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I always knew this was going to be a longtime series, but it seems it was May 2017 when I last posted something on this project.

Quick recap: I’m visiting all the crossings over the River Tees in North East* England, from source to sea. I’m interested in the role of the river in the landscape generally but also how people have sought to get from one side to the other and why. It’s a long and fascinating history of people in their landscape, and I don’t think there’s another river with such variety and heritage as the Tees. Also, it’s where I live. So far I’ve done five of them – four bridges and a dam wall and they’ve all been in order. I’ve since visited another three with the intention of posting about them, but for some reason I hadn’t actually done so. I’ll probably go back and revisit these before posting them to refresh my memory.

So, being that quiet time between Christmas and New Year, and armed with a new pair of walking boots, I decided to explore another couple of bridges on the route. To confuse things a little, they’re further downstream than I’d got up to. And I did them in reverse order. But it’s two more off the list..

I live in Upper Teesdale – where the river is wild and the centre of the landscape as the fells all roll down to the river at the bottom of this long and narrow valley. It’s very rural and very remote – there are no shops and even the nearest pub is a good couple of miles away across the fields. So to get anything I generally have to drive a fair way.

Barnard Castle is not a place I really know that well. It’s the nearest market town, but it’s not that big. I only ever go to Barnard Castle because I have to, not because I want to. It’s not far enough to be exotic or a day trip, and not big enough to be the solution for all the complicated things I need that I can’t get locally, so I really don’t go there that often. So the bridges of the Tees seemed a good excuse to go and discover bits of the town I didn’t know.

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I started at the Bowes Museum – one of the few reasons I go to the town, and mostly because of work, but as local museums and art galleries go, it really does take some beating and I know I’m really lucky to have such a place on my doorstep.

A short stroll across the road between the old vicarage and another large victorian country house you find yourself in the open fields of the Demesnes. These were the fields owned by the lord of the castle for his own use rather than tenanted farmers. They’re now an open space for the use of the people of the town. The well trodden footpath leads down behind the waterworks to the river. Here the river is wide and shallow and skips over small rocks scattered across its width. The route of the river is through a shallow gorge with occasional bare rock cliff faces. Very quickly you are out of the town and into open countryside and it’s all very tranquil.

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Soon you get a first glimpse of the ruins of Egglestone Abbey on the other side of the river. Here the river gets rockier and more turbulent as it narrows. There are the remains of the Abbey Mill footing into the water on the far side. A short wooded slope brings you up to the top of Abbey Bridge.

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The steep woods around the bridge make it hard to get a good look at the single stone arch itself, but being the middle of winter, it’s also the time for seeing glimpses through the bare foliage.

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The bridge itself is a sturdy affair – it’s the diversionary route for vehicles too heavy for Barnard Castle bridge and Whorlton Bridge either side and has the battle scars of the wagons too big for the sharp turn onto it as a result.

The bridge was built in 1773 by the Morrits of nearby Rokeby (yes, that Rokeby – Turner, Walter Scott etc.) who wanetd better access from their estate to Barnard Castle. A single track crossing, it has distinctive castellated parapets and refuges above the arch pillars. On the south side are two octagonal enclosures – the remains of the toll booths in use up until the 1950s.

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It’s a very high bridge with good views of the river from the top as it passes in a rocky and turbulent gorge beneath.

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Crossing the bridge, I turned back on the other side, past the impressive 12th Century ruins of Egglestone Abbey up on its rocky vantage point. Beneath the foot of the abbey the road crosses a small beck beside the river. This was originally a ford and the 17th century packhorse bridge sits beside it. Still in great condition, but too steep and narrow for cars.

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The footpath leaves the road when it deviates away from the river and crosses a handful of fields above the wooded gorge. Again, the leafless trees giving glimpses of the landscape beyond.

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The trail passes through a caravan park on the banks of the river. There’s something quite surreal about these places – like an out of place suburbia existing in its own well ordered world. The footpath quickly reaches the outskirts of the town and the mill buildings along the rivers edge to the north.

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Thorngate Bridge is a long, green iron girder bridge spanning the shallow and wide river on the exit of a sharp bend. Built in 1881, the bridge replaced a lightweight three span bridge on the site that was washed away within 10 years. Before that the shallow river was crossed at this point by stepping stones.

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Thorngate Bridge is in three spans on two short pillars. The main span in the centre being over 50m long. The bridge remains largely unaltered from the day it was built – a very utilitarian footbridge made from steel and cast iron girders with a wooden walkway. The lamp brackets at either end are now empty and were the only source of illumination. The bridge was built to enable workers from the Yorkshire side of the river to get to work in the 19thC mill on the north bank.

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The wool industry was a major part of the town of Barnard Castle. Beyond the Victorian carpet mills down by the river,  the short walk back up Thorngate passes some of the most fascinating 17th and 18th C houses with their weaving loft windows up on the top floors.

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It’s been interesting to explore somewhere I kind of know but don’t really know. There’s another 4 crossings around the town which I’m looking forward to discovering and getting more familiar with. Barnard Castle is also the outer limit to what I consider to be ‘local’. Beyond the town the landscape is very different and the route goes to places that are mostly new to me. Hopefully it won’t be another another 18 months before I do more exploring.

 

*technically the river Tees starts in Cumbria which is technically in the North West, but borders are a bit vague here…

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Whistle, as an installation, looks to celebrate the engineering heritage of the North of England, but also looks at who we are in the North and the sense of place.

The Great Exhibition of the North could have been anywhere north of Cheshire (I know, don’t get me started on basic geography). However, it’s ended up in Gateshead and Newcastle, so I wanted to see what defines the place in order to start a conversation about its future trajectory. Where does it come from?

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An early 18th century map of Newcastle clearly showing the route of the wall

The Town Wall was built around Newcastle around the 12th Century – primarily to defend it from raiding parties from across the Scottish Border. It was typically 24 ft high (8m) and seven feet (2.5m) thick. There were six main gates – including Westgate and Newgate – and 17 towers – of which parts of six still remain. At its prime it was considered the most impressive town or city wall in the whole of England and was only breached once – by the Scots during the English Civil War. Although over the centuries it fell into disrepair, most of the wall survived into the late 19th Century and there are photographs of most of the towers before the late Victorian redevelopment of the city centre. It’s important to note that Newcastle never had a City wall – it didn’t become a city until the 1890s, by which time most of the wall was in ruins.

Although the wall is by no means complete now, there are surprisingly large amounts still standing, and even in the absent sections its route still survives.

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The current online map on Street Map shows the route of the wall as a dotted line

The challenge for the installation was to find sufficient sites around the wall to place whistles. As they are powered by cylinders of compressed air, the sites had to be secure. At around 130dB they are also very loud, so they had to be well away from ear-level or a safe distance away from the public. The simplest place to put them was on the roof of buildings. That meant finding and securing premises with flat roofs and good access. With a target of 18 venues across an entire city this was far from straight forward. Besides the medieval structures of the actual wall, most of the other buildings along the line of the wall were part of its subsequent history with their own architectural interest. Newcastle is a city rich in history and architectural heritage. Outside of London it has the highest number of historical buildings in England. Newcastle has 53 grade I listed buildings, 153 grade two-star, 558 grade two, 42 scheduled ancient monuments and 12 conservation areas. This in turn created its own set of issues and logistics in terms of getting permissions. In the end 17 locations were identified, which in turn held their own connection to the town wall and the history of the city:

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1: Newcastle City Library – New Bridge Street West.

This was a relatively easy starting point for me as I had untaken a short residency there last year and had a good relationship with the team there. I’d already been up on the roof so I knew it was a great place to host a whistle.

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A drawing from 1825 of Carliol Tower – then a private house

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The 2009 City Library building. Note the angled entrance atrium set at the same angle as the original tower (above)

The current city library was completed in 2009 and was the third library building on the site. The previous one designed by Sir Basil Spence – architect of Coventry Cathedral and Trawsfyndd power station amongst many others – was part of T Dan Smith’s vision for Newcastle’s ‘City in the Sky’ network of elevated walkways. However, by the millennium it was deemed too dark and oppressive and no longer fit for purpose and demolished in 2007. The new library was built to be future proofed as the role of libraries evolved. Built on the site of Carliol Tower on the north-east corner of the town wall, the new facade of the library echoes the idea of a tower and is orientated to match the original 12th century tower. There are some stones from the town wall recovered during the works on display inside.

2: Euro Hostel  – Carliol Square.

The next tower along the wall from the library – Plummer Tower – still exists. Originally known as Carliol Croft Tower, it was home to the guild of Cutlers, then to the Guild of Masons in the 18th Century who subsequently enlarged the building to the street to how it is today. It’s now home to a team of architects who specialise in historic buildings.

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Plummer Tower

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The view back to the library from the Euro Hostel Roof

Unfortunately the tower has a pitched roof behind the front parapet and with no easy access up there it couldn’t be easily used for hosting a whistle. Instead, the whistle is on top of the Euro Hostel opposite. This has a clear line of sight to the whistle on the library, but also has its own town wall history. The Hostel sits on the site of the town prison. Closed in 1928, you can still see the old execution chamber out the back. ‘The Ware Rooms’ bar is named after the place where one of its former inmates hid his stash of stolen jewellery.

