A couple of years ago I was asked to run some workshops for the Lake District National Park Authority as part of their ‘Excellence in Design’ programme. It was a bold and fascinating project which sought to explore what is good design, how it works in the context of the Lake District and inform a review of the planning guidelines to see if there was a way to encourage excellent design in the National Park. My own workshops were about colour – an exploration of it within a variety of landscapes. Not to dictate what are good colours and what are bad ones, but simply to give planners, architects and decision makers the experience of colour so they could see for themselves how it works. It was a fun couple of days and we mostly played around with lots of things outdoors.
For the past seven or eight years I’ve done a big installation somewhere in the lakes every year. I like doing stuff in the Lake District. Although I live over an hour from most of the lakes, I know it well enough to find locations which work well for me. It’s not as impressive as the Alps, or even the Highlands for that matter, but its compact size makes it easy to get round and from an audience point of view, easy to get to.
The cultural heritage or the Lake District intrigues me too. Not just the romantic poets stuff, but the pull it had for outsiders and radical thinkers of all persuasions. That it still manages to pull 16 million visitors a year is part of it too. The original tourist destination. It may be a man-made landscape ripping off the tourists on every corner, but it’s been like that for a good couple of hundred years now but that’s part of the charm.
I haven’t done a piece in the lakes at all this year. Not for any conscious decision – it’s just turned out that way. However, next year there looks like being at least two new big pieces there, so I guess it’s swings and roundabouts.
Back in August I was asked to write an article for the RIBA magazine in the north west about working in the protected landscapes of the Lakes. I wasn’t sure about what they wanted from me so I wrote a couple of different articles and let the choose the one they wanted. I said I’d probably use the unwanted one as a blog post, but having looked at it, I think they chose the right one (the other one was even more pants). For what it’s worth, here’s the article:
I have been creating works with the Lake District landscape for the best part of 10 years now. I guess I’m lucky in that I’m based not too far away from the Lakes so I know it fairly well.
Most of my work deals with landscape and trying to understand all its detail – from the shape of the skyline to the way the light falls off a leaf at a certain time of year. Landscapes are therefore one of the essential raw materials and there’s plenty of it in the Lakes. But it’s not just the abundance of interesting views, it’s more than that. It’s about the cultural history of the place, the people, the way the land has been used over the centuries and the marks that have been left behind.
The Lake District, as much as most landscapes in England, has been shaped by its use over hundreds of years. There’s always something very man-made about the way it looks today. Iron age settlers used the fells and water for hunting and fishing. The Vikings brought a more formal sense of agriculture and found out about the metals in the hills – copper, iron, lead, silver and gold. The Romans built their walls and towns. The landscape was deforested to build ships and the now barred fields enclosed with miles and miles of neat dry stone walls. Then came the artists and poets and dreamers, and with them a new appreciation of the aesthetics of landscape. But then that visual story creaks to a final stop with the establishment of the National Parks in the 1950‘s. The 20th Century was preoccupied trying to protect and preserve the landscape as is some museum exhibit. The side effect being that in the visual story of the landscape its as if the 20th Century never existed. Both art and architecture in the lakes has retreated to a mostly ineffectual pastiche of the past.
This is potentially damaging shortsighted effect. In the interests of preserving the heritage and history of the Lakes, we need to be more aware that what we do today will be the heritage of tomorrow. To do that we need to be more confident about the marks we make. Mediocrity and subtlety will do nothing for future generations. All great art was contemporary when it was created. It’s part of what makes them great.
The installations that I create are always temporary – a once-upon-a-time-and-never-again. The legacy of them, however is one of changing the way people view and experience the landscape. One hopeful side effect of these is a growing recognition of the role that ambitious art and design can play in shaping the landscape of the future.