpasses to be built between the Western Expansion Area and the rest of MK. Yet MK Council leaders have ignored public opinion. They have decided to keep millions in the bank gained from new housing development and build cheaper pedestrian crossings over busy grid roads (H4 Dansteed Way and V4 Watling Street) and to reduce the speed limit to 40 mph. Result? Danger, delays and traffic jams.

If you want to keep our classic grid road network quick, safe and green, please send an urgent message to all three political leaders in MK.


Please tell MK Council you want to save our grid road system by emailing the leaders of the three parties who collectively run MK Council:

(Labour leader of the council)
(Lib Dem leader in an alliance with Labour)

(Conservative opposition leader)

No more City Streets!

●       No more dangerous pedestrian ‘Toucan’ crossings

●       No more housing built next to busy roads

●       No more concrete jungles

Below: “City street” Countess Way (top) was once part of the Chaffron Way grid road (below) before MK Council dismantled it. Is this the future we want for MK?


It’s official. ‘The Piano’ will replace The Point in Central Milton Keynes.

Inspired by the MK grid – Hammerson’s new design wins approval
The original Point (c) Mark Coster

After seven years of, at times, fierce debate the fate of The Point has been sealed. Members of the Council’s planning committee voted unanimously to approve Hammerson’s final designs to replace The Point, saying this was a building that would stand the test of time.

In a late condition attached to the approval, the original Point cannot be demolished until the owners are ready to start building its replacement, and as a mark of how keen the Council is to see this prime site brought back to life, the applicant has two years to get started before the consent expires.

7 March 2019

From The Point to The Piano – the final designs to replace a Milton Keynes landmark are in! But will it ever be built?

Main elevation of proposed new Point, fronting Midsummer Boulevard

After years of debate and several stabs at the drawing board bosses at retail giant Hammerson must be praying for MK Council to approve the final designs for the new Point later this week (7 March 2019).

Since 2012, Xplain has been asking the architects to produce a distinctive, classy design that reflects the Modernist setting of MK.

Have they succeeded? We could always ask for more, but certainly this is a great improvement on earlier designs, including the ‘exploding Toblerone’ pictured below.

The architects explain that the ground and first retail floors provide a podium which the leisure box sits upon. The facades were “influenced by the natural rhythm created by pleached trees. The linear order of the trunks is replicated in the retail podium, with the more flowing [order] becoming the leisure box and roof terrace wrap.”

Design and Access statement

This is not as fanciful as it sounds. Milton Keynes is also known as a City of Trees, and if you squint your eyes, you might just imagine the dramatic pillars on the main facade as the tall trees holding outstretched arms.

The exploding Toblerone design – now ditched

Notable features of the latest designs include:

  • Rhythmic facades inspired by the MK grid, in grey and bronze metallic materials
  • Proper colonnades, instead of useless canopies, which provide weather protection and are a distinctive feature of CMK
  • A landscaped roof-garden which will be one of the first to offer public views over MK
  • The ability to project digital artwork on the new facades
Rhythmic blocks in ‘piano key’ design, with roof garden peeping above parapet to left
A wall of plants marks secondary access to roof garden

Xplain first suggested a roof garden at our very first meeting with Hammerson seven years ago. If built, it will be the first place where people can enjoy rooftop views over MK, hopefully along with some live music.

But even if approved on Thursday night, will Hammerson’s grand ‘Piano’ ever be built?

The company recently announced losses of £266m and, given the state of the retail and leisure market, the BBC reports further asset sales to ease debts. Could this prime site, in a relatively strong retail destination, be added to the list?

Is ‘X’ the worst symbol for Milton Keynes?

Xscape wants to fix a massive black ‘X’ on its famous façade in Central Milton Keynes.

Xscape elevation

Some people say the 11 x 11 m (33 x 33 ft) sign will feel menacing – like a Nazi swastika on a Luftwaffe hangar. Others say it’s just an exercise in corporate branding.

In this guest column for Xplain, social psychologist Linda Corlett explains the remarkable power of X – for good or ill.

“Symbols and signs often evoke emotions that are triggered by our past associations with them. ‘X’ is a curious letter because it’s one of the few letters that is used alone. Historically it has portrayed negative and positive meanings as well as mystery.
Children in our part of the world grow up in an education system where a red ‘X’ denotes incorrect schoolwork. This is perhaps the earliest association we have with X where it triggers negative emotions.

When X it is printed as a CAPITAL letter, in BLACK and printed in BOLD, its meaning can be negatively interpreted because historically it is commonly associated with symbols of evil, torture, danger and death. For eg:

basic swastika

image courtesy Wikipedia

SWASTIKA X – the most nihilistic symbol of all; when the Nazis adopted this ancient symbol of life they turned the swastika into the very essence of hatred and evil. In Germany, its use is outlawed unless it’s for legitimate purposes such publishing articles like this!
SKULL AND CROSS BONES X – this is the universal warning symbol of death by poison.

skull, crossbones

Image courtesy

CAMP X – the Second World War training camp that taught sabotage, explosives-making and silent killing.

