Europe's city of culture. Drive-in culture, that is

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The Independent Online

Can Milton Keynes be the European city of culture? There are actually two small snags in the way of convincing the European Commission to promote it as a cultural mecca.

Can Milton Keynes be the European city of culture? There are actually two small snags in the way of convincing the European Commission to promote it as a cultural mecca.

First, for most of its 30-year existence its most visible cultural asset has been the six sculptured concrete cows in a field by the railway line, though cultural historians from Dunstable to Newport Pagnell will tell you that it was home to Britain's first multiplex cinema.

Second (and members of the European Commission please do not read the next bit), it isn't actually a city. Yes, it's applied to be, along with Brighton and Luton, but for the time being remains inconveniently a town.

For Pauline Scott Garrett, the arts and museums officer for Milton Keynes, that is just an irrelevant technicality. As she began yesterday to frame the application to the European Commission for the European City of Culture 2008, she explained patiently how the word "city" was just a state of mind.

"OK, we're not actually a city yet," she said, "but that isn't going to stand in our way. We have an attitude as a city."

And the European Commission had better learn that along with its old-fashioned, pedantic notions of what makes a city, it must also throw out those outmoded chattering-class definitions of what is culture. Paintings and plays, operas and ballets. In Milton Keynes from the Buddhist Peace Pagoda to the 173rd and final intersection roundabout, they scoff at such traditional notions. They have spent £30m of lottery money on a spanking new art gallery and theatre, both of which are attracting huge attendances, with the theatre one of the best attended in the country.

But as Ms Scott Garrett explains, for real post-modern culture, for culture Milton Keynes-style, get in your car and attune your aesthetic sensibilities to that grid system.

"The grid plan is fundamental to the urban framework. This is much more like an American or Australian city. People in the rest of Britain don't appreciate it, and make jokes about us, because people have a jaundiced view of anything developed during the 1960s.

"In the UK's mind we're seen as a concrete, brutal statement. But we've got beautiful public realms [parks to those of us who haven't caught up with Milton Keynes culture-speak] with an events plateau [bandstand], a theatre district [a theatre] and a unique form of city with a planned environment."

Compared with their rivals - Manchester, Inverness, Birmingham and Belfast - what would a cultural evening in Milton Keynes consist of?

Ms Scott Garrett says you might sample "the great range of restaurants, Indian and Italian, then you might see a show at the new theatre". Yesterday, that was home to Joseph And The Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. After that there would be a chance to visit a salsa club, go to a firework display or funfair in the public realm and wander round the city centre.

How were the people of Milton Keynes viewing their potential international cultural reputation? Ms Scott Garrett was affronted. "I hadn't finished our cultural evening yet. We've also got a fantastic shopping offer [shops] open till 9pm."

Driving round a sunny Milton Keynes yesterday along some of the 22,000-acre grid, where each intersection is defined by a massive roundabout, I cruised down the evocatively named H5 and the subtly contrasting H6, past signs that proclaimed "Pedestrians Do Not Have Priority". It was clear that this town/city could pioneer drive-in culture to Europe. Indeed, this built-for-motorists town is said to be the only one in Britain where you can drive through the centre in fifth gear.

For artists Gilbert and George, who had the inaugural exhibition at the excellent Milton Keynes art gallery last year, H5 and H6 are as sensuous as they are aesthetic. "This city exudes sexuality," they say. Wait till they see H7. They might not be able to contain themselves.

And certainly the town that gave architectural carte blanche for its housing estatesto young architects, including Norman Foster, 30 years ago continues to go its own way. One of the most recent additions to the skyscape is X-Scape, a huge grey blob complete with ski slope, which is the largest indoor leisure complex in Europe.

Art gallery director Stephen Snoddy points out that half the population of Milton Keynes is now under 35. "There is a great interest in culture now," he says.

Confidence in Milton Keynes has clearly never been higher. The council is even drawing up plans for a new stadium and intends to woo an as yet unnamed premier league team there.

Now, talking about that 2014 World Cup ...

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