Henrietta Bredin

‘It’s less risky to take risks’

A new arts centre with no public subsidy? Henrietta Bredin talks to its founder Peter Millican

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A new arts centre with no public subsidy? Henrietta Bredin talks to its founder Peter Millican

Let’s get one thing out of the way immediately — King’s (with an apostrophe) Cross in London is the location for the new and very splendid mixed-use office building and performance space, Kings Place, which has no business letting a misguided graphic designer decide to drop the apostrophe. It should be King’s Place, please.

Now, onwards. This project is the brainchild of Peter Millican, a Northumbrian developer whose work has been, until now, mostly in and around Newcastle. He has wanted for some years to combine business and the arts in a single building, with beneficial effects for both, and particularly wanted to find a site close to an international travel hub. He started looking ten years ago and quickly realised that King’s Cross was the ideal place. ‘It’s such an exciting part of the city,’ he says. ‘There’s the Eurostar terminal and the whole network of rail, Tube and bus transport. Then we’ve got the offices for Network Rail and the Guardian in this building, and the area will have a thriving student life soon when Central Saint Martin’s art college moves here.’

Remarkably, what this passing reference to Network Rail and the Guardian means is that what Millican has created is an office block with concert halls and galleries attached, presenting a programme of music and exhibitions without the benefit of public subsidy. This would be pretty impressive at any time but particularly now, in the prevailing conditions of rabbit-in-the-headlights financial paralysis. He charges commercial rents to the businesses concerned and has been able to offer office space to the London Sinfonietta and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment at peppercorn rates.

Millican is a man who notices details without getting bogged down in them, but who plans and makes things happen on a grand scale. This project has taken a long time to realise and he has discussed, consulted and, crucially, listened, at every step along the way. As a small example of this, when I first met him on a tour of the building two days before the public opening in October last year, I mentioned the fact that I hadn’t been able to find anywhere to lock up my bicycle. When I came back two days later, a generous row of bike stands had materialised. This, it strikes me, is typical of the way he works. He must be a rewarding man to collaborate with, recognising and respecting the contributions of colleagues and now, a few months on, exuding an aura of intense contentment with what has been achieved.

The architects for the building are Dixon Jones, selected as a result of a design competition. ‘They’ve been amazing to work with and I think the whole practice has really enjoyed it.’ Millican looks up and smiles at a man walking past with a cup of coffee. ‘That’s the project architect. It’s one of the first jobs he’s ever been involved in and he’s been working on this now for six years. That’s a big chunk of his life. Once Dixon Jones had been selected we went to look at different auditoria, in particular in Japan, where there are concert halls built as part of corporate office blocks, and we talked to orchestras about what they really wanted. This has been the result of a lot of people’s thoughts and the involvement of a team of people who have a vested interest in making the thing work as well as it possibly can.’

What he’s ended up with is seven floors of office space with the ground floor and two lower levels given over to galleries (one for sculpture and one for painting or photography) and two concert halls, one a rehearsal and experimental space, the other not just for performance but also, by virtue of its construction, a greatly welcome new recording studio. Because the Tube line runs directly beneath the building, in order to make the latter fully sound-proof, it has been built as a box within a box, supported by rubber shock absorbers. The walls, roof, seats and doors in this hall and the panelling in the smaller hall are all timber, a warmly silken oak veneer which was, romantically, sourced from a single 500-year-old tree in Germany. The front of the building faces on to the heavy rumble of York Way and to the north and east is bordered by canals. Vast expanses of curved glass absorb as much light as they can gulp from the atmosphere.

The artistic programming for Kings Place reflects Millican’s inclusive attitude. Rather than being the result of a single driving vision, it is put together through the auspices of a series of curators. ‘I want to have a really eclectic mix of, if you like, niche products, so that we can go into things in depth, like the Beethoven Unwrapped series, which is running throughout 2009, with the pianist Jean-Bernard Pommier as the focal point but numerous other elements revolving around that — songs, string quartets, films, talks. I think some people might see this as a risky strategy but I think in a way it’s less risky to take risks. You’re making a clear statement.’

And he has chosen an intriguing mix of curators; pianist and broadcaster Iain Burnside for example, who has devised Transformations, an exploration of poetry and music taking place over four evenings from 9 February. A few weeks after that the brilliantly effervescent Sacconi Quartet pushes at any number of boundaries, dancing, improvising, playing with different groups and solo performers. Cross-fertilisation is encouraged, with Burnside also popping up a couple of weeks later accompanying tenor John Mark Ainsley in Beethoven songs as part of Beethoven Unwrapped.

Millican wants to attract local people as well as those from further afield and hopes to maintain the buzz of the opening festival when 100 concerts took place over five days, all tickets priced at £2.50, with music being made from morning till midnight. It was stylish, fun and exhilarating. The whole place came alive, people surging from one event to the next, stopping off at the café and restaurant (beef provided by Millican’s Northumbrian farm) for sustenance, swapping tips and tales of their experience so far. ‘We’re going to introduce a series of 45-minute concerts. We had such good reactions to that length during the festival and it fits really well into the way people run their lives these days, packing in as much as they can. They can come to a concert on their way home, stay for a meal and, if they’re properly into the mood by then, stay for a late-night event as well.’

This is a brave new venture and it’s too early yet to judge how successful it will be but Millican is cheerfully pragmatic and knows that box office takings are fickle and difficult to predict. Communications are excellent — once you’ve made one booking you receive regular but not irritatingly pushy email updates — and prices are competitive. There’s a particularly good scheme, only available online, whereby £9.50 guarantees you a seat but its location is only allocated an hour before the performance, when you are given the best available. That’s a bargain by any standards.