CRIME X – X is used to mark the scene of a murder.

GRAPPLE X was the code-name for Britain’s first thermo-nuclear weapons test in the Pacific Ocean. Grapple X nuclear test Christmas Island 1957
XXXX denotes macho bravado as in ‘who gives a F**K?’ The clothing industry uses X to describe increasing degrees of ‘fatness’ eg. XL, XXL, XXXL.

X-RATED signs denote pornography, the illicit and forbidden. X-rated graphicDRUGS which include the letter X in their names often have negative associations, eg Zovirax – blisters and cold sores, Ziprexa –schizophrenia, Xylocaines – pain, Xarelto – blood clots.

X can also be used as a symbol of protest.

For example, Malcolm X was born as Malcolm Little but famously replaced his slave-era surname with a capital ‘X’ to symbolise stolen identity and the fight for justice. Here, X reminds us of a torturous time in history.

X is also used to symbolise the mysterious or unknown: ‘The X Files’ denotes strange paranormal phenomena while the German scientist who discovered X-rays in 1895 named them ‘X-rays’ because the science behind them was unknown. STATION X was the code-name for Bletchley Park, the ultra-secret headquarters of Britain’s Second World War code-breakers. Although we make positive connotations with Bletchley Park, code-breaking is hacking which we associate with illegal entry – so the name may still make us feel uncomfortable.

In contrast, when presented in liquid metallic fonts, X signifies hi-tech precision technology, e.g. the X-planes airplanes and rockets, the Jaguar X-Type, BMW X5, Mac OS X and iPhone X.

X can also be used in positive ways. For example, we use x every day in our messages to one another. In lowercase ‘x’ means ‘thanks’, or ‘I like you’; ‘xxx ‘ means ‘I love you’.
The colour of text is important too. In red and gold, X can be glitzy and entertaining eg The X-Factor, or it can be festive, such as Happy Xmas. But a red cross on its own also signifies that something is incorrect or wrong. Red X’s are often used in the porn industry so they should be used with caution in public spaces!

The present Xscape logo is blue on silver. Xscape original signage captureBlue represents the sky and sea; the colour that most symbolises escape from everyday pressures. The sea often glistens with silver, a colour that is universally attractive and welcoming. Also the shape of the X is elegant, stretched and energetic; it symbolises exercise and health. These features are the whole point of MK’s Xscape, so in my opinion the original blue logo is clever, appropriate, attractive and perfectly adequate. It’s an appealing feature on the MK skyline.

Xscape's new logo

Xscape’s proposed new 11m x 11m illuminated sign in ‘Galano Grotesque’ font

Of course, some people may like the proposed solid X, but I suspect many people will associate it with negative meanings and find it repellent.  If there has to be a massive X on the building I’d suggest an elegant font in pale blue illuminated glass. But do we really need it?”

To comment on this planning application you can email MK Council’s case officer quoting ref number 18/01456/ADV. Or log onto MK Council’s planning portal to read details and file comments direct.

Who will put down roots at the old Wyevale Garden Centre in CMK?

After 10 years quietly sprouting weeds the old Wyevale Garden centre site in Central Milton Keynes looks set for redevelopment. Aviva Investors and Abbeygate Developments have filed a new planning application to build 328 apartments on this prime site opposite Xscape. But they are not for sale. As more people give up the idea of buying their own home, or need longer to save for a deposit, the ‘PRS’ or Private Rental Sector is growing in popularity. One PRS scheme is already being built in CMK and this would be another. It is aimed at people who want a well-managed apartment building and are ready to pay for extras such as attractive lobbies and landscaped space.

The proposal is for two L-shaped buildings ranging from 3 to 12 stories in height. The ground floor offers flexible commercial space which would possibly attract independent outlets – something most people want more of in CMK.


‘Vizion’, like the Hub, ate into CMK’s famous grid

There are clear similarities with Abbeygate’s ‘Vizion’ development, the younger sister of the notorious ‘Hub’. But crucially this new development would not eat into CMK’s unique grid layout, disrupting traffic and pedestrians and degrading the public realm. Instead, it would sit at a comfortable distance from heavy traffic, leaving the surrounding grid of leafy boulevards, ‘slow streets’, pedestrian and cycle routes intact.

The architecture is quiet and confident and although the 12-storey height on the corner of Secklow Gate and Avebury Boulevard might shock a few people this does, apparently, fit the Council’s Development Brief. Typically MK features include double-height colonnades to protect pedestrians from sun and rain.

A glassy, egg-shaped café looks towards the private courtyard garden which would be visible from the boulevard and occasionally be open to the public.

The materials are silver and dark grey brickwork with coppery metal panels. Most of the balconies would be flush with the façade which (among other benefits) reduces the amount of private clutter on public view.

To view the application go to MK Council’s planning portal re application number 18/01591/FUL