Hammerson, the tottering retail giant, has put one of the most popular buildings in Milton Keynes’ history up for sale.
Britain’s first purpose-built multiplex cinema (c) Mark Coster
‘The Point’ won a place in people’s hearts in the 1980’s as the very first leisure destination for the fast-growing new town. Not only was it somewhere to meet, eat, dance and watch films, it was also a beacon of the future and a sign of coming home. The Point’s famous red ‘pyramid’ of light could be seen for miles around!
But times change, and after various recent attempts to redevelop the five-acre site (including a lapsed planning permission for the new ‘piano’ building), the owners have now put it up for sale. The brochure describes it as a “brownfield redevelopment opportunity” with the potential to build around 450 flats.
sketch from Savills’ sales brochure
However, while Central Milton Keynes has lots to offer, something it still lacks is a good-size venue for live music.
Fans of The Point would no doubt be delighted if the original building could be rescued as the heart-beat of an imaginative scheme, which included new homes. If only an organisation such as The Stables, champions of live music, could be tempted to open a new venue in this much-loved building! Surely, something like this would be a popular move, and would help the Council achieve its ambitious plans for a renaissance of Central Milton Keynes?
In good news for fans of Modernist architecture, an important piece of Milton Keynes’ history will be saved from demolition. Saxon Court will become the centrepiece of a major investment in Central Milton Keynes. Mixed-use developer First Base and Patron Capital, the pan-European institutional real estate investor, announced today (20/10/20) that it is acquiring Saxon Court to create a mix of workspace, homes and community spaces. Barry Jessup, director, First Base, said: “This is an exciting opportunity to create a new mixed-use district in the heart of one of the UK’s fastest growing cities. Our investment will bring nearly £200 million into the Milton Keynes economy and we very much look forward to working with the Council and the local community to develop our plans.”
Saxon Court might look like a modest building from the street but its Tardis-like interior packs a punch – full of light, space and greenery. Like many other landmark buildings in CMK, Saxon Court was the product of a talented team of architects hired by MK’s charismatic chief architect, Derek Walker, to design an entire city centre on a grand scale. But before a single building went up they designed the framework for everything that was to follow: a spacious public realm, cased in granite, generously landscaped, and based on a timeless grid pattern of boulevards and ‘gates’.
Along with its twin across Saxon Gate, Saxon Court was a significant landmark on the grid. It was also probably the first office building in the country built around an atrium – and a generous one at that. During the 1980’s high-flyers from the Milton Keynes Development Corporation were based in Saxon Court, from where they launched their mission to sell the ambitious new town to the rest of the world. MK Council eventually took over the building after MKDC was wound up, in 1992.
Yet despite its importance, Saxon Court could easily have been demolished. Read on for the story of how local people fought for their heritage…
In 2018 MK Council no longer needed the building and issued a brief for developers which basically described it as a dull office block ripe for demolition. Worse, the Council’s ‘Head of Place’ was clearly in favour of building over the surrounding network of leafy footpaths, cycle-paths and side-streets. But this is classic CMK infrastructure – part of the city’s famously safe and easy grid road network! Plus, it was protected in the Neighbourhood Plan. Was it any wonder residents saw red? Xplain led the public campaign to save Saxon Court. We warned that MK could end up with another ‘Hub’ – a local byword for bad design and wretched planning. In protests and publicity, we urged the Council to ‘Stand by the Plan’.
Political leaders began to have second thoughts. The heritage officer stuck out his neck and wrote that “Like other key buildings within the city centre it, and its sister building, make a key contribution to the aesthetic value of Milton Keynes.” With pressure building, the all-important development brief got re-written and a few months later the Council’s highly-paid ‘Head of Place’ left for pastures new.
So it’s great to hear that Saxon Court will now be retained and reinvigorated by an interesting developer, First Base.
It’s not only a vote of confidence in the pure, architectural vision that laid out CMK nearly 50 years ago, but also in the future of Milton Keynes as a city that is open to change. As long as it’s sympathetic and different by design!
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.
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
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?
A fresh public workshop will take place on June 6th 2018 after Hammerson’s, one of UK’s biggest retail groups, failed to get their design guidelines for the new ‘Point’ approved by Councillors – despite the planning department urging its speedy approval.
‘Quality landmark’ to replace The Point?
Xplain, MK Forum and CMK Town Council waited three hours to make the case against approval at a late-night meeting of the Development Control Committee (DCC).
Xplain flatly contradicted Hammerson’s claims that they had fulfilled the Council’s requirement to produce a very high quality design in conjunction with local citizens. Linda Inoki, chair of Xplain, described how the applicant, “in total isolation from the community” produced their own Design Code which was designed to deliver the same, “garish retail shed” that triggered the condition in the first place. Continue reading →
At last night’s Cabinet meeting MK Councillor Rob Middleton (Lab.) told the public gallery “I can be clear; I will not be forcing another Hub on CMK!”
This is very good news for thousands of people who use Saxon Gate daily, and would certainly feel the difference if the surrounding access routes and leafy boulevards were lost, as at the Hub.
