Between the late 1940s and the mid-1960s, growing economic prosperity and social stability drove the emergence of a mass consumption society in the UK and brought about revolutionary changes in the structure of the country's retail sector. These included the implementation of self-service, the establishment of supermarkets, the expansion of shopping areas in pedestrian zones in existing city centres and – last but not least – the development of new shopping centres. Some of the earliest shopping centres were located at the heart of new towns and were destined to function as the ‘civic centre’ of these new towns. Milton Keynes' Centre, which opened in September 1979, is one of the most prominent examples. Today, the building is heritage listed, but when it first opened it attracted substantial criticism from the public, the popular press and architecture critics alike. Not entirely ‘public’ nor completely ‘private’, constructed at a turning point from modernism to post-modernism, and entrenched between welfare state ideals and neo-liberal politics, it assumed an uneasy position ‘in between’. Combining writing by the Milton Keynes Development Corporation with contemporary architectural critique and popular discourse, this article investigates how its architects and planners endeavoured to reconcile these dialectics in their design. It exposes their struggle to relate the architecture of the Centre to new social ideals that emerged in post-war years and define a novel formal language able to respond to the ongoing political and economic transformations that gradually dismantled the welfare state and paved the way for the ‘triumph’ of neo-liberalism.