Fairy tale or horror story - join the debate

Fairy tale or horror story - join the debate

Urban designer and artist collaborations: what value do they bring?

Collaborations between artists and urban designers as part of a design team are generally seen as ‘a good thing’. But what is the real added value of these partnerships and how do they work in practice?

RUDI and Public Art South West (PASW) collaborated on a one-day conference to debate these important issues, which drew over 100 artists and placemakers to Leigh Court in Bristol on 14 May 2008.

The event did not focus on ‘how to do’ public art, but rather aimed to stimulate debate and throw up challenges to what some are coming to regard as a too-often standardised way of creating public spaces.

Follow the debate through the links and linked video clips below.

Maggie Bolt, PASW, introduced the day and spoke about the intention of the conference; being to explore what it was that artists and urban designers brought to projects – what were the differences, what was the value? She also drew attention to a new publication ‘Artists and Places’ which celebrated the work of PROJECT – a scheme PASW had run with CABE and A&B.

Peter Stonham, chair of RUDI, then began by outlining the challenge to placemakers. This lies in ‘integrating all the various elements, including artistic and creative input, into daily life … although content is important, the context is fundamental to everything we do.’

We need to break down boundaries, continued Jon Rowland, the day’s chair, whose advice to placemakers included the following:

  • Listen to the site
  • Get under the skin of the site
  • Understand the spiritual context

Artists can act as ‘activating agents’, often working as ‘licensed transgressors’ , he added.

The creative buzz

From the start, delegates were encouraged to interact and get involved. Two boards at the entrance, of photographs of fairytales and horror stories in public art, were quickly filled in by delegates as they arrived.

There were a few surprises during the day. Many delegates were greeted as they mingled over coffee by a very dull urban designer who insisted on talking at length about his work in Portugal – he turned out to be part of street theatre duo Desperate Men, who had been specifically commissioned to act as catalysts for the day, encouraging debate and discussion.

Can artists be involved in the strategic planning process?

  • What can artists and designers do to prevent globalisation, the process whereby a street café in Kabul looksthe same as one in Ashford in Kent?
  • Do there have to be some tangible ‘outcomes’ to an artist’s work?

David Cotterrellbelieves an artist has an important role as an outsider. There don’t always have to be outcomes, he says, sometime the process and stimulation of ideas and debate during the planning process is what is important.

‘Artists can inject a bit of dirty realism ….. The value can be in the discussion, making people think, and creating a dialogue.’

South Facing installation by David Cotterrell

One response from Cotterrell's to the rapidly expanding city of Shanghai is the sculpture South Facing 4.3. He used over 1000 plaster models of luxury residential towers (which are quickly taking the place of the more traditional housing structures) replicating officially sanctioned building designs.

Each structure faces south at least fifteen degrees. Dictated by the Chinese government, the regulation recalls the traditional orientation of the Emperors' residences and ensures a certain amount of light for each resident. Repeated endlessly, however, the utopian vision morphs into nightmare.

With an accompanying trio of video ‘sketches' Cotterrell paid homage to the figures he imagines as the real heroes of Shanghai: the lone traffic conductors who attempt to exert control over the chaotic sea of traffic overwhelming the city.

Hear more from David Cotterrell, including his experiences as artist in residence at the strategic plan in Shanghai, and war photographer in Kabul (video link)

How can we create magic, myth and spectacle?

  • How can artist-designer collaborations break down boundaries between the disciplines?
  • How can public art be involved in bringing fading resorts such as Blackpool back to life?

Collaboration can blur the boundaries that exist between art and design, says Rob Aspland, Director of LDA Design. This is often through a process of ‘creative friction'.

Rob is collaborating with artist Chris Levine on a plan to transform 3km of coastline in Blackpool. Inspired by the otherworldliness of Gulliver's travels and the strange landscapes of Japanese animated film, they have come up with a vision of a surreal dunescape, which is intended to become a playground for all ages.

LDA recently won an international design competition with the Playground Project proposal.

Blackpool has failed to evolve, says Rob, who plans to recreate the ‘balmy sense of the exotic' of Victorian Blackpool in what will be a laser-based 21st century equivalent. Their vision for the Playground is a fantastic virtual landscape, with strange giant insects and 30 metre high marran grass, all coming to life at dusk through laser and light shows.

Chris Levine's many projects include the holographic royal portrait in 2003.

Watch Chris and Rob's presentation on RUDI (video and multimedia)

The Presence of Absence: Where are the people in public space?

• What is the role of new technology?

• Are we being isolated by the iPod culture?

• Is it possible to plan in spontaneity?

• If an art object is chosen for a place, who does it represent?

Diarmaid Lawlor, associate director of Urban Initiatives, says that places should be ‘centres of collective meaning'.

In a unique collaboration, Urban Initiatives employed artist Natalie Woolf to work alongside their teams of urban designers.

