Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Station Square, Milton Keynes

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Elder House
Source: propertymall.com

Only the most imaginative mind could possibly conceive of Station Square in Milton Keynes as a thing of beauty. The Square is a large and uninteresting grey plaza bordered on three sides by sheer squat glass office buildings – Phoenix House, Elder House and MK Central – containing retail units, restaurants and the concourse and entrance to Milton Keynes Central railway station.

In that last fact, Station Square is at least half correctly named. On the downside, as far as I can see the area isn’t square at all, but rectangular, but these of course are mere semantics.

Station Square represents to a large extent the personality and character of Milton Keynes – the ‘city in the countryside’ as clever marketing types have dubbed it – distilled into a single concept. The Square includes two large open and well-maintained raised grass areas, an abundance of space, modernist architecture in the reflective glass offices that are repeated elsewhere in the city, and that thing that Milton Keynes loves so much: concrete. Thus, the greenery that is in much abundance in this city clashes with the necessary grey ingredient that Milton Keynes has celebrated and paid homage to throughout its boulevards, bridges and walkways.

That concrete is represented here in the form of thousands and thousands of paving slabs, most of which have seen better days. They are of a mottled grey texture which reminds me of cheap pork pie meat when you get those slightly dubious dark spots in the meat.

I believe that plans exist somewhere for a wholesale redevelopment of the entire Square, but I’m not aware of what that entails. I do know that many residents of the city and fellow commuters have expressed concern at the notion; personally, I think any sort of redevelopment would be a very good thing. The Square completely lacks character and seems to have forgotten its purpose. There are flagpoles without flags, sporadic tree plantings laid out in a strict and very Milton Keynes formation and the whole thing seems like a waste of space. In this it does remain a perfect counterpoint to the now very dated modernist-style office buildings, but if someone pulled the lot down tomorrow and started again I wouldn’t be terribly disappointed. The most interesting feature is the round modernist clock atop a pole (reminiscent of those outside the Reuters Building in Canary Wharf), behind which you get a view of the majestic Pinnacle Building, the most adventurous design to have been realised in Milton Keynes for many years.

Station Square clock
Source: The Mark, Flickr

A couple of years ago the ground floor reception areas of the office buildings were redeveloped to allow retail units to move in, presumably to capitalise on those finding that their train has been cancelled because London Midland failed to organise any staff for Sunday services, as well as those commuters who want to grab a quick ready meal after another gruelling day in the Smoke. And so we now have a Costa, a M&S Simply Food and a Subway. We also have a mortgage broker and betting shop to complement the cosmetic dentist, Indian restaurant, newsagent and Richer Sounds that have been here for much longer.

The fact that a few of the retail units have remained unlet – both before, during and as we emerge from the recession – is perhaps indicative of how businesses feel about moving to this relative outpost in the city. A swanky bar (Blueprint) opened up recently, offering decent food and cocktails, its windows draped with stylish voile panels and its chairs and tables significantly more adventurous in style than anything else in the Square. For a while, I wondered if anyone actually went there, then noticed the tell-tale notice stuck to the door that suggests that the bar has gone under. I had always intended to go there as well. Bugger.

Occasionally the Square gets used for events and happenings. In late September, as a conclusion to the Celebr8 diversity march, the square hosted a gay, lesbian and transgender pop-up disco here, and we’ve had things like a man-made beach and mini concerts before, but none of this was ever done with gusto or major promotion. The central area of the Square was used a couple of years back as part of an art installation from MK:G, the city’s principal art gallery. In this installation, artist Wolfgang Weileder and a team of building students built, dismantled and rebuilt a scale model of different sections of the gallery, the theme purportedly linking the impermanence of existence with the more defined permanence of architecture.

A permanent piece of art on a raised grass plinth can be found in the Square. The sculpture, which again looks like it was hewn from a lump of concrete, is called ‘O, Wert Thou In The Cauld Blast’ by Ronald Rae. As part of the FingeMK city-wide arts festival, the sculpture was converted into a temporary art installation by someone calling themselves ‘Mrs Smith’, in which the two lumpen depictions of people were given a cosy blanket and some mad fluorescent pompoms for eyes.

Mrs Smith vs Ronald Rae 'O, Wert Thou In The Cauld Blast'

Ronald Rae 'O, Wert Thou In The Cauld Blast' detail

Source: MJA Smith

The Square does seem to have begun a faltering transformation, or at least a few preparatory steps toward some sort of change. Sleek new bike racks were installed, and a model of the 1009 Wolverton locomotive that was displayed here – and which provided a logical thematic connection to the station itself – was removed a few years back. For trainspotters, the geograph.org.uk website had this to say: ‘It is a replica of a LNWR Bloomer class locomotive, designed by McConnell in the early 1850's. She was one of a later series built in 1862 at Wolverton works, just a short journey down the line from Milton Keynes.’

1009 Wolverton locomotive replica
Source: Martin Addison, geograph.org.uk; usage requested

However, just when it felt that the Square was being geared up for a radical redevelopment, in the past few weeks the council have installed new tourist signage to help the dazed people emerging into the sunlight from the station concourse understand which direction they need to point themselves in. Whilst the colourful pillar sign immediately opposite the station entrance is welcome, it’s an indication that the town planners are more keen to tinker with the original brutalist expanse than undertake anything more challenging. And that is perhaps the biggest disappointment of this tired and depressing expanse.

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