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Antony Gormley's praise of Mark Whitby's bridges

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Clare Melhuish reviews. . .

Antony Gormley made a fulsome declaration of enthusiasm for Mark Whitby's bridge designs, in conversation at the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, speculating that although 'the development of engineering is not necessarily allied to an emerging sense of self-confidence and self-expression of populations', it might actually be the case in the current period.

'Maybe it takes this long after a world war for people to repossess their environment?' he mused - forgetting, perhaps, that the phenomenon of world war is not one with which the younger generations at the turn of the millennium are particularly familiar with.

In a time when it is more common to emphasise the steady process of degradation and pollution afflicting the world, it is surprising to hear anyone speak with such enthusiasm of man's achievements in the physical environment.

For Gormley, all Whitby's bridges are 'wonderful objects' which represent 'a celebration of being and walking, enjoying the activity of moving'. He compared them to plinths which 'isolate the moving body in space', reminding the audience that a bridge is not just a building 'but also a journey'.

For Whitby, bridge design is about a 'hop, skip and a jump' - getting across the water in a fun way.

But at the same time they must provide a sense of containment and safety. He points out that bridges 'are so important from a strategic point of view, that they are always very safe'. But he voiced his concern that since the drama of the 'wobbly Millennium Bridge' they will have to be even safer in the future. 'All our bridges wobble up and down, ' he points out, but he suspects there will be little leeway for any kind of dynamic in the next generation of bridge design.

Whitby defines his firm's position as 'interlopers on the fringe of bridge-building', and asserts vigorously that he does not care to be publicly feted as one of the great engineering designers of the day. He emphasises the collaborative nature of the work, integrating not just colleagues in the office but also clients, local authorities and shipping experts into the whole process of design.

For Gormley, this aspect of experience of producing the Angel of the North was a shock: 'You don't learn man management at art school, ' he said. He said he worried that if he didn't make friends with all of his welders the 'material quality of the thing wouldn't be as I wanted it'. But the shipbuilders were 'delighted to find a vehicle for their skills', he said.

Gormley suggests that 'the power of motivation' is the true area of common ground in his and Whitby's practice, and one that he finds 'quite humbling.' For Whitby, the essential condition of practice is trust. Too often, he suggests, the work of art itself is elevated above the skills of the people who make it.

Antony Gormley and Mark Whitby were in conversation on the Work of Art and the Art of Work, hosted by Lignacite at the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, London

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