3: Holy Jesus Hospital – City Road

The motorway slices unceremoniously through the line of the wall, with the mainline railway intersecting it from the opposite direction removing all traces of the wall itself. The next tower along the line – Austin Tower – probably lies somewhere beneath Manors Car Park.

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Austin Friary Tower. The part to the right of the door is original and contemporary with the Town Wall. To the left is the wonderful helix ramp on Manors Car Park. The original Austin Tower lies beneath the car park somewhere.

The next nearest spot is Austin Friar’s Tower. Austin Friary was home to a group of Augustinian monks from the 13th Century. The 14th Century tower is all that remains of the friary, although it is now attached to Holy Jesus Hospital – a 17th century building used to offer lodgings – hospitality – to freemen of the city. This is now one of the oldest brick-built buildings still in use. The tower was altered in the 16th century after the dissolution of the monasteries, and became a strong room to protect valuables in the event of the town wall being breached.

The Whistle was to have been installed on the roof of the tower – now in the hands of the National Trust – however, the access costs and logistics were escalating rapidly so this one had to be postponed at a late stage.

4: Sallyport Tower – Tower Street

This building straddles the meeting point of the town wall and Hadrian’s wall. Built on the base of a roman tower, this is the oldest site on the wall. The gate gets its name from being the route the army would rush out to engage with any attacking party – where they would ‘sally forth’. The tower was mostly destroyed in the siege of 1644 – the only time the wall was breached. The building was restored in 1716 with an extension on the top by the Guild of Shipwrights and Carpenters who used it as a meeting room.

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Sallyport Tower. The foundations are Roman, the ground floor is mostly the original wall. The upper storey is a 17th century addition

The building is currently being run as a wedding venue so the whistle isn’t permanent here.

5: The Jolly Fisherman on the Quayside – Milk Market

From Sallyport Tower, the wall curved gently down to the river. There was no wall as such built along the quayside with the river itself forming the main defence.

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The Tyne Inn pub on the corner of Milk Market. Note the use of stone on the next door building following the line of the Town Wall

The pub most recently known as ‘the Jolly Fisherman’ or the ‘Waterline’ or even the ‘Tyne Inn’ is a grade II listed building built as a pub in 1904. This sat on the corner of the Milk Market and was once part of the busy quayside activity. The ground floor of the building along Milk Market reflects the line of the wall that ran down to the river along this point.

The pub is now part of the ‘Tomahawk’ restaurant on the Quayside. The whistle here sits on top of the hanging sign bracket.

6: Live Buildings – 55 Quayside

This relatively new building is one of the few sites without historical precedent. Sandwiched between a 19th Century quayside inn and the 18th century customs house, in never the less has an unparalleled view of the river and directly opposite the Sage building. From the balcony you also see the rooftops of the neighbouring buildings with a clear view of the bell on the roof of the Customs house next door. A reminder of a time when sound played a bigger role in signalling and communication across the city.

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Probably the best view from the Quayside. Next door is the Customs House, complete with bell on the roof

The building is now home to Zerolight – one of the ever-growing number of tech and software companies in the city. Here they develop virtual and augmented reality technologies for the luxury car market.

7: Guildhall, Sandhill

The original plan was to site a couple of whistles on the towers of the Tyne Bridge – it being an unmistakable icon of the city. However, every summer the bridge and surrounding buildings become nesting sites for rare kittiwakes. These small sea birds normally nest on cliffs above the sea, but since the 1950s this has become one of only two inland nesting sites for the birds in the world. So the Tye Bridge and many other sites along the quayside cannot be used or accessed during the breeding season.

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The whistle installed on the roof of the Guildhall. The original bells can clearly be seen on the far end

The Guildhall beneath the Tyne Bridge is one of the frequently used nesting sites. However Kittiwakes are fussy birds and only nest where they can see water. So the side facing away from the river is free from nesting birds.

The Guildhall is a Grade I listed building dating from 1665. Built as the seat of local power it was home to the various Guilds who had their individual meeting rooms at each of the castle towers. It was the town hall until the end of the 19th Century when the town became a city. It’s been redesigned and extended at several points over the centuries – the curved east end was designed for the fish market by notable local architect and town planner John Dobson. On the roof is a cupola with a chiming clock. However, below the clock on the north side is an earlier set of bells with the chiming mechanism within the central roof. More reminders of the use of sound within the cityscape.

8: Quayside Inn, 35 Close

This is the last surviving of the original quayside warehouses. From the 16th century this part of the riverside was a maze of narrow streets and houses with numerous warehouses lining the quayside beneath where the High Level Bridge is today. Both sides of the river were busy with ships being loaded and unloaded.

On the 6th October 1854, a fire broke out at Wilson’s worsted mill on the Gateshead side of the river. This rapidly spread to a nearby chemical works which subsequently exploded. Stones were shot hundreds of metres across the river. The force of the blast destroyed the riverside buildings in Gateshead and ripped off the roofs and blew in the shop fronts on Newcastle’s quayside. Burning debris quickly spread through the densely packed buildings along the quayside on the Newcastle side and before long the twin fires decimated both cities. The fire could be watched from the newly opened High Level Bridge.

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35 Close sitting beneath Stephenson’s High Level Bridge.

What is now the Quayside Inn is the only building with a riverside frontage to survive. This is now a Grade II* listed building. The whistle is on the outside of the loft doors overlooking the river. This building would have been right on the edge of the river. The quayside has since been infilled so it sits nearly 10 metres in.

9: The Town Wall, Orchard Street

This is one of two lengths of intact town wall remaining. About 80 metres of the wall, most of it the full eight metres high, run along Orchard Street from Forth Street. A fruit orchard grew along this stretch of wall – hence the name. In the 19th century a works building was built into the west side of the wall where you can still see the post holes for the rafters.

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The wall along Orchard Street

A whistle was planned to sit in top of the wall along the walkway. However, access costs started to escalate so this site had to be dropped late on.

10: Central Station main concourse

From Orchard street the wall took a straight line across where the railway now stands before curving round through what is now the main station . With commanding views both to the west and south over the river valley there were three towers within the footprint of the station: Neville Tower stood at the far east end of the platforms and was the meeting hall for ‘the company of Wallers Bricklayers and Plaisterers’. West Spital Tower stood more or less on the concourse and got its name from the nearby St Mary’s Hospital. Stank Tower was on the corner of the entrance portico.

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The elegantly sweeping curve of Central Station’s roof

Central Station sits on an elegant sweeping curve, accentuated by the vast ironwork roof. The original station building was designed by John Dobson and featured the first great train shed roof, built the same year as the William Paxton Great Exhibition Palace and so considered the cutting edge of architecture of the time. John Dobson won a medal in Paris in 1858 for inventing the rollers used to create the curved girders. The station was officially opened by Queen Victoria and Prince Albert in 1850 when it was mostly just a roof and some facades. The main station buildings weren’t finished in time! Their crests can be seen in the roof trusses.

11. Central Station entrance portico

Stank Tower sat on the outside corner of the entrance portico – just beyond the Cafe Nero kiosk. The original plan for the portico was for it to run the entire length of the station . the arches becoming alcoves each with its own statue. However, the scale and associated cost was revisited and a simpler portico was built as survives today.

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The original plan was for a portico running the entire length of the station

Central Station’s John Dobson lineage and importance in the development of the railway station has earned it a Grade I listing. The connection between the railway engineering aspects of ‘Whistle’ and its location are undoubtedly strongest at the station. By having two whistles within the station  – both indoors and in close proximity, the station is also by far the loudest and most obvious location. The dissonance between the whistles and the lively acoustic make it quite an experience on its own.

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Whistle in a much more modestly sized entrance portico

12. Gunner House

From Stank Tower the wall crossed Neville street diagonally and continued along that line up Pink Lane. Gunner House takes its name from Gunner Tower which stood on the site. You can see the base of the original tower outside the Town Wall pub next door (which also serves a very drinkable   and exclusive ‘Toon Waal’ beer). Gunner Tower became the meeting room for the ‘incorporated company of Slaters and Tylers’. The wall along Pink Lane was removed by the 19th Century.

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A drawing from around 1825 showing Gunner Tower as it remained then. The current Gunner House sits next door and is home to a Subway sandwich shop

14. Heber Tower

I know – there’s no number 13. Certainly unlucky for some – the site of whistle no.13 was never granted permission so was cancelled quite early on.

No. 14 however is on the wall itself. Heber Tower sits at the corner of the most complete section of wall still standing. West walls runs from Durham Tower, past Heber Tower, Morden Tower and ending with the remains of Ever Tower. Like Durham Tower, Heber Tower survives almost intact as when it was first built in the 13th century. Access to the walkway is via one of two internal staircases. Along the top of the wall you can clearly see the walkway and how it went through the intermediate sentry towers. From the 15th century the tower became the meeting place and was maintained by the Guild of Felt-makers, Curriers, and Armourers. In the 19th century the tower was used by a blacksmiths.