Natalie explains: ‘I was employed as a member of staff three days week to work on the rolling programme of projects. I was included in various design teams assigned to specific projects. Work in the office tended to be consultancy work on masterplans and strategy documents, and did not often reach completion through building on sites.'

Chris Levine's laser portrait of the Queen

Not all of her concepts came to fruition, such as her proposal for the redevelopment of the Edgware Road in London, where she devised a series of waterjets along the central reservation, synchronised with traffic controls, to prevent people crossing through the traffic. Nor for a new plaza outside Liverpool Lime Street Station where she included a stainless steel ‘hedge'.

‘I think one of the fundamental issues is that there is a rift between the concept of ‘professional' and that of ‘artist'. Not in the usual terms - artists can be professionals and behave accordingly but they are in particular professionally individual (maybe even professionally difficult).

This has to accepted as a manageable risk, which perhaps could be dealt with by raising the game of the people who brief and commission the artist - to find a better fit,' she says.

‘IF you ask someone to be seriously creative you have to be serious about accepting the outcomes.'

How can artists and planners work together to deliver regeneration?

  • What should urban designers expect of artists?
  • Once built, who pays to maintain public art?
  • What happens if the local media turn against you?

Urban designer Mark Luck, of North Somerset Council, and artist Wolfgang Buttress collaborated together on the Silicaproject.

The final part of the £1m redevelopment of Big Lamp Corner in Weston-super-Mare, Silica is also part of a £11m improvement plan for the town centre called the Civic Pride Initiative.

The brief called for ‘fully configured' artist-led design teams. The artists chose their own team of architects and structural engineers, and also later appointed their own choice of contractors.

The tall structure, installed at a prominent road junction, forms a landmark sculpture linking the town with the sea. The structure's spire contains thousands of glass bulbs which are lit by LED lights. These can be lit up with various colours and spectacular lighting combinations.

At its base it incorporates a bus shelter and kiosk, with a moving band of text, used to display messages and public information. This provides a source of income, used to pay for maintenance of the structure.

The 30 metre tall sculpture (nicknamed the carrot) is now widely liked by local people, despite an initial media-led campaign against it.

Hear Mark and Wolfgang explain the process of how they evolved the Silica project through finding common ground (video clip)

Are we creating a new ‘private public' realm?

  • Are our city centres being privatised with no guarantee of public access and patrolled by security guards?
  • Are city councils ‘selling off' the public realm to developers?

Areas of city centres are being 'privatised' by developers for redevelopment into shopping malls, warns journalist Anna Minton. She says this is leading to the creation of ‘sterile, soulless atmospheres'.

New shopping malls are ‘mushrooming everywhere' where public behaviour comes under strict scrutiny. Examples include Cardiff's Callaghan Square, and Stratford City in London.

Hear Anna Minton speaking more about this growing trend ( video link)

Anna Minton is a journalist, and author of several reports, including Building Balanced Communities.

Also read Paul Kingsnorth writing in The Guardianon the same subject

Author of Real England: The Battle Against The Bland (published by Portobello Books at £14.99), he describes The Paradise Project in Liverpool as: ‘the first privatisation of a city centre anywhere in England.'

‘Liverpool city council has sanctioned the corporate enclosure of the 42-acre city-centre site, which encompasses 34 streets and a public park. The development company Grosvenor is putting into practice the kind of massive, consumer-focused re-engineering of the landscape previously seen only in private malls such as Bluewater.'

‘This is not a development that will allow the area's own character to evolve over time. Its character has been predetermined by architects, marketing specialists and planners. No room is left for responsiveness to people and locality.'

Key issues from the day

Debate and discussion flowed throughout the day as speakers raised issues and concerns while exploring experiences of collaborative working practice. Some of the key issues raised included:

  • The profession has overdone planning for all – we have lost the ability to say no, do little, allow people to make places work. Should urban designers say no to briefs they don’t think will work?
  • Artists get selected too often for the way their work looks rather than the way they think – this can lead to clashes of ideology and aspirations. Too often the creative input of artists is not taken seriously by others – there is a ‘throw away mentality’ - how do we rectify this?
  • The debate surrounding objects being placed in our cities and towns is obscuring the need for thoughtful places, which encourage real interaction. How can the two professions unite to encourage more creative clients?

Fairytale or horror story? Click here to join the debate into artist and urban designer collaborations


Share your examples of good and bad public art: fairy tale or horror story?

What do you think of Paul Day's The Meeting Point at St Pancras?

Natalie Woolf chose the Diana Memorial Fountain by Kathryn Gustafson and Neil Porter as a fairytale...

'It fulfils a public art criteria on many different levels, including as memorial, as symbol of a personality, as a desirable and popular public place. I think its really beautiful and clearly has been adopted by the public as their own - even with loudly differing opinions.'

An example of public art that bringing people together comes from Brigitte Orasinkski, of Strange Cargo. Other People's Photographs is a permanent installation in Folkestone. This consists of 540 street signs produced using personal photographs collected from local families. This brings the generations together, she says.