Putting soul in the city – call for a new approach to public art - RSA

Putting soul in the city – call for a new approach to public art


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How can we put soul into our cities? Graham Henderson FRSA explores the importance of public art and discusses why we might need to approach it differently.

I would like to invite other RSA Members to join me in championing a new approach to the commissioning of public art, one designed to embody a sense of place and to encourage social capital building, with the aim of putting soul in the city. As the great American champion of community Jane Jacobs argued so convincingly in her book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, a thriving community is characterised by loose connections with many neighbours, friendly local shops and cafes, and a vibrant mixed use of the urban environment, ensuring eyes on the street at every hour of day and night. This kind of lively and engaged community environment is something we often seek out for ourselves, and which determines where we want to live. Which perhaps makes it all the stranger that urban planning and design still often results in public spaces that feel anonymous, windswept and lacking in any distinctive sense of identity. Through my work in the arts I have been championing the potential of public art to help create the community identity and sense of place that are particularly important for an urban neighbourhood to thrive. 

Since 2012 I have been lucky enough to explore some of these ideas in the real world as a public art consultant. For instance, working with the London Borough of Richmond and with leading public artists and architects in 2014 I was able to look at 14 different sites in Twickenham in South West London and ask how public art might be used to create a vision for a poetry town. The simple premise was that a number of different works of public art, if they were sufficiently site specific and of a high enough quality, might be used to transform the entire identity of a town, dramatically improving both its economic prospects and the quality of life for those living there. This visionary idea is not quite as idealistic as it might sound. Several of the pieces of public art envisaged as part of the study were designed to take advantage of large redevelopment projects already underway and bidding for planning approval. Others were designed to support and amplify the success of the Rugby Football Union and Twickenham Stadium, the town’s biggest corporate citizen. Several were also designed specifically with the aim of achieving other ancillary objectives, such as aiding navigation, facilitating greater public use of existing resources, or providing substantial material improvements to the fabric of the town. 

This amazing project was a great opportunity to step back from the usual constraints and to consider how an imaginative and ‘joined up’ programme of works might change the whole identity of the town, or more correctly how it might take the existing communities and history of the place and reinvent them, amplifying successful and popular features of a place and creating new focal points and destinations for both local residents and visitors. The approach we took was completely site specific. Where we thought that something big and ambitious was called for we recommended it. In other locations the solutions we recommended were much smaller and designed merely to consolidate the success of a place that was already working well. For instance, as part of the new railway station development we suggested the creation of a vast, brightly coloured pavement, celebrating the role of the town as the home of English Rugby. On the historic Twickenham riverside we suggested a sculpture designed to remind residents of the town’s poetic history (of which more below).  In the gardens of York House, home to the Indian steel magnates the Tatas before the First World War, we suggested an Indian style pavement and a sculpture of an Indian Kathak dancer, designed to recognise the popularity of the gardens amongst members of the Asian community from nearby Hounslow. In contrast, at a site nearby we suggested a gateway be created, in keeping with the location and designed to facilitate public access to the gardens − a simple and practical recommendation. On another semi-industrial site next the railway line, where an unsightly wall badly needed to be renovated, we recommended a 70-metre-long mural celebrating the 6 nations of the Rugby World Cup, running alongside a path often used by fans on their way to games. The results of the study were published in a beautifully illustrated booklet. We also argued that the use of public art on this scale would create a critical mass attracting arts and tech-related businesses to the town. It would be a cost-effective way of jump-starting an important economic regeneration of the town. As such, I believe that this study still provides an excellent template for any town or community that wishes to transform itself using public art.

