City Club with Gareth Jones, 6a architects and Mark El-khatib

, 2019

City Club, MKGallery, Milton Keynes with Gareth Jones, 6a architects and Mark El-khatib. 2019

Gareth Jones and Nils Norman, City Club, 2014 -2019 (catalogue text)

City Club is a wide-ranging project by Gareth Jones and Nils Norman that seeks to embed alternative models of contemporary art within the fabric of Central Milton Keynes. Jones grew up in the new city during its utopian phase, an experience that surfaces throughout his work, and Norman has made numerous public art projects that reference play and the urban landscape. Their five-year collaboration on City Club has been an exploration of shared interests in public space, modernism and the social meaning of design. In keeping with their ambition to work across disciplines, the core of the project has evolved to become an extended collaboration with 6a architects and designer Mark El-khatib.

City Club was the name given in the 1970s to a mind-boggling leisure complex planned to occupy a whole block of Central Milton Keynes. Too fantastic to be built, it would have included a wave pool, a rodeo and a souk. Jones and Norman have looked at this scheme as a way to bring forward the extraordinary design history of Milton Keynes into the 21st century. They have also looked closely at the Infrastructure Pack, which was produced by the Milton Keynes Development Corporation to document the benches, lampposts and play equipment that would feature prominently across the city. Asking the simple question, "What would happen if the public art of a city swapped places with its infrastructure?", they answer that the city might be remade as a playground.

Central to the project is the City Club Colour Chart, a sequence of 14 colours deployed as an analogue algorithm, generating novel solutions to town planning problems. On the left-hand side are the crisp neon colours of Downtown; on the right, those of the North Buckinghamshire landscape in late summer. This combination of the urban and the pastoral contains the DNA of the UK's most unusual city, driving Jones and Norman's original aim to apply the vision behind Milton Keynes to the northern end of Midsummer Boulevard. Starting in 2014 as a proposal for three new public spaces, the project has evolved to become a narrative about art and a city, weaving in and around an expanded MK Gallery to create multiple zones - for performance, for leisure, for play.

The story starts with a giant neon heart on the facade of the gallery, referencing the first logo for Central Milton Keynes. From here, it moves inside and bounces around the foyer, before flying along an enfilade of galleries that quotes the deep vistas of the city centre. Exiting into a cafe that apes the notorious high-tech interior of the Architects Department of the MKDC, it steps through the French windows into a garden featuring a soft-amphitheatre a sculpture by Dhruva Mistry. Returning indoors, City Club climbs the staircase in the form of a giant wall painting, before wrapping itself around the auditorium as a huge curtain. Taking a trip to the toilets, the colour chart loses control.

Back downstairs courtesy of a bright yellow lift, City Club finds the new Learning Studio, where the primary colour scheme spills out into a playscape that blends leisure, education and visual art into a single set of structures derived from items in the Infrastructure Pack. Lampposts growing out of the ground at different heights lead the visitor back to the start of their journey. Like a compressed-time sequence in a film, the project takes a final rapid tour of the entire site - as a signing system designed with Mark El-khatib, employing the hand, the arrow and the chevron as directional markers. The early design of Central Milton Keynes, now inevitably compromised, proposed a total environment where buildings would be visually un-emphatic and no higher than the tallest tree. In reference to this, Jones and Norman propose an anti-monumental ideal for artists working in the public realm, and by extension offer their own disappearance.

City Club was originally offered to MK Gallery as a way to think about celebrating the city's 50th anniversary in 2017. During that year, when the gallery was closed for rebuilding, it became a framework for numerous artists to work within the space of the city. This resulted in new projects and commissions by Caroline Devine, Freee, Andy Holden, Musarc, Julie Myers and Stuart Whipps. This period of the project was documented in the City Club newspaper, a collaboration between Jones, El-khatib and MK Gallery that also became a showcase for the ideas that would launch when the gallery re-opened in 2019.

Photos by 6a architects, Luca Bosco, Nils Norman and Johan Delin