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View along the top of the wall from Heber Tower looking towards Merton Tower. The Fosse – or Town Ditch – can just be seen on the left. In the foreground is one of the 13th century carved heads

The top of the tower overlooks the last remnant of the ditch that ran the length of the wall as part of the town defences. The parapet wall on the tower is pretty much all intact, complete with 13th century carved heads on the inside keeping guard. The whole of the West Walls is Grade I listed and a Scheduled Ancient Monument.

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Another of the carved heads on the top of Heber Tower

15. St Andrew’s Parish Church

The churchyard at St Andrews, sitting amongst the hustle and bustle of a busy city, is a surprisingly calm and quiet space. The church was here long before the wall. the records show how graves had to me moved to allow the wall to run within its grounds. There is another large intact section of wall within the grounds – the shops along one side of Gallowgate were built on top of the wall – the present Gallowgate being much higher than it originally was – remember this would have been a ditch too. In the corner would have stood Andrew Tower.

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A drawing C1825 showing Andrew Tower with the parish church tower behind. In the distance is the imposing Newgate

The church dates from the 12th century although much of the existing church dates from much later and includes a Lady Chapel by John Dobson. outside the porch is the grave of composer Charles Alison, who died after being caught in an unexpected blizzard in May.

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St Andrew’s Church Tower is no strong enough to cope with swinging bells any more. Instead the bells hang vertically with electronic actuators powering the hammers

The Whistle here is situated on the top of the tower. Much of the tower survives from the 12th century, notably the stone spiral staircase up to the top bell chamber. The tower can no longer take the weight of swinging bells, so these are now static and rung by means of actuators on the hammers and controlled by a timer in the church.

16. High Friars, Intu Eldon Square Shopping Centre

From St Andrews the wall crossed Newgate with a major gateway in the wall. Newgate was the largest structure in the wall and enlarged with a fortified barbican in the 1390. From there the line of the wall passes beneath what is now part of Eldon Square shopping centre. The original Eldon Square was an elegant formal square designed by John Dobson. This was controversially demolished in the 1970s to make way for the current shopping centre. The outside wall along the south side of Blackett Street follows the line of the town wall. Although there is no trace of the actual wall, its heritage lives on in the names of the quarters within the centre. The High Friars Mall follows the line of Friars Chare that ran through the nunnery gardens there. The opening space for the escalators beneath Eldon Leisure sits exactly on the site of Bertram Momboucher Tower and its square atrium space echoes the ghost of a tower. The original tower takes its name from Bertram Mombowcher – one of the high sheriffs of Northumbria during the reign of Edward III. This part of the town became the poorest area by the mid-19th century so atypical slum clearing fashion it was torn up and rebuilt as Blackett Street. The stones from the wall were reputedly reused to line the new sewers.

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The current site of Bertram Momboucher Tower inside the shopping centre

The whistle inside the shopping centre is the closest to the public and as it’s in a relatively enclosed space has had to be specially engineered to be significantly quieter so as not to deafen shoppers. It’s still very loud though!

17. Monument entrance, Intu Eldon Square

the last whistle in the piece sits overlooking the statue of Earl Grey. The outside edge of the shopping centre sits directly over the site of Ficket Tower. The entrance to the centre follows the line of Friars Chare and the wall would have run alongside it next to the current Blackett Street. You can see the site of Ficket Tower in the distinctively rounded northern flank of the entrance. The whistle here is on the roof.

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The rounded end to the north face of the shopping centre echoes that of the Town Wall towers and Ficket Tower that once stood on the same spot 

From here the line of the wall runs along Blackett street, across Pilgrim Street on Pilgrim Gate and back to Carliol Tower. Pilgrim Gate was demolished in 1802 when the gate became too narrow for the wagons of the day. When it was demolished the builders discovered a 24 lb cannon ball in the walls – a remnant from the siege of 1644.

All in the piece runs around 2.2 miles (3.5 km) of the town wall. Of the sites there are three Grade II or II* listed, five Grade I listed, two scheduled ancient monuments, and part of a UNESCO World Heritage site. This is by far the most complicated piece I’ve done in terms of securing permissions – with over 20 landlords, tenants and licensing bodies to appease. The install documents alone run to nearly 200 pages.

But the complexity of the various locations and their individual connections with the history of the Town Wall, for me, adds so much more depth to the overall piece and cements the piece with the place in a way that simply wouldn’t work anywhere else.

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Up until late last night, it was feeling like proper winter here in the Durham Dales. We’d had a nice covering of snow, which despite it forecast to disappear within hours, was topped up the following night giving us two days of prettiness. It wasn’t particularly deep – just an inch or two mostly. Not enough to cause any problems, but enough to coat everything around and transform it in the way only snow can.

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But it’s gone now. Washed away by ‘storm’ Dylan overnight. Now there’s no trace of it left – not even in the high gunnels on the fells. Our winter wonderland is just a memory – until the next time. Preserved only in the millions of pictures circulated on social media. The fast flicked repository for all the moments of all the people.

And now, on the last day of the year, 2017 is about to fall into the vault of past years. I seem to do a blog post of the year this time every year. It’s a good time to take stock, reflect and sometimes enjoy the moments that were far too hectic at the time.

As I reflect on all the things that happened that make up my experience of the past year, there are also the things that didn’t happen.

Lots didn’t happen in 2017.

Compas‘ was to be the centrepiece for my solo show at Mellerstain House in the Scottish Borders and the launch piece for the Borders Sculpture Park. A giant, double pointed form aligned with the lines of site and travel through the estate, the angles were drawn from the slope of the lawn while the dimensions – 60m long and 16m high – were the exact dimensions of the Robert Adam designed house.

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It didn’t happen.

For a new arts festival in the Lake District, to celebrate its World Heritage Site status, I proposed a life-sized bouncy castle tower to go on the top of one of the lakeland fells. From a distance it would be a visual reference point on the horizon – the red standing out against the verdant landscape. For those venturing to the top of the fell, it would be a unique experience (and a lot of fun).

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There are a lot of issues with commissioning bouncy castles. It’s a steep learning curve and one that ultimately proved too steep for far too many reasons. So it was changed to a solid nylon inflatable. Infinitely easier to handle and fabricate. However, the unpredictability of the weather on lakeland fells caught us out on the day and it didn’t happen.

Attempt to install Keep on Latrigg, September 2017. Photo © Helen Tuck

Attempt to install Keep on Latrigg, September 2017. Photo © Helen Tuck

Also not happening was a floating installation in a city centre location. This might still be subject to an NDA so I can’t say anymore.

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But it didn’t happen.

I almost built the world’s largest freestanding paper arch in Vienna in the spring. Situated in a prime location amongst some incredible architecture and outside a UNESCO listed coffee house, the arch was built from standard copier paper with decorative colour accents reflecting the architecture of Otto Wagner. Standing 5m high at the apex, unlike my previous paper bridges, this didn’t spring off fixed abutments. Instead this was entirely free-standing. Just paper. Nothing else.

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But arches are complicated mathematical models and what seemed like such slight discrepancies in ground levels and the behaviour of lighter weight paper than previous bridges, despite all the scale modelling and calculations, it ultimately wasn’t stable enough to stand on its own.

It didn’t happen.

What did happen though was..

XXX – my first solo show at the newly launched Borders Sculpture Park at Mellerstain House. The ‘compas’ piece was replaced with ‘Scattered‘ – a series of large white spheres floating elegantly on the lake.

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These accompanied the more architectural ‘Pointed‘ and ‘Towered‘ pieces elsewhere in the gardens.

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Keep was successfully installed on Castle Howe in Kendal, Cumbria, on the site of the first castle in the town. Its bright red contrasting with the ‘Auld Grey Town’ and a line of sight to the slightly newer castle ruin on the other side of the town.

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‘Keep’ from above Kendal Castle. Photo © Tony Watson 2017

Volume‘ was a photographic series of images of very temporary installations in the Newcastle City Library. The collection of images will form the basis of a very large scale bookwork that contemplates the space within the architecture of the building through the use of time and light.

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TreeBubble‘ was the last of the inflatable installations for the year. A 5m bubble wrapped around an ancient oak tree within the grounds of the Bowes Museum in County Durham.

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It was never an intention to do so many inflatable artworks in one year. Like so many things, it just seemed to happen that way. By contrast, so far none of the major pieces I’m currently working on for next year are inflatable, but that’s not to say i won’t return to them at some point in the future.

It’s certainly been an interesting year, with lots of challenges, lots of learning and lots of great people making all these things happen.

None of these things happen in isolation. There are so many people involved with each and every one of these project – bot the ones that happen as well as the ones that didn’t. It’s a long list but they all deserve my gratitude. So a huge THANK YOU to:

 

Susan & Franz Brunner, Mondi Group, Jon Stynes, Peter Foskett, Jane Haddington, George Binning, Jane Malloch, Sarah Coulson, Debbie Cunliff, Navigator North, Automated Cutting Services, Hendersons Textiles, SpaceCadets, Lisa Smith, Jen Morgan, ABC Inflatables, Four Colman Getty, Penny Anderson, Archifringe Festival, Lakes Alive Festival, Phillippa Haynes, Netty Miles, Tony Watson, Amanda Sutton, Rob Ives, Ian Horn, Helen Tuck, Jane Shaw, Andrew Scrogham, Mark Thurston, Gary Chapman, Points North, Phil Carr, UTASS, The Bowes Centre for Art, Design and Craft, Matthew Read, The Bowes Museum, Sarah Collicott, ProntaPrint Darlington, Artiq

and of course, everyone who comes here to read all the things I post. Comments always welcome, whether here or on all the other social media channels.

