“Let’s. Play. Darts. And Football…”

The perennial cry of the darts competition announcer rang out across arenamk in Milton Keynes, as Dutchman Michael Van Gerwen defended his 2016 Unibet Masters title in front of an exuberant crowd.

With thousands of fans watching some of the best darts players from around the world in such a self-contained location, they could be forgiven for overlooking the fact that they were sitting in an arena which is also part of  a 30,000-seat football stadium, cinema complex, hotel and retail centre, in a city which didn’t exist 50 years ago. What’s more, at the very same time the Masters was underway, the home football team was playing one of their biggest ever games, hosting Chelsea in the FA Cup Fifth Round.

The lively community of Milton Keynes, just an hour’s drive north of London, was first designated as a town in 1967. In the last 49 years it has become a key part of the fabric of the region, with a range of leisure and recreation offerings for its residents. A large part of the civic energy is down to the success and community spirit engendered by the town’s football club, the Milton Keynes Dons, and their unique home ground.

I often find that the most interesting parts of the design process are within the untold, behind-the-scenes stories of a stadium, and in the ‘empty’ time between matches and events – although anyone who has visited between events will know that these days venues are generally far from “empty” any time.  Never-the-less fans stream through the doors on match day, but how many will know what has actually happened in the 24 hours prior? In the case of stadiummk and the adjoined arenamk, it is nonstop and could be anything from football to rugby, from concerts to conferences, and the inner workings of a thriving hotel, right through the week.

The ability to switch between uses and audiences in just a matter of hours was integral to the initial design brief given to Populous by the club in the early 2000’s. Milton Keynes Dons’ owner, music mogul Pete Winkelman had ambitions for a Premiership-level stadium, while playing in League 2 of English football. The state-of-the-art proposal for stadiummk was conceived so that the ground could grow in parallel with the club’s ambitions, whilst also providing the chance to grow further business opportunities. The striking and unique DoubleTree by Hilton Milton Keynes Hotel, which now surrounds the stadium, is a key part of the success of the design.

stadiummk Aerial

The project provided a unique set of challenges to the Populous team; making the design, construction process and future use as economically sustainable as possible. This led to some really interesting space-saving solutions. For instance, the west stand pitch-facing bedrooms can be switched between hotel and football mode, allowing them to become corporate boxes during games and maximising the use of space.

Now, back to the football and darts!

Both sports require venues which intensify the atmosphere and provide instant, easy access to hospitality options and amenities. Creating a stadium and arena within the same masterplan allowed us to make the best use of the space available on the site. The threshold between the stadium and the arena has been designed to efficiently cater for audiences in both buildings; the WCs and bars are located to serve each, with home-team football fans also entering the stadium through the arena on match day, helping to create a hub for local supporters.

stadiummk internal

In line with its growing reputation, the stadium was able to secure three matches during the 2015 Rugby World Cup, during which the stadium’s attendance record was beaten three successive times, and the stadium itself was broadcast around the world.

It is incredibly satisfying when a project fulfils its original brief, and is adopted and used to its full potential by a client. The design approach of stadiummk is one of planned, sustainable development, but also of creating spaces and places that can be used and enjoyed by the local community and visitors throughout the year.

This article was first published on iSportConnect.

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