Following on from this study Richmond Council commissioned me in 2015 to deliver one of the pieces of public art proposed for Twickenham. I did so through the trading subsidiary of my then arts organisation, Poet in the City. As well as celebrating the fact that the Rugby World Cup came to Twickenham that autumn, the commission was a means of revitalising Champion’s Wharf, a beautifully situated garden on a platform overlooking the river Thames and with attractive views of the higgledy-piggledy boat yards of Eel Pie island. Situated at the heart of historic Twickenham village and in front of the ancient parish church this garden was a rather under-used public space. Our task was to make the site a destination in its own right and to encourage greater public footfall onwards into York House gardens, getting more people to visit the enormous and beautiful Edwardian fountain already situated there (one of the town’s ‘secret’ gems). For inspiration on this important site we turned to Alexander Pope (1688−1744) one of the UK’s most celebrated poets and satirists and Twickenham’s most famous resident. In his lifetime Pope himself articulated the whole modern concept of landscape design, talked of creating a Thames Arcadia, and spoke of Twickenham as a new kind of poetry town, shaped by the arts. Astonishingly, this great English poet was not formally commemorated in any way in the town, something we were now about to change.   

Pope’s Urn, the two-ton sculpture which we created and placed on Champion’s Wharf, is inspired by an urn designed by the poet Alexander Pope himself for his friend’s garden at Hagley in the Midlands, although the original has long-since disappeared. Recalling in its shape and size a typical Georgian cultural artefact, the sculpture is in fact a modern contemporary piece built out of slices of weathered corten steel. I worked closely with the award-winning architecture practice Feilden Clegg Bradley Studios to come up with a truly inspiring design. The final sculpture is a sort of ‘virtual’ urn. From some angles (and in some lights) it appears solid, whilst at other times it appears almost invisible. This sculpture has achieved the unlikely success of being equally popular with lovers of tradition locally and with those who prefer their public art to be challenging, refreshing and contemporary.

Whilst the sculpture itself has created a new focal point for the site, and a new object for people to visit, we were also very keen to ensure that people understood the connection with the poet Alexander Pope and with his brilliant use of the English language. The sculpture itself is therefore surrounded by about a dozen benches on which famous quotes from Pope’s poems are carved (‘Fools rush in where Angels fear to tread’, ‘Who breaks a butterfly on a wheel’, ‘Eternal sunshine of the spotless mind’ and so on). The idea was to create a poetry-based installation well suited to the age of social media, attracting couples and families to a favourite bench, or inviting visitors to take a selfie next to a particular quote. In this I am pleased to say the site has worked far better than even I expected it would. It is now a much-loved new riverside destination, frequented by locals and visitors alike. On a sunny day in the spring the benches are full of people, chatting, eating their sandwiches, or playing with their children. Couples getting married in the nearby parish church often have their photographs taken in front of Pope’s Urn, and it is not unusual in the summer months to be surprised by the sudden arrival of a bride dressed all in white, followed by a troupe of friends and family. Pope’s Urn has thus allowed me to put into action in the real world some of my ideas about how you can use public art to reinvent a sense of community. This is not public art inexplicably plonked in a public space, but is an original sculpture that reinvents tradition, reconnecting Twickenham with its underlying history and identity in a way that feels natural and charming.

As a result of my work as a public art consultant I became involved in 2014 with the Farrell Review. Launched by the distinguished architect Sir Terry Farrell this brought together over 400 architects, planners, designers and public artists to champion a new approach to the commissioning of public art. I was responsible for producing the official essay for the Farrell Review in 2015, entitled ‘Putting Soul in the City’. This essay was actually great fun − allowing me to write a passionate polemic about the important role that public art, including temporary installation art and transient performance art, could and should play in a thriving 21st-century democracy. If you are interested, RSA Fellows can read a copy of this essay here.

A real step change in the approach to public art will require support from all those interested in public art, architecture and design, community development and social capital building. Only then will the true potential of public art to enhance the quality of our urban landscapes and contribute positively to our communities be realised effectively. If RSA Fellows are interested in this campaign, I would love to hear from you. The work initiated by the Farrell Review is continuing, with regular promotional seminars and conferences organised by public art champions such as BEAM and the Place Alliance. I am one of the introductory speakers at Big Meet 8, a national conference on public art and design taking place on Wed 18 April 2018 at UCL in London, where I shall be talking about the new values in support of public art being championed by the Arts & Place Working Group. If any RSA Fellows would like to attend this conference tickets are still available here

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