I’ve had a sneak peek at 2018, and it’s looking OK from here. So onward and upward. have a great New Year. See you on the other side.

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It’s been so long since I last posted to this blog I’ve forgotten how to begin a new post. I know where I want to end up and part of the journey of getting there, but how to start is turning out trickier than it seemed.

Art is a bit like that. For me at least it’s largely instinctive. When students or journalists ask ‘where did the idea come from?’ I usually have some kind of answer to keep them happy. But the real answer is usually a lot more complicated and involved than that.

Ideas – inspiration if you like – is an ongoing process and one that probably started at birth. There are things you remember from various parts of your life that you recall or associate with places, sounds, smells, concepts, emotions. Sometimes they may feel quite random or spurious in their association at the time. But that’s just the way your brain works. To the extent that when someone inevitably asks ‘what’s the piece about?’ the answer is rarely straightforward either. In fact Ive recently decided to put a time scale on answering that. Three years minimum. That’s about as long as it takes to absorb the work and start to understand what it was really about.

Of course, art doesn’t have to be about anything at all. Francis Bacon was famously quoted as saying “The purpose of art is to deepen the mystery”.


Presence‘ – an album by Zed Zeppelin, has cover artwork featuring an obsessive hole. The nostalgic images from the 40s and 50s appear to show everyday people obsessed by an ever present mysterious void.

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Art directed by one of my heroes – Storm Thorgesson – the premise was to put an object from the future into the past. In true Thorgesson style rather than use archive images from the 40s and 50s, the cover images were shot for real on the basis that ‘nostalgia isn’t what it used to be’. There’s something unsettling about a familiar setting disrupted by something that is clearly not meant to be there. Yet in these images the ‘thing‘ appears not only to be accepted, but hold a real presence in all the situations. The irony being the ‘thing‘ is not even a ‘thing’ but a hole. The ‘presence’ is actually an ‘absence’. When the concept was first pitched to the band, Robert Plant’s response was “Who the hell needs to understand everything anyway?”.

The mysterious black object motif is also drawn in part to the monoliths in Kubrick’s film  version of ‘2001 – A Space Odyssey‘.

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In the film we see three large, black monoliths  – the first in prehistoric earth that appears to mark a turning point in evolution, the second one on the moon and the third orbiting Jupiter. The monoliths are a key marker in the plot of the movie – in many respects they are what the film is all about, yet they are also a source of endless discussion and conjecture about what they are. In Arthur C Clarke’s original books, the monoliths – and there are more than just those three – have a presence but no substance, only that their shape is in the proportion of 1:4:9 (the first three squared numbers). In the books it is also suggested they have dimensions beyond the physical three with ever increasing proportions (…16:25:36…). Of course their meaning and purpose could be very simple. They just are. What are they? – something else… where did they come from? – somewhere else… when did they appear?… they’ve always been there.

In short, they’re follies. Objects designed to be mostly there to just be there. I’ve written before about the Chinese tradition of placing man made objects in landscapes to make sense of the scale, form and colour of the vastness of their environment. As a kid I was always a little obsessed by the presence of follies. I remember seeing Horton Tower in Dorset and asking my grandparents  what it was for. “It’s just a tower. It’s not for anything” was their reply. Grandparents never lie. So it must have been true. Weird, maybe. But true.

Through my teens I learnt to appreciate the surreal-ness (is that a word?) of follies. The Belvedere Tower at Claremont Gardens was always tantalisingly behind gates, locked out of reach.

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‘Belvedere Tower’, Claremont Gardens, Surrey. A low-resolution scan from an infrared negative, but you get the gist…

There was always something Alice in Wonderland about its inaccessibility. Those clipped hedges framing the view up the lawn. It must have been a great view from the tower across the gardens and lake, only the windows aren’t real. They’re painted on. Part of Capability Brown’s masterpiece in landscape design. The tower was there for its presence. To look over the landscape, and while it obviously couldn’t actually look over the garden, it reinforced the idea that the landscaped garden was designed to be looked over. That looking was fundamental to what the garden was about.

Another favourite was Leith Hill Tower. A wonderful piece of gothic architecture built in 1765 to enhance the countryside. No more, no less. There’s stairs up to the roof which is (at just over 1000ft above sea-level) the highest point in southern England. However, the steps weren’t built until 100 years after the rest of the building. So for a century it was just a tower for tower’s sake.


This summer I built ‘Keep’ – a 10m high folly for the Lake District. OK, so I didn’t actually build it – Debbie in Manchester did the hard work with the sewing machine. Originally it was going to be a bouncy castle inside, but a number of design issues and some disastrous fabrication decisions put pay to that idea, so it was redesigned as just a folly. It was commissioned by the Lake District National Park as part of their Lakes Alive Festival. The original brief was around the theme of Cultural Landscapes to celebrate the UNESCO World Heritage Site listing for the Lake District. The English Lake District has it’s very own and important history in the world of landscape appreciation. Unlike most of the rest of England, Follies are not part of that tradition. However, I wanted to look at the role the Lakes played in the wider English Landscape Tradition and put a folly in that landscape.

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Original mock-up of ‘Keep’ on Latrigg, above Keswick, Cumbria.

‘Keep’ was designed to be a very light touch in a protected environment. As an inflatable artwork it was easy to get onto site and install. It could be installed and taken down again the same day which meant in theory it could be taken to quite isolated spots and places where a more permanent folly would never be allowed.

However, as mostly made from air, it is very susceptible to weather conditions.  On the location I’d originally intended it to go – being around 2000ft above sea level and very exposed, the weather was prone to sudden changes. On the best day of the pre festival week, the conditions looked like they would be right to get the tower up for a few hours. However, during inflation the wind suddenly picked up to more than twice the safe maximum and the install had to be quickly abandoned.

Attempt to install Keep on Latrigg, September 2017. Photo © Helen Tuck

Attempt to install Keep on Latrigg, September 2017. Photo © Helen Tuck

The following weekend was the festival itself. Confined to Kendal, the piece was installed on Castle Howe – the site of the original castle in Kendal, but with a line of sight to the latter and existing castle ruin on the other side of the town. For a day the weather played ball and the piece did its job as being a tower.

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For the Kendal installation, I chose Castle Howe partly so that there would be some kind of dialogue between ‘Keep’ in red and the existing castle in white – rather like rooks on a chessboard – maybe another Alice through the Looking-glass reference. It was also partly about the vibrance of the colour with the ‘Auld Grey Town’, as evidenced in Tony’s drone shots.

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Drone view from above Kendal Castle looking back to ‘Keep’ on Castle Howe. Photo © Tony Watson.

The install on a fell in the Lake District will happen at some point. I’ll keep a look out for the right conditions, both in terms of windspeed and in the colour and light quality of the surrounding landscape. When it’s right it’ll be stunning and ‘enhance the landscape’, whatever that means.

Two months on and I’m starting to understand what the piece is about. Having seen the piece working in Kendal, I’m getting a better idea what the piece is and how it works. It’s also something I’m keen to continue in the future. That may be taking ‘Keep’ out on the road for a series of installs, or it may be more involved than that. Who knows, maybe a whole series of follies in different landscapes.

More importantly, I’m happy not really understanding what the project means yet. All good art has at least ten different meanings. I’m quite sure using temporary follies to interrogate the landscape has at least that, but it may take me a while to discover what they all are.

There’s something about follies that seems to fit with the work I’ve been doing for the past few years.  I still don’t know what that something is, except it’s probably something else. But I do know it’s always been there.

 

 

 

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Bridge numbers. I like bridge numbers. Bridges that cross canals and railways (and motorways for that matter) all have numbers. Names are good, but numbers give you a sense of where you are. On canals they are an essential navigation aid. But bridges over rivers don’t need numbers. The difference between things you go over as opposed to things you go under I guess. Still, I’m counting these bridges over the Tees. Cow Green Dam Wall isn’t technically a bridge, so Birkdale Bridge is no.2. It’s a litle way to no.3.

We left the river below Birkdale Bridge as it plummeted down Cauldron Snout. This cascade is more a series of cataracts over a 180m length – making this the longest waterfall in England. There’s a good clamber down the entire south side over the dolerite pillars of winsill so plenty of places to admire the power of the water as it plummets down a total of 60m. Even on relatively dry days, as the water is regulated at the dam it’s always an impressive sight.

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There used to be a little wooden footbridge across the falls – about halfway down.  This would have given an incredible view of the torrents below. Before the reservoir was built, the river ran round a long sweeping crescent picking up speed so by the time it reached the top of Cauldron Snout it was already wild and raring to go. The wooden bridge disappears from the maps by the 1940s and a track bridge appears about where the dam wall is today. But never both together. The amazing moving bridge. There’s more of these to come further downstream..

