'The problem with developing a public square is that everyone sees the work progressing. They get used to it during the course of construction, constantly walking on it, and past it. When the last piece is finally unveiled, they will all say: 'Is that it?'' After years developing the idea for the Blue Carpet public arena in Newcastle upon Tyne, artist Thomas Heatherwick's design is finally reaching fruition on site. A new blue-coloured tiled surface will enliven the somewhat desolate space around the Laing Art Gallery at the edge of the city centre.
In this particular project, Heatherwick has been strongly influenced by the ethos of the late '60s American SITE architects headed by James Wines, best known for the Best Products chain of stores - architecture as fun, a challenge to the conceptualisation of the function of form. Heatherwick says simply: 'If the end result of my work is considered to be interesting, then I will have succeeded.'
Whatever the individual reaction on completion, he knows he will have created a novel addition to the urban fabric. A recognisable space. In all honesty, says Heatherwick, 'the space worked perfectly well as it was', in that people walked across it from place to place. 'But it was more of a route than a place. The challenge has been to improve that experience.'
He has observed the patterns of use at other public spaces in the city through the idiom of chewing gum remnants, dotted around phone boxes and at kerbs, creating social sticking points. He is circumspect about it all. 'Let's be honest, ' he says, 'flat surfaces can never be gorgeous.
They will always be kebabbed and chewing gum-stained.
That's what public spaces are like. They should not sanitized.'
As it stood, people had become blind to the original space, almost inventing a sense of what the place was like. Indeed, when Heatherwick was unloading the biggest trees ever brought into the country, for planting around the perimeter, passers-by demanded to know what he thought he was doing 'uprooting those lovely trees'. He had difficulty convincing them that there had been nothing there before.
The existing pedestrian route across the square was uncomfortable. Road closures had created odd kerbs and level changes and so the new square design called for a poured surface which would level the inconsistencies. Heatherwick explored materials - especially concrete - that could achieve the desired flow, but all proved lacking in visual interest.
The design developed to consider fibre-optic lights, serviced from below, appearing as luminous pinpricks in the polished surface of the concrete, but this proved too expensive and cumbersome to be used all over. Heatherwick also wanted to create visual interest without breaking up the surface with 'applied features'. He finally settled for a coloured surface, differentiated from the typical paved cityscapes - providing visual interest, tactility and slip-resistance.
Considerable product research has gone into the development of a new flooring tile. The result comprises a durable white resin mixed with recycled glass shards, giving a shimmering effect of cool blues. The resin was preferred over concrete for two reasons.
First, a grey concrete backing would dull down the glass colouration, and second, concrete could not be guaranteed to bond the glass firmly enough during normal wear and tear. The resin-mixed tiles are being laid over the entire square.
To form seating, the blue glass tile surface has been peeled back, exposing the 'underside', dotted with fibre optics, which then forms the top surface. The seat will be trimmed with brass, which will continue into the main area of the square in bands demarcating 450 wide strips. To maintain the 'de-architectural' joke, the area of the square stripped back to make the seat will be covered by glass and lit to give the impression of a deep void; peering past the earth's crust. For comic realism, Heatherwick intends locating service pipes in the holes.
He wants people to experience the space, to enjoy it. His desire for it to become a integrated part of the urban fabric will have been achieved when 'meet me on the blue glass', becomes a local term of reference.