Xplain’s mock up of Hub-scale development on Saxon Gate
Cllr Middleton said “It’s important to listen, and I recognise the strength of feeling and commitment from the public responses to the consultation.” Hence, he is now “minded to remove” the option to build over the classic CMK infrastructure later this month, when the official guidance to developers is due to be finalised.
Predictably, this has been the most controversial option, as it involves demolishing Saxon Court and replacing it with a much wider, taller building that would obliterate most of the surrounding trees, public space and access routes.
Naturally, people have drawn comparisons between the ‘Hub’ development and the prospect of an equally overbearing presence on Saxon Gate. But Councillor Middleton said it had been right for the Council to offer a range of options as part of the consultation process.
Saxon Court – part of MK’s modern heritage. (c) Iqbal Alaam
Councillor John Bint (Con.), welcomed Cllr Middleton’s announcement and said the Development Control Committee had also expressed concerns with the draft Development Brief.
There was also a positive signal on MK’s distinctive heritage. After Xplain and others wrote in, explaining the architectural significance of Saxon Court, which was carefully designed to mark the gateway to Central Milton Keynes, Council officers will now look into its heritage value. Hopefully they will revise their opinion that it is simply “a 1970’s office building” which “lacks any presence”.
It’s still early days, but for now, this is positive news for citizens who appreciate that MK is ‘Different by Design’.
Despite a rise in traffic jams, accidents and parking issues around the ‘Hub’ development in Central Milton Keynes, and the £2.1m cost of altering highways*, MK Council (MKC) is gearing up for a similar project at Saxon Gate.
Saxon Court (right) in classic CMK layout
Saxon Gate is one of the busiest gateways to CMK. Here, opposite Debenhams, the Council owns Saxon Court; a subtle piece of Modernist architecture it now wishes to sell. But instead of promoting the most sustainable option (to refurbish the heritage building and develop the empty site at the back) the Council’s Draft Development Brief firmly steers would-be investors to option 3.
‘Son of Hub’ for Saxon Gate?
This is to demolish Saxon Court and build a huge new development right up to the grid road, wiping out most of the side streets. If these tributaries of the grid road network disappear, they take with them:
direct access to and from the grid road (Saxon Gate)
400 public parking spaces
dedicated footpaths and cycle routes
around 140 mature trees.
Is CMK destined for another Soviet-style project, looming over bleak, deforested boulevards? Will frustrated drivers stop on grid roads to drop off a parcel or pick up a passenger, jamming up traffic and causing accidents?
Daily jams at The Hub
Unless Council leaders persist in this corporate amnesia there is still time to change the development brief.
Britain’s first purpose-built multiplex cinema (c) Mark Coster
Back in 2014 there were so many objections to Hammerson’s sketchy plans to replace The Point with a giant exploding Toblerone (ok, a glorified retail shed) that, although they won outline planning permission, it came with conditions.The retail giant was told it had to listen to local people and produce an approved Design Code before filing the final, detailed plans. MK Council used this condition to ensure that local people had a real say in designing a decent replacement for this much-loved building in Central Milton Keynes.
But Hammerson did nothing of the sort. In fact, they did nothing for 3 long years while The Point crumbled away. Then, with their outline consent about to expire, the giant woke up. Arguing that this condition ‘artificially shortened’ the 3-year deadline to submit final plans they asked if they could put the cart before the horse. In other words, they wanted to file detailed plans first and the design code sometime thereafter. And instead of letting the application lapse, as it otherwise would, officers agreed.
So now Hammerson has up to two more years to sit on their assets which are obviously worth far more with planning permission than without.
Certainly, we can expect them to file a detailed ‘reserved matters’ application by the deadline of 17th Feb (their architects must be on overtime). But once filed, is it really likely they’ll listen to local people who might want a very different design code?
To Xplain, it looks as if MK Council has shown its teeth – only to hide them behind a wobbly smile.
While the fresh green landscape of Milton Keynes is full of hope and life there is one part of the city centre which is anything but! Here, at ‘the John Lewis end’ of the Grade ll-listed Shopping Building, almost all the trees and shrubs have been cut down to make way for a controversial multi-storey car park.
The people of Milton Keynes are unlikely to forgive or forget the sad fate of the Midsummer Oak, in Central Milton Keynes, which retail giants Intu finally carted away on 25 April 2016.
When the new city centre was laid out in the 1970’s the architects took great care to preserve this flourishing oak tree. In the 1990’s local people campaigned to save the oak when a controversial new shopping centre was built, breaking Midsummer Boulevard in two. Artists Boyd & Evans published this image of the oak tree surrounded by new shops nine years ago, before it gave up the ghost.
The famous Midsummer Oak, in 2007 (c) Boyd & Evans
3 March 2016 …Controversial plans to build a noisy concrete works within earshot of Willen Hospice have been delayed while heritage experts consider Listing a nearby building – a 1970’s sewage plant. Continue reading →
2nd garden for the chop between Norfolk House & YMCA housing, CMK (c) HvA
6 Feb 2016 According to its owners it’s a ‘poorly connected’ piece of grass and scrub which they need for executive parking. According to ecologists, landscape architects and experts of 20th century architecture, it is part of the living fabric of Britain’s most remarkable New Town – Milton Keynes – and should not be destroyed. Continue reading →