At the base of the falls, the river meets with Maise Beck – one of its larger tributaries at this end and corners beneath the cliffs of Falcon Clints. This next section along the shadow of Cronkley Fell is wide and flat. The river here is very wide given how young it still is. It’s very shallow but very fast. From here to the top of the next waterfall, High Force – about 6 miles away – it’s got 100m to fall so it’s on a bit of a sprint while it can. The landscape here is classic glacial pasture. big wide and relatively flat land with steeply rising fells beyond. Thousands of years ago this valley was scoured out by the receding ice flows. Long before that, these carboniferous rocks stretched across to the much older Lake District and formed a border with the still separate Scotland. It’s a very old landscape indeed.

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As the land flattens out, so the farms start to appear. First up on the left is Widdybank Farm. As remote hill farms go, this is particularly remote.Yet along the banks of the river the pasture area is flat and fertile. Great for cattle, but still too exposed and high up to grow anything meaningful.

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There are no bridges for miles, but the river is wide and shallow and during the summer months certainly fordable at any number of points.

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Further along on the north bank are the remains of a pencil mill. Here the sedimentary rocks were ground down and  pressed into moulds to make pencils. The mill opened in the mid 19th Century and produced pencils – know locally as ‘widdies’ until 1890.

The river winds and widens until near the far end of Cronkley Fell we find Cronkley Bridge. Bridge no.3 in my book. This is a simple steel girder span over two intermediate stone pillars with a wooden deck. It’s flat and utilitarian and is probably 1950s. The main feature is its length – about 40m. We won’t see another longer bridge for over 30miles. You would normally build a bridge at its narrowest point. It’s certainly the cheapest way to build one. I imagine, as the river is shallow and with a flat rocky bed, this would be an ideal fording point, but a bridge has been marked here on maps certainly from the mid 1800s.

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I had planned on following the river towards High Force about a mile downstream, but a loose and very vocal dog at one of the farms clearly had other ideas, so that bit is another for a revisit. Cronkley Bridge is on the Pennine Way so it’ll be a bit busier later in the year. Also, from March the wading birds return to nest on these high moors. Today it’s almost silent, but by mid April the air here is filled with the strange whoops and warbles of Curlew and Lapwings, the buzz of snipe and the cackle of grouse – over 3/4 of England’s native Back Grouse live in these barren hills of the North Pennines.

But that’s bridge no.3 done. The next four are all walking distance from where I live so familiar territory for a bit…

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Maybe it’s that new year thing when you start out with good intentions – bold ideas, long-term plans, fresh start or whatever, but I guess every new thing has to start somewhere, at sometime. It seems that the winter months are when I look ahead to the coming year and finally get to start working on new projects. There’s still some gaps in the overall view of the year, but from what’s already there I’m getting a feel for the overarching themes. While last year was more about textures and moments, this year looks like being one of spaces and voids. Strange how things find their own threads.

Last year I really got to know some of the river where I live. I spent large chunks of time watching it, filming it, photographing it, editing the results and creating the major piece of the year – ‘Waterfall‘. I’ll probably do a more in-depth post about that at some point, but for those new to the game, ‘Waterfall’ saw three white-washed field barns wrapped in slow-motion film footage of the three main waterfalls of the River Tees. Each barn became a visual cube of slow moving water in the night sky. It was big and awesome and probably the best thing I’d done in a long long time.

Since that piece I’ve had an uncomfortable relationship with the river. I used to go down there almost every day, but the daily photographing and research has probably made me over familiar now and some of its magic is somehow lost. I kind of know how it does all its tricks now.

So I needed to find a way to re-engage with the river. There are new things I need to discover. I need to find another story in it.

Then last week I caught up with Andy Carters ‘270’ project on his Calling All Station YouTube channel. Over the next 52 weeks Andy  is aiming to visit all 270 stations on the London Underground. To make it more interesting he has to pass through the ticket barriers at least once at every station – either coming or going through them, not just passing through on a train. It’s this slowing down of the travel that makes you stop, look, think and examine the familiar. About 40 stations in (starting with the boring bits of the  Jubilee Line) and I’m already hooked. Each station is documented on his blog as he goes along too, creating a comprehensive gazetteer of architectural gems and subterranean secrets beneath the capital.

Inspired by his journey, I’ve decided on mine – to visit and cross* every crossing of the River Tees from source to sea.

Bridges are fascinating things. I’ve had my own experiences in constructing them. Essentially they are practical engineering – a way of traversing in this case water. Yet as purely man made structures in what is on this route, mostly open countryside, they have a very distinctive presence within the landscape to manage.

Today I made a start. The purist in me wanted to start at the source and work progressively downstream. However, it’s still very much winter and as the Tees starts just below the summit of Cross Fell – the highest peak on the Pennines – and very much buried under snow for the next few weeks I’ve decided to scrap that and not be precious about the order in which I visit the bridges.

My first crossing then wasn’t even a bridge. It was also one of the biggest structures on the river – the dam wall at Cow Green Reservoir.

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Between 1969 and 1971, a section of the Upper Tees was flooded to create the 2-mile long Cow Green Reservoir as a part of of a series of interventions to regulate the flow of water down the river for abstraction purposes. The 1/4 mile long concrete reinforced embankment holds back 40,000,000,000 litres of water (count those zeros!) while the entire river flow is regulated by sluices on the southern bank. So technically the River Tees flows beneath it, so the dam wall is a crossing.

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The reservoir sits in a natural basin of pasture land high in the North Pennines. The landscape here is a unique blend of very specific geology and rare botanical habitat. Widdybank Fell which sits along the Durham side of the water is home to the rare Blue Gentian  and the only place in the UK where alpine plants have survived since the last great ice age. The land here is fertile and remains of bronze age summer farms lie beneath the reservoir – themselves an indicator of how climate changes over time. Back then temperatures in these upper fells were around three degrees warmer. It might not sound much but the weather here is now too cold for most wading birds to breed on the reservoir. On a fairly bright day like today it felt relatively mild a few miles downstream, yet up here the shaded bays on the water are still iced over and pockets of snow lie in the heather.

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Today the reservoir sits in the Moorhouse National Nature Reserve – the largest nature reserve in the UK taking in the highest fells in the Pennine chain and the upper catchments of the River Tees.

The wall is an immense brutal slab of industrial infrastructure. Its scale and construction means it’s never going to blend in (whatever that means) and makes a bold statement within the landscape. Yet, the sparsity and relative bleakness of this part of the dale tolerates its monolithic brutality. The scale of the landscape seems to just swallow it up. As the river rushes quickly away from the wall thinly over bedrock, there is a greyness and roughness, that is almost alien in spirit and the concrete meets the bedrock as an ancient ancestor and the family resemblance is still there.

Within yards of the wall, the river passes beneath Birkdale Footbridge. This is the first of the bridges in County Durham and is still a border crossing between Durham and Cumbria. Built in 1966 – and just predating the dam wall – it’s made from a concrete span sitting on two reinforced stone pillars in the river. Like the dam, it’s a very utilitarian structure and supports a private access road and the Pennine way.

Downstream of the bridge the river disappears down a series of dramatic cataracts between basaltic columns of winsill. At a total of over 200ft, Cauldron Snout is one of the main waterfalls of the River Tees and shows how fast the water develops its wild character from the man-made sluices of the reservoir.

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So this is where my journey this year begins. I’ll back track when it’s warmer to find the source of the river and the only bridge beyond the reservoir, but I’m looking forward to discovering the journey of the water from the sluices as it cuts its way through the landscape towards the sea, and how people have built ways of traversing it.

It’s a long a winding story and I’m looking forward to discovering the stories and narratives of those crossing places. it’s a rich history and along the way I’m going to find Romans and Saxons, and JMW Turner and Lewis Carroll and railways and steel and plutonium. Lots of landscape and lots of engineering. And lots of walking.

 

*ok. so I won’t walk over the railway bridges,or motorway one and will probably give the pipe bridges a miss too

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The middle of winter is certainly feeling like it this year. It’s not particularly wintery in the weather, but it certainly feels darker and more gloomy. Anyway, we’ve past the shortest, darkest day, technically. Now the days are getting longer again we can look to the future and think about the year ahead. But it’s also that time of year where we look back at the past year and take stock.

For me 2016 has felt like a particularly busy year. The tail end in particular was a bit hectic at times. But it’s been a productive one. Lots of new things – new people, new works and new places to work with.

‘Lotus Souvenir’ – large origami lotus flower installation at Bicester Village, Oxfordshire. UK. in February.

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Lumb Mill Viaduct

‘The Scenic Route’ was a short research residency walking two former railway lines in Lancashire.

‘PaperBridge’ had a variety of outings over the year – includig being featured on a TV show on the Discovery Channel, being in a book on micro architecture and being presented to the King and Queen of Lesotho. A smaller working model was shown in an exhibition of paper design in Chicago, while drawings and a short documentary was shown in Nova Scotia and Montreal.

September saw the start of a series of back-to-back installations right across the North of England, starting with ‘Tower’ – an architectural intervention at the Festival of Thrift in Kirkleatham.

From September to November I did a series of installations across Lancashire for a commission. ‘When the Red Rose…’ saw temporary interventions in Preston, Blackpool and Lancaster. A fourth on the canal at Blackburn sadly didn’t happen, but I’ll keep that one back for another day.

