By continuing to use the site you agree to our Privacy & Cookies policy

ART FOR WHOSE SAKE?

ajenda - The accepted view is that art in the public realm creates a quality environment. But this enthusiasm for cultural improvement is condescending and misdirected, argues Crispin Kelly, and leads to contrived, prescribed public spaces

What do we really want the public realm to be like? Perhaps like the Broadgate development by Liverpool Street Station in London.

Widely admired as a high-quality, carefully considered piece of urban renewal - properly commissioned buildings, lots of attention to the spaces in between - it is a deliberate attempt to make a new place with expensive materials and, critically, with plenty of art.

My instinctive reaction is that Broadgate, like most contrived attempts at the public realm, fails. I conducted some random interviews there to see what users thought.

Although some people hadn't noticed the public art (even though it's pretty big), when they had done so the abstract pieces were widely detested. However, I couldn't garner much support for my feeling that there shouldn't be any art. People wanted art for two reasons: firstly, to relieve the homogeneity of the business environment and, secondly, to cheer them up.

Sadly, art doesn't seem to be about happiness nowadays; art production seems to have crept towards opinion pieces and is not at all what the Broadgate office-worker has in mind. Art that is 'difficult' is going to need us to be a lot more educated to be enjoyable.

Despite this, the general view is that art in public spaces creates a quality environment and that our industry should usually be setting aside a respectable amount for art. This enthusiasm has a moral rectitude that begs to be challenged. Centrally promoted, wellintentioned improvements to our public spaces can be seen not only as condescending but also as misdirected.

I don't like the slightly lecturing and hectoring tone these worthy spaces announce, with public art proclaiming the credentials of 'culture zones'. The coming together of 'art', its manifest availability to all and the fact someone else has had to pay for it as a penance, is too gross a cocktail of good intentions.

Artistic aspirations Some public art survives the test of time, but we shouldn't fool ourselves that much of what we gaze on in our public spaces is any good, though it may take some time for future generations to recycle the bronze and steel. What does survive is likely to have been the product of some passionate individuals, both artist and client, not a system or a committee. The huge catalogue of active artists is really a testament to our lack of discernment and the avalanche of art-school graduates.

We have, of course, moved on from just depositing art in a public space; now the cry is for early involvement of the artist and a process of collaboration with the design team - the Laban Centre in Deptford being a triumph of this process. What, then, is the designer's job, if he or she needs an artist to collaborate with?

The danger is that every project will have an artist on board and be inflected with artistic aspirations. Over the course of time the mediocrity of the achievement will become apparent and it might be harder to remove the offending art if it is knitted into the building. We may be trying too hard; surely most buildings need to go about their business in a quieter and undemonstrative way.

Instead of contrived and self-consciously improving public spaces, I favour spaces without authors, which have a sustainable looseness, and offer the King's Road in London as an example. This is a piece of the city adopted informally as public realm, which has survived adoption by the swinging '60s as well as punk and high-street retailing.

People go there because they want to be with other people, with a crowd or in a crowd, watching and hearing the unrehearsed performance of the street. The life of the place is the shops, not necessarily to go shopping, but where objects of desire are displayed and the play is on availability, value and anxiety - something new, something foreign.

These objects spill on to the street: the Harley Davidson outside Warr's extends the story, together with the traffic, noise and smell. Bentleys and Ferraris being shown off add a frisson not available in the sterilised zones of brick paviours, planters and traffic-free areas.

In the King's Road, the development of the road and pavements has benefited from being the product of piecemeal private ambitions:

it has brutal 'kinks' at the New King's Road, which would make a town planner blush;

the pavement widths jump about, as do the surfaces, from York stone to tiles, with abrupt interruptions and dramatic level changes.

In the most simplistic architectural terms, the street elevations have avoided the guiding hand of the urban planner: terraces of stucco juggle with brick; the harsh concrete of the fire station and Chelsea College can be accommodated with their milder-mannered Edwardian and Victorian neighbours. Views out from the street have the same idiosyncratic variety: the artisan cottages of Tryon Street, the set piece of Royal Avenue leading to the Royal Hospital, and the surprises of Chelsea Football Club gawking above 19th-century terraces.

Our appropriation of these spaces as shared also requires us to hear the catches of narrative available: the children of Hill House School, wandering in the street because they won't all fit into the school at once; the confetti on the steps of the register office; the rough-sleeper Paul, who used to live under the arcade of the fire station but died last winter, and has had his life commemorated with heaps of flowers and the chalked message 'an angel gone home'.

Further down the road, antique dealers celebrate their street fair in June by turning the pavement into a turfed lawn; by the end of the week, with economic efficiency, all the turf is stolen, so none needs to be carted away.

Street conversations The undirected nature of the scraps of development has offered pieces of generosity nonetheless: the long canopy of Peter Jones, the trespassing colonnade of Christopher Wray, the town hall clock, the burning torches outside Jim Thompson, all individual expressions that had not featured in any design handbook issued by the planning department. Occasionally, buildings make a more dramatic invitation, stepping back significantly from the street, like the Pheasantry and the Bluebird Garage, offering fat thresholds.

The nostrums of the urban renaissance have been about piazzas, spaces between buildings, public art and the dreaded 'placemaking': they should be embarrassed as the godparents of Paternoster Square. Our cultural planning needs to be much less organised and more reliant on the basic strengths of good building and small projects.

The new user of the city is choosing networks and archipelagos that need to have edges that make it less predictable than the received view of public space with its quota of improving art. We are powerless to supply this public realm; the most we can do is be conscientious about the buildings we deliver.

Bigness seldom works, and the King's Road shows the richness of avoiding single voices. In turn, the production of individual buildings needs to remember its place in the conversation of the street with signs and decorations, however abstracted. The buildings also need to provide some sort of hospitality, which is no more than a looseness that may or may not be explored. It is not the 'fruitopia' or 'memory lane' where the citizen is expected to fulfil the dreams of planners, sipping cappuccinos and enjoying art in traffic-free zones. It is about the width of a corridor, about who might access it and the merits of wastefulness - suggestions rather than prescriptions.

Have your say

You must sign in to make a comment.

The searchable digital buildings archive with drawings from more than 1,500 projects

AJ newsletters