IN HIS PLACE
06.10.2010 / AI Profile / 3 Comments
Peter Millican, property developer and creator of King’s Place
It looks as if King’s Place will be a paradigm for the workplace of the future. Political funding cuts, trawls for cultural life saving philanthropy, economy switch-backs notwithstanding, what is happening here in a schizoid place between the bucolic Regents Canal and that monument to industrial ambition, King’s Cross Station, amounts to a prototype for how to make the best of art in a working environment.
King’s Place, opened just two years ago having cost £100m, is the creation of a Tyneside property developer, but if your vision is of a corpulent, double-breasted entrepeneur with Northumbrian vowels, it couldn’t be more adrift. Peter Millican looks like an architect, talks like a music programmer, appraises like an art critic and has the faintest of Scouse slants to his speech. In fact, he looks every inch Professor Peter Millican, recently appointed to the visiting chair in built environment at Northumbria University.
“I think art civilises life and I think places like this around mean quite a lot to the people who work in the building” he explains. He had actually bought the site, with an old Royal Mail sorting office on it, in 1999. He had only just completed his first art/work building, Central Square, another former post office building but this time in Newcastle. “It was always my intention to have a mix of art and office, there was never any intention to put residential or retail in, and I was very keen to put visual arts and music into it. But that’s about as far as my ideas had got.”
The special ingredient is the public, allowed to come through, use the facilities, eat and drink here, and give both the building and the arts life. He has even coined a word for such a building. He calls it “a beckoning”.
Peter Millican is the son of a Liverpool pharmacist who decamped to the North East to do a business degree. On graduating, though, he became an optometrist, developing a chain of shops on Tyneside. He sold them 15 years ago and found that he was a property developer.
He is modest to the point of self effacement – he’s not in Who’s Who because he has never got round to filling the form in, “I don’t think it’s that important, to be honest “ – and very private. He is 61, lives on the farm near Corbridge that has been the family home for 30 years, and has three adult children, a doctor and two property developers, and that’s it. That has to be prised out, but no names.
It’s an undue modesty: anybody who was risk-averse would never have bought a central London site with no idea what do with it, and then spent £100m putting a concert hall/office block on it in an economic downw-turn. A green building.
For Millican is also ecologically committed. The architect that won the commission, Jeremy Dixon, liked the idea of mixing art and work, and says that then having to make it green was “a bit of a challenge”. It has a unique air changing system which Millican had to lose a whole floor of office space to accommodate, and even the undulating glass the building is faced with is shaped to be heat and light catching. The engineers Ove Arup had a major problem to make the three-storey deep basement safe from flooding by the canal, but have cracked it with a box-inside-a-box solution.
In 1999, buying at the bottom of the market, Millican already knew that the site was the biggest public transport footprint in the country where cars need never be a consideration, and that it would be even more of one when the rest of the Kings Cross site development is completed. That process starts next October when Central St Martins College of
Art’s 6,000 students will add a new riff to his audience profile, and there is so much more in the Argent plan to come in the next three years.
As you walk in, the atmosphere is a mixture of café and reading room, with people working over files and lap-tops as they nibble from plates of salad and sandwiches. Around them is art, hanging or standing, and between the bench tables and the food bar is a downward escalator well with more art.
There are nine floors to the building, three of them underground. Above are the Guardian and Observer newspapers, Network Rail, the shoe manufacturers Wolverine, the business consultancy Logica, the Esme Fairbairn Foundation and the environmental water management company Veolia, “nice mix of tenants” paying a proper rent.
Elsewhere are the offices given for minimal rent to arts organisations – the Orchestra of the Age of the Enlightenment and the London Sinfonietta are resident ensembles at the Southbank, but their offices are here, along with those of the smaller, more experimental musical groups like Aurora. Others hot desk on short-term deals. Down the escalator are the art gallery and the concert halls (450 and 200 seats respectively). Outside, where you can take your coffee beside the canal, half a dozen kids are sitting round a table drawing the Lynn Chadwick sculptures that Pangolin are exhibiting there.
On the way in we’ve passed the Pangolin Gallery on York Way, set up in partnership with Millican. They go back. When he was building Central Square, which opened in 2005, he commissioned a piece of sculpture for it from Eduardo Paolozzi, whose proviso was that it should be made in the Pangolin Foundry Rungwe Kingdon runs in Gloucestershire. Millican persuaded Kingdon to open his first gallery – “the worst time, when the market was flat on its back” – and it has been a gathering success. The Chadwicks have since been replaced by new William Pye water sculptures, and in the gallery is David Bailey, photographs and sculpture.
There is no artistic director for Kings Place, just Millican’s Kings Place Music Foundation and series of curators who programme the concerts and the rest of the entertainment – Thursday night comedy, Monday night literature, and the music is not just classical but jazz, folk and even opera.
We’ve just had the Kings Place Festival, an annual event of four days which is a giddying mixture of stuff from the Guardian editor talking about whatever piano-playing editors talk about to concert hall audiences, to the legendary Carthy/Swarbrick folk team reunited and the London Sinfonietta with Thomas Adès chamber music. And that was just the first day.
“Getting the programme right is a balance between putting on stuff that one is pretty sure will sell and things that are intellectually interesting” Millican says, and after a predictably slow start the box office is moving, with tickets going at a very respectable 30,000 a year.
What was highlighted by reviewers at the opening was that this is a private development, with no public funding, subsidy or lottery money whatever. Actually, the enterprise depends heavily on the subsidised sector, because most of the UK-based performers are Arts Council funded in one way or another.
It is an example of how the “mixed arts economy” can work, the private and public sectors folding together, and is a contradiction of the notion, born out of the difficulty in getting corporate funding for the heavily subsidised and lottery funded Royal Festival Hall refurbishment, that the two don’t mix. Are there lessons for the subsidised sector?
“Funding the arts is an impossible task, to be honest” is how he responds. “I think there’s a lot of art that wouldn’t work without subsidy. We’re small, to try and scale it up to do something like the Royal Opera House without subsidy I can’t imagine being able to do. What probably works best is to have a mix, and to have some of the arts subsidised in the way it is, and some peripheral bits privately funded”. Which should be music to the government’s ears, although to his knowledge Jeremy Hunt has ever crossed the threshold, and although Ed Vaizey has “had a look around and seemed quite impressed”, he hasn’t asked for Millican’s advice. “Got enough people giving him that, I think”.
“I think we can say it’s a success” Millican cautiously allows. “The first two years have been incredibly hard, but it’s OK now. One of the tricks seems to be making space work hard - we run conferences during the day and have quite a fast turn around with concerts in the evening. The music is still not at break even; that could take up to five years, but the gap is narrowing.”
He would change nothing, he says. None of the white knuckle decisions made before the credit crunch, the recession, the art subsidy cut, would be different. So what is the next project? “This is it” he says. “This is what I’ve done, this is what I’m doing.”
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