The major piece of the year however, was just three fields away from where I live.

Three barns were wrapped in slow-motion projections of waterfalls from the nearby River Tees. Over six short nights over 2,000 people ventured to see the work, in the dark in a quiet, remote corner of County Durham. Blessed by a harvest moon the first weekend and by clear skies with resident milky way the second, no number of photos or videos can ever capture the experience those lucky 2000 had.

While it was a good year for interesting and ambitious new works, for me ‘Waterfall’ stood out as probably the best piece I’ve done so far. And to do it on my own doorstep, in front of my own local community was a particularly special thing to do.

Just as good as being able to do all those installations, exhibitions and workshops was all the wonderful people I got to work with. None of these can happen without teams of people dedicated to making them happen – from those commissioning the work and those fabricating some of the pieces to those who work tirelessly to promote the work or organise the epic tasks they can sometime become. So hopefully I haven’t missed anyone off but here goes:

Nancy Kryzanowski, Gemma Jackman, Sally-Anne Blaise, Caroline Ruddick, Paul Gray, Phil Carr and Alan Carr Print & Design, Premier Papers in Gateshead, Nick Hunt, Melanie Diggle, Diana Hamilton, Roy Halliday, Nick Lund, Julie Tomlinson and James Cropper plc, Lexi Gerry, Jon Stynes, David Metcalf and October Films, Aleta Florentin, Vianna Newman, Harvey Lev, Judith Bauer, Diane Spark and all at UTASS, Ian Hunter, Paul Chaney, Alex Murdin, Henk Keiser, Brenda Vrieling, Jan Hartold, Vicky Holbrough, Nicola Golightly, Stella Hall, Trevor at Kirkleatham Old Hall, Christina Hesford, Janet Rogers, Paul Murray, Becky Nicholson, Kirsty Childs, Jill Bennison, Karen Marshall, Kate Percival, Lowri Bond, Sara Cooper,  Jane Shaw, Fiona Goh and Holmfirth Arts Festival, Sarah Branson, Jamie Frost, Thomas Charveriat, Sarah Gent, Sarah Mayhew-Craddock, Lucy Jenkins, Rebecca Turner, Harry and Kate Vane, Ewan Alinson, Jill Cole, Malcolm Walton, William Burton, Chris Woodley-Stewart, Nicki Cullens, Shane Harris, Mark Tyler, Ryan May and Hightlights, DCC events team,  Lyndsey Waters, Tim Joel, Richard Baxter, Rita Whitlock, Ella Byford, Justina Ma, Sally Jastrzebski-Lloyd, Anna Izza, Hannah Leighton-Boyce, Keri Sparkes, Jen Morgan, Catherine Shaw, Philippe Handford, Jamima Latimer, Louise Miller, Mike Neale, Stacey Walker, Julie Brown, Sandra Blue, Brent Lees, Friends of the Storey Garden, Rebecca Johnson, Laurie Peake, Sarah Steele and Preston Methodist Chapel, Alex Rinsler, Mykey Young, Richard and the Lightpool team, Zoe Dawes, Jenny Needham, Flossie Mainwaring-Taylor, Trevor Brookes, Martin Paul, John Gillmore, Heather Fox, Jennie Collingwood, David Turner, Andrew Barton, Paul Kingston…

I hope I haven’t missed too many off. That’s quite a team and a huge thanks to everyone on the list – I seriously could not have done all I have this year without each and everyone of you.

So, that’s it for this year now. Next year is another year. It’s going to be an interesting one for so many reasons, but I hope it’s more in a positive way.

Onwards and upwards…

 

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Success. It’s a great concept, but what do you mean by success? Sure fast cars, big houses and pots of cash can be a fair indicator, but success can exist at all levels – like when your Yorkshire puddings rise evenly or when you put a piece of IKEA furniture together and you don’t have any pieces left over.

But what about art? When would you consider yourself a successful artist, or even how do you measure the success in an artwork? These are the kind of things you have to evaluate for funding reports and consultations. Stuff I don’t like doing and generally try to avoid, mostly because it’s full of questions like this.

Sure, last year’s PaperBridge in the Lake District seemed to be a success. It went up and stayed up. It even went down well with visitors attracting nearly 10 times what I’d anticipated. Pictures of it went around the world and it appeared on TV on four continents. That’s pretty successful isn’t it?

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‘PaperBridge’ in BBC Focus magazine

Well, if being popular with the general public is the measure of success then yes. But as a work of art, how do we measure success for that? Did it do all the things art needs to do? I’m not sure how we work that out. I’m quite sure it didn’t fail though. That’s a different thing.

One recent TV interview asked me about risks involved in putting up a bridge made of paper. In particular they wanted to know how sure I was that the one in China would take a car going over it. The honest answer to that was I wasn’t sure. It had never been done before at that scale so how would anyone know? In fact there was a very real risk that it wouldn’t work. It could so easily have failed and collapsed and trashed a £100k car. Sure we  took lots of precautions and did lots of complicated calculations. We even enrolled a world leading structural engineers to check it all over with the latest hi-tech computer modelling. But at the end of the day they had to admit there were too many unknowns involved in building big structures out of sheets of paper – a material not made for building bridges out of – to sign it off as safe. In short – no one knew for sure it was going to work.

On one level the risk-taking was part of the deal. That element of peril was part of the narrative. If it was easy it wouldn’t have been as big a deal. If it was easy someone else would have done it before, I’m sure.  Actually, as I’d built a bridge before I kind of knew how they behaved and was sure it’d be fine, so I probably over did the risk bit for dramatic effect – but I certainly didn’t tell the client.

What was important was that everyone involved was aware of the risk and was happy to take that risk with me.

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RangeRover on ‘PaperBridgeChina’. Suzhou, November 2015

There’s a real element of risk in all my projects. Someone once said to me – if you have a 100% success rate, you’re not taking enough risks. When you’re pushing at the boundaries of things, that’s where the excitement comes in and if you manage to pull it off then that’s where great things can happen.

In that respect, the opposite to risk and success is mediocrity. There’s nothing more dangerous than playing it safe. Taking the easy road. That’s where things get stuck or become so half baked they start to deteriorate into something much much worse.

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Mediocrity in all its splendour. This ad screen in Newcastle is sturdy, health and safety compliant, practical and meets all the planning regulations. What’s not to like? errr…. (image © James Perry via twitter)

Failure on the other hand isn’t so bad. Every now and then I have a project fail in me. More often then not it’s at such an early stage no one ever knows. I’ve lost track of the number of times projects I’ve been asked to get involved with have failed at the proposal stage. Some don’t even get that far. Mostly these are because the client doesn’t want to take a chance. Play it safe maybe. In which case, they’re just not the people I want to work with. Occasionally a project will get all the way to the final piece and then fail in spectacular style. That’s a different issue. I once had a high profile piece that was supposed to be up for 5 months, however it blew away after 5 days. Still, it went in if only for a short while, and even led to a chapter in a large international publication about just why it failed – the reasons were really interesting. I’m not sure the client saw it that way mind.

And then there’s the times that failures aren’t really failures. ‘Metropolis’ – the fritz Lang cinematic masterpiece. The first film with a final budget in the millions. It was only ever shown at one cinema before being deemed a flop by the studio. It was subsequently re-edited to a shorter story in an attempt to reclaim the costs.

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photo: Alex Stocker (1896 – 1962) – Ufa-Pavilion, Berlin. 1927

 

Schubert never heard any of his symphonies performed. Very little of his orchestral music was performed at all during his lifetime, yet his ‘Unfinished’ symphony is now regarded as one of the greats of its time.

More recently, Anish Kapoor’s ‘Orbit’ became the victim of a playing it safe mentality with the producers and suffered from an incursion of mediocrity that has now extended to installing a helterskelter slide down it. I think time is yet to decide on that piece.

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‘Orbit’ by Anish Kapoor at the Olympic Park, London. 2012

If I’m being brutally honest, I think there are problems with most of my pieces. There’s always something that doesn’t go to plan or work out quite how I wanted it. However, in most cases these are things other people generally don’t notice. Or I make a feature of them. That line between success and failure is so fine. So delicate in fact it’s barely there. Or at least not so you’d notice.

 

post script.

Since writing this bog post (sitting outside in the sun with a cup of tea) I’ve just stumbled across this wonderful book on failure by Erik Kessels. He does it so much better than me. Not sure why I bother sometimes…

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Last week I went to see the paper from the bridge finally get pulped and recycled. Half-tonne bundles of the now sun-bleached red paper were carried into the pulping shed at the paper mill on a fork-lift before being unceremoniously tipped onto the conveyor belt that started their journey of rebirth.

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last journey

one load of bridge paper about to drop into the pulper

It wasn’t so much a desire to see the destruction of the last bits of the bridge, but more out of interest to see just how simple the recycling process was. Paper is such a basic material. At its heart it’s just a mass of fibres lying randomly on top of each other. They’re not even woven together. The fibres just lie in a general direction that dictates the way it curls when dry. Recovering the fibres from used paper is just a case of tipping them into a giant blender where the sheets are shredded by rotating blades and mixed with warm water to help soften everything.

pulping the bridge

The entire process, from conveyor belt to reel of finish product, probably takes about an hour, plus some pausing time for colour matching and keeping up with the manufacturing process.

matching colour

the pulp is topped up with dyes to match the colour of the intended product

pulp on the mesh

the pulp is sprayed onto the fine wire mesh. It’s still mostly water at this stage

cutting the paper

as the water is removed through drying it slowly becomes paper. The paper is cut to the final width before meeting an identical layer from beneath to make the final thickness

drying process

the water content reduces over the length of the process. It’s down to about 60% water here

drying roller

one of the final drying rollers

final roll

the final paper on giant rolls ready for finishing

For me this was very much an end point to the project. Or at least the physical existence part of it.

There’s something about this project in particular that seems to have made a connection with so many people. Two months on from building the stone gabions, I’m still getting daily requests from picture editors and journalists around the world running stories about the bridge.

Back at the launch day six weeks ago there were no journalists. No photographers. Our perfect timing had meant unveiling the bridge the same day as the results of what everyone though would be the closest general election in decades. Beyond politics and the UK, it was also press day for the Venice Biennale – the largest art event in the world. In PR terms we couldn’t have picked a worse date.

To top it all, in the craziness that was the tight schedule, we only put up three A4 posters to tell people it was happening. That anyone turned up at all, on the face of it, was nothing short of a miracle.

Actually, it wasn’t a miracle. It was the result of weeks of determination and hard work by the marketing and press teams at both Cumbria Tourism (one of the main partners in the the funding consortium) and James Cropper – the paper manufacturer. What started off as some solid coverage by local press and TV in the lead-up weeks, grew rapidly after the opening weekend. As the political stories became old news picture desks were desperate for something light and positive. By the Monday the pictures by North News’ Paul Kingston had made the Times and the Daily Mail – including the Mail Onine – despite its questionable ideas about what constitutes news, it’s still the largest online news outlet in the World.

north news pic

An image by Paul Kingston for North News. My kids enjoyed their brief modelling career too

By the Tuesday the online design publications had got hold of the story and were running it on their front pages. As did the Newcastle Journal.

newcastle journal front cover

By Wednesday my email inbox was constantly full with requests for info, interviews and images coming in faster than I could reply to them. My twitter feed was constant with reports from people visiting the bridge and posting pictures all over social media.

On the Thursday I was in London for the day (no mean feat from where I live) and building a 1/4 size bridge out of A4 paper in front of broadcasting house and appearing live on prime time BBC TV.

bridge on one show

explaining the paperbridge to the presenters of BBC’s One Show outside broadcasting house, central London

paperbridge on live tv

presenter Alex Jones tries out the model bridge on live TV!

By Friday the bridge had been on TV in the US and Canada and I was doing telephone interviews throughout the day across various timezones. Social media mentions were by now in multiple languages – from German and Italian to Korean and Arabic

On the Saturday I had the day off to do another little installation in Yorkshire.


I’d seen some pictures on twitter of crowds at the bridge on Saturday, so on Sunday – the penultimate day of the bridge, I thought I’d go down and see for myself.

It’s a tidy walk up to the top of Grisedale from Patterdale. It’s not a difficult walk. The first part just follows the lane up from the village. The steepest section is on tarmac so it’s not that steep really. By the time the road runs out you’re about halfway there. Once past the last farmyard with the newborn cattle the track becomes a rocky path and the landscape is noticeable wilder. Where it opens out again at the head of the valley the bridge suddenly became very clear. Sitting in the first bit of green beneath the craggy backdrop with Nethermostcove Beck tumbling over falls on its way down. A feint boggy path diverges from the main valley path at this point towards the wooden bridge over Grisedale Beck. This is the wettest and muddiest part of the journey. One wrong footstep and the black peat is halfway up your shins. I dread to think how many trainers were waterlogged on that last bit.

The main path is a popular path in the Lake District. It’s part of the Wainwright Coast to Coast path, and a starting point for those heading up Fairfield, St Sunday Crag or tackling the mighty Helvellyn. The Lake District is a busy place for walkers and you’re rarely alone on any of its miles of well maintained paths. On a typical sunny weekend you’ll probably pass twenty or so other walkers on your way up from Patterdale. 

On that Sunday I passed 200.

That was my first clue as to how busy the bridge was. It wasn’t even a great day for a walk. It was windy and the wind was bitingly cold – particularly up at the bridge where the prevailing winds come off the mountains behind – still with their crests of snow on the top.

My works are all about the audience experience and I like going to see how people are experiencing them. There’s something nice about going back on my own and mingling with other people to try and see it how others do. It’s also nice that I can usually go without anyone knowing I’m the artist so I get to find out what people really think rather than the polite responses you get on surveys or on guided tours and artist talks.

early crowd

an early crowd of walkers from Yorkshire

From the day it was finished, the bridge was never all that quiet. I’d visited a number of times over the week for various reasons and at different times of the day, and I was rarely on my own there for long at best. One morning I set off at first light to get the early morning sun picking out the bridge against the crags. When I arrived there was already a few others doing the same, including one keen photographer who’d set off from Ashington at 4am with the same idea. Earlier in the week we’d been up doing some TV interviews until gone 7pm and still people were wandering up the valley to visit.

Yet, on that final Sunday morning the crowds were still an unexpected surprise to me. There was a constant stream through the field gate, people in the beck getting photos, families on the outcrops having picnics. At one point there was even an orderly queue of people from the gate up to the bridge with people wanting to walk across it and have their selfie moment.

sunday crowd

It was all very civilised and good natured. Everyone was clearly enjoying the experience. The demographics were across the spectrum – families with small children, seasoned walkers, older people out with the dog, fell runners, mountain bikers. But lots of people just out in their (very muddy) trainers. And every one of them had made the two-mile walk out on foot.

queue

you don’t get more British than that – queueing in the middle of nowhere. in the rain.

More than that. Every one of them had travelled to Patterdale and then made the five mile round trip from the car park. Even for people in ‘nearby’ Kendal or Penrith, that constitutes a four or five hour commitment to visit the bridge. To engage with art. Many travelled much further. There are very few galleries in the world who can claim to match that from their visitors.

A few figures for you. Patterdale is home to around 400 people – including the surrounding hamlets. Over just 11 days, around 8,000 people visited the PaperBridge. Most of them crossing it and taking pictures. Pictures and stories about the bridge appear in magazines, newpapers and online publishing in every continent. To date over 44 million people have read an article online, seen a picture in a newspaper or watched a feature on TV about the bridge around the world.

Twitter and Facebook were full of photos of people standing on the wobbly top of the bridge in all weathers. In ones, twos or more. I saw one with seven people crowded on. A local holiday let company even posted a picture of their MD drinking a cup of tea on the top. That’s a fair way to drag a dining room chair – total commitment!

Sally drinking tea on the bridge

As well as spreading the word and engaging people with the project, social media played a major part throughout the project. Every morning when I woke I checked my social media streams for pictures to see how the bridge was holding out. Particularly comforting in bad weather. Almost everyone involved got there via connections on Facebook and twitter. When my email inbox got unbearable communication was done via direct messaging on Twitter. Tracking the #PaperBridge tag alerted us to media stories around the world we otherwise would have missed. In turn, those social media connections have opened up whole new avenues for me to explore.

It’s been one heck of a journey these past few months. That bright red arch over a remote mountain beck is no more. While it was there something magical happened and it reached so many people. That it was only there for a short while keeps that memory special. It’s now just a story. And stories are the longest lasting of anything.

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The idea of building a bridge out of paper goes back a little while for me. It’s been one of those projects that’s been sat on the back burner so long it was in danger of completely drying out. And if it wasn’t for a random DM on twitter one Sunday evening, it might still be there.

It was some years earlier that a discussion with some of the lovely folk over at James Cropper – a paper manufacturer based in the Lake District – turned to thinking “what could be made out of paper?” At the time they were interested in pushing their brand values of bespoke production, colour and environmental credentials. We’d done some pieces for trade fairs and I’d started doing some small-scale temporary pieces in the landscape for photographs. The thing about brainstorming is that you can come up with ideas and not worry about how practical or realistic they are. I think I said it would be great to do something structural – like a wall, or a building, or a bridge.. or something along those lines, and that’s often how so many of my pieces start life. I open my mouth without thinking, and as soon as I’ve uttered the words they somehow echo and linger. And I start to dwell on them. Yes, a bridge. That would be amazing if we could do that. Obviously I had no idea how to do it, but the idea seemed to stick.

red boxes

red paper boxes on Ullswater. 2010.

Of course, when I started to look at it and do the research I discovered it wasn’t as left field as I thought. Building a bridge out of paper was a standard year one exercise in architecture courses all over the world. An exercise in creating strength from lightweight materials. These however were just models even though some could take the weight of people.

Then there’s the work of Japanese architect Shigeru Ban. In 2007 Ban built a full-sized paper bridge over the River Gard at Remoulin in France. Ban had gotten over the structural and scale issues by using paper tubes. Paper tubes are an inherently strong but lightweight form and work well in both compression and tension along their length. Fabricated steel joints hold everything in place.

shigeru ban paper bridge

Paper Bridge by Shigeru Ban. image © Mikaël Pors

However, I wanted to do something in just paper. I wanted the purity of a single material. This idea that something as seemingly fragile as a single sheet of paper could be the building blocks of something substantial.Something of real structural integrity. Capable of withstanding the Cumbrian weather and strong enough to function as a footbridge. The solution lay in some of the earliest bridges in the Lake District – packhorse bridges.

packhorse bridge Watendlath Cumbria

In the days before roads trading goods were moved across the country by packhorse – loading up horses and trekking them in convoy across the land. With no wheels to get stuck in mud it was a very versatile way to move things across difficult terrain – as in the case of the Lake District. Where rivers ran too fast to safely ford, simple stone arch bridges were built. Originally these were very basic, using local found stone and built over a wooden formwork, using lime mortar to cement the stone together. Once constructed the formwork was knocked down or burnt leaving a simple arch. There was no wall on either side of the pathway as this would restrict the size of the packs on the horses. The bridges were also used by drovers moving sheep to and from markets. Only when the tracks were upgraded and carts and waggons started to use them were sides added to the bridges to stop them from falling off. Carts also meant bridges had to be wider and more substantial with easy gradients up to the top, whereas the original packhorse bridges were frequently steep arches and only three-foot wide.

I found a great book – ‘An Illustrated Guide to The Packhorse Bridges of the Lake District‘ by Michael Hartwell, and set off to familiarise with bridges in the Lake District landscape.

book cover

The construction of a stone arch is very simple and dates back thousands of years.  Wedge-shaped stones – or voussoirs – are laid over a former. The final, topmost stone – the keystone – effectively holds it all together. In a paper bridge, all the stones are just pieces of paper. Structurally, the internal angles of the wedge shapes result in the vertical force (the load on the arch) being transferred to lateral tension (sideways force where it meets the ground).

notebook page

basic calculations for the final bridge

I could calculate how to build it on paper by simple geometry. If I knew the size of the blocks of paper and the radius of the arc I could determine how many ‘sides’ a polygon of those blocks it would take to go across the arc. Knowing the number of sides I could also work out the angle between them that I needed to fill with wedges. As I knew the dimensions of those wedges from the paper size I could work out the size of stacks of different sized pieces it would take to bridge that angle. I needed sufficient different sizes to brace across the gap evenly and also get small enough pieces to get as close to the upper edge as possible. The strength in the arc comes from ensuring the blocks are tight on the bottom edge and are wedged tight across the top edge. It’s also important not to make the mid-sized blocks in the wedge too big as, under load, the bridge would have a tendency to pivot on those points and make it rock. When it came to the bigger models and the final piece, those small packs of 10 or 11 sheets were critical. One too many small pieces of paper in one of the wedge sections might not seem much in the 20,000 pieces of paper scheme of things, but an extra sheet in one block equates to 150 sheets over the whole arch – approximately 40mm – and the whole bridge becomes very unstable.

stack drawing

drawing of stacks making up a single block and wedge

I think I built the first paper model bridge in 2011. It was very haphazard but it worked and held a fair weight. It was quite a shallow arc made by stacking small pieces of paper over a former and then wedging other sheets in a various intervals until it stayed up. The next model was more refined. I knew then how it worked. Using small pieces of paper left over from a project years before it easily held more than its own weight.

first model paperbridge

the first model paperbridge. May 2011

original sketch

the first sketch of a paper bridge

_DSC1846 - Version 2

Second model. 2012

By this time it was looking like this just might be possible. I’d even found a location where I thought it would look right – with big Lakeland fells around it, a fast flowing beck underneath and footpaths on either side. There was no point building a bridge that didn’t go anywhere.

But, could I build one that would take the weight of a person? And how would it work outside? What would happen when it rains? Only one way to find out. Build a bigger one.

Croppers kindly supplied me with a quantity of paper cut to approximately A4 size. From these I trimmed smaller sizes to make wedge-shaped stacks. I built this first decent-sized bridge one evening in my front garden. I left markers at intervals so I could take it apart again and keep the paper in blocks. It was March when I built that, so it was getting dark early. I got it all assembled to a certain point and left it until the morning to fine tune it.

A4 model

first A4 model

Overnight the cloud came down and it was a bit misty in the morning. I just needed to move some of the blocks and add a few more wedges I thought to make a better arc. It was then I discovered what happens when the paper gets wet. The bridge was rock-solid. There was no way I could easily take sections out. When the paper got wet, the fibres swelled. As all the paper was in compression all the swelling pressure went against the abutments as it had nowhere else to go. I left that test bridge up outside the house for nearly three months in rain, snow and occasional sunshine. It didn’t go anywhere.

_DSC2674 - Version 2

The next test build was in the Howgill Fells overlooking the M6 Tebay Gorge. This was the first one over running water. It was a blistering hot day and there wasn’t much water coming down the beck, but I wanted to see how it worked in a more real landscape environment.

test model in howgill fells

test model in the Howgill Fells. 2012

The colour was a bit cold against the foliage and the bridge seemed to flatten out at the top, but this is what test are for – to find all the problems so they can be solved before you go for the big piece.

From this point on the project hung around for a few years. Both the paper manufacturer and the Lake District National Park were keen to help realise the bridge, for one reason or another things never quite came together at the same time to make it happen.

I’d been showing mock-ups of the PaperBridge in presentations and lectures around the world for a few years. It was always something I used to show my working methods and the potential for public / private enterprise. It aways went down well too – there was something about it that caught people’s imagination. Whether that was the bold use of colour in the landscape, or the ambition, or the engineering.

mock-up

visual for paperBridge at Greenside, Glenridding. 2012

Earlier this year I was surveying my growing list of unrealised projects and looking to see which ones I could look to finally get done this year. Looking at how progressed the idea was and what was needed to actually bring it to fruition. The PaperBridge seemed to be pretty much there. It was all designed, engineered, tested, materials sourced, legal and health & safety implications sorted. It even had a location and permissions. I’d even gone through the PaperBridge as an example project when I met with Wolfgang Volz over the winter. All it needed was some money for materials and build costs. Although that doesn’t sound like much, finding funding is always more work than you think, so I pencilled it into my diary as something to start working on in the summer. A standard delay tactic.

So when that random twitter message came through asking if I was interested in doing something in the Lakes, the timing couldn’t have been more perfect. Here was a client looking for something high-profile and ambitious in the Lake District landscape, and I just happened to have something all ready to go. Just as well as the proposal would need costing up and presenting in 10 days, and if successful, delivered in just 10 weeks. Under any normal circumstances that would be just impossible for a project of this scale. I don’t normally put proposals forward to open calls – coming up with project concepts, working out all the logistics and drafting up a budget alone can be a huge amount of work with no guarantee of anything coming off it. In fact I’ve never had any commission come off this way, so I stopped doing it. However, I had everything just sitting there, ready to go – although I had no idea how much it would cost, but sure I could do it within their budget. If only just. it was worth a shot.

On the 22nd February I got an email inviting me to realise PaperBridge as part of a new cultural event in Cumbria and the Lake District – Lakes Ignite. The lead-in time for the paper production and my other work commitments meant there was just a 10 day window it could be done in during May. So that was it. Ten weeks to deliver a full-sized bridge out of paper.

working drawings

working drawings for a bridge – not the final one though..

Of course things never go smoothly. The tight timetable meant the National Park people couldn’t re-jig their busy rotas to provide the build help I was hoping for. Due to a locally controversial planning application near the original Greenside location, it was thought best not to do anything on that site this year. That meant looking for an alternative location, obtaining permissions, surveying, re-designing the bridge and re-calculating the engineering.

bridge redesign

redesigning the bridge in the studio

Lots of long days in the studio and late nights with my note-book, bits of paper, cosine calculators, building and rebuilding scale models, revisiting the site as it slowly greened up through the early spring, taking photos, generating visuals and eventually it started to come back together again.

grisedale mock-up

early mock-up of the bridge in Grisedale

A couple of years or so ago, when we were looking at a 16 – 21 day installation period at the original location a short walk from a car park, we were looking at visitor figures in the region of 10 – 16,000. The Lake District is a great place to do this kind of work – there’s so much quality landscape environment to bounce off. It’s a well-known area and comes with its own unique sense of international branding. THere’s also plenty of other things to offer visitors so an artwork can make part of a great day out or weekend away.One of the challenges however can be the number of visitors to the area – much more than you would expect in most rural locations. While I knew the paper would easily support the weight of people on it – we even looked at the idea of taking a horse over it for a photo opportunity – I had no way of knowing what the effect of 16,000 pairs of muddy boots would do to the surface of the bridge. With that kind of visitor figure we’d need to put invigillators there to avoid bottlenecks of visitors and make sure everyone was safe on it. However, at this new, much more remote location – remember it’s a good 5 mile round walk from a car park – crowds were not going to be a problem. It was going to be something that passing walkers would just happen across. Maybe up to 100 people a day on busy sunny weekends.

I quite liked that aspect of it – a piece so remote and temporary that it became something special for the few who saw it….

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