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An Architect's Perspective

A Losing Battle?

"An Artist getting into bed with an Architect needs his head examining", so said Piers Gough at the ICA conference in February 1982. At the same event Anthony Caro's view was, "If Sculptors and Architects could only have some common aesthetics, thinking and direction, they could work together in a wonderful partnership". Nearly 20 years later both thoughts probably remain equally true.

My belief is that the way in which the majority of building projects are organised tends to stifle creativity rather than encourage it. An alliance between Architect and Artist is one way to improve the quality of our built environment.

There is an enormous amount of interest in collaborative projects involving Artists in building design. It appears that many Architects welcome the idea and see the Artist as a potential ally in improving the aesthetic qualities of the project. In many cases, the Architect is alone in the design team trying hard to produce something beautiful against all the odds. Most commercial projects do not want 'architecture' from the Architect, they want planning approval; planning permission is perceived as added value. The value of planning permission is quantifiable - it is the difference in the value of the property with and without consent. After that the Architect is often fighting a losing battle to maintain the quality of the design whilst everyone else on the team is looking for simplification and cost savings. Here is an area where Architects and Artists can share some common ground.

First Pick Your Client

Good buildings come from 'good' clients and a 'good' brief. Sometimes the client, whether a private individual or public body, specifically sets out with the ambition to create a good piece of design. This is when the real opportunities arise for collaboration with an Artist.

There are now a great many examples of such collaborations, such as the famously successful partnership between John Lyall and Bruce Maclean, or earlier Leslie Martin with Naum Gabo and Ben Nicholson. Recently we have seen Artists working with Architects on Lottery projects such as Tania Kovats with Levitt Bernstein Associates at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham and Antoni Malinowski with Haworth Tompkins Architects at the Royal Court Theatre in London. In too many cases, however, the results are not entirely satisfactory.

Good Intentions

It appears that everyone starts with good intentions. Procedures for selection, formulation of the brief, terms of appointment are all discussed and agreed.

Frameworks are established and the dialogue begins, and then, more often than not, it all begins to unravel. During the design process or the realisation of the project the Artist is often sidelined - but why should this be so?

In some cases, promised opportunities do not emerge, the programme does not allow for proper exploration of the possibilities, or the Artist's contributions are simply not given sufficient weight in relation to those from the 'design professionals'.

The problems can be traced to the status of the Artist in the team, communications, or management of the process. But whatever the problem, the Artist starts with enthusiasm but comes out of the experience two years later feeling battered and bruised and not at all happy with the end result.

What can we do? Should the Artist work from the Architect's office and be protected from the contractual process? Or should the project manager be given the responsibility to deliver the Artist's vision as an integral part of the building project?

Before considering the answers to these questions, it might be useful to consider my own experience of two very different collaborative projects.

Case Study 1 - Colourful Interiors

Brindleyplace, Lyn Le Grice, 1998. Birmingham. Photo: Nick Smith

Brindleyplace, Lyn Le Grice,
1998 Birmingham
Photo: Nick Smith

In 1995 we were commissioned to design a series of health clubs for a small private operator. Each would cost in the region of £1.5 million. Sites had been identified in Cardiff and Manchester for the first two. The idea was to develop a building type that would, with minor modifications, relate to the site and be repeatable for a series of locations around the country.

At a very early stage the client introduced an Artist into the design team with whom he had worked before. Lyn Le Grice works from a studio in Cornwall and is interested in colour, natural pigments and surface decoration. Lyn had worked with textiles and set design but was also very comfortable with building projects having worked on hotel interiors at the Royal Crescent Bath and at Blakes with Anouska Hempel. We were introduced to Lyn Le Grice with very clear instructions that we were to collaborate on all aspects of colour and decoration on these projects. This would include everything from the painted render on the outside of the building to the choice of mosaic tiles in the swimming pool.

We were very happy to accept the arrangement. As Architects we find ourselves responsible for everything in a building, from the integration of the mechanical services to the landscaping of the site, in addition to the architecture of the building. We are not particularly expert in the use of colour and usually play safe in this area. The client wanted to enliven these relatively simple buildings with the use of colour and texture and this would be safer in the hands of an expert. We met Lyn and saw some of her previous work and were very happy to co-operate.

From Lyn's point of view it was a substantial commission for a series of projects with a not ungenerous fee attached. For ourselves we could see the possibility that, with this input, we could turn our fairly ordinary little buildings into something quite special.

As lead consultants and project managers it was our responsibility to manage this process. We called the team together and explained the situation. Everyone was clear that the colour of every surface of this building would be Lyn's responsibility. Even the ventilation grilles to the boiler room and the bezels around the downlighters would be referred to her.

However, some rules had to be agreed. A cost plan had to be adhered to. If a colour selection or special effect had a cost implication, then a saving would have to be made elsewhere. Lyn accepted this and agreed that the quantity surveyor must be allowed to maintain cost control.

Our problem was to ensure that the materials and colours chosen were appropriate for the circumstances from a technical point of view. We would consider maintenance and safety issues and on these aspects we had power of veto if we considered a proposal impractical. The scheme developed by Lyn produced some wonderful ideas. The floor of the caf┬╝ bar would be the raw concrete chemically stained to form intricate patterns. The reception desk would be entirely constructed of stained plywood and the simple rendered walls would carry delicately stencilled images of the 'tree of life'. Apart from the subtle use of colour throughout the building to respond to the availability of natural light or the reflection in the water of the pool, various ordinary elements such as the changing room lockers were transformed in surprising ways.

There were lively discussions and some debate but generally the process worked well. Towards the end of the building contract, Lyn would bring in a team of art school students to work under her direction (in an almost medieval way) to stain, stencil and decorate in natural ochres and paint. There was potential here for conflict with the contractor but the process had been clearly defined from day one. The building contract had quite clearly described how, several weeks before completion, the client's 'artists and tradesmen' would arrive on site to carry out their work. We had allowed in the construction programme for rooms to be handed over as they were completed and for the contractor to assist with the heat, light, power and access that would be required.

There was a certain amount of chaos at the end of the contract, as there always is, but the first project was completed on time, on budget and looked wonderful.

Everyone was entirely happy. Lyn did not feel that she had been unduly constrained or had been forced to compromise too often. The client was delighted with the result, and we agreed that the building was significantly improved for Lyn's contribution.

The building was hugely appreciated by the fee-paying customers when it opened. There appeared to be an accessibility to the work which can be missing from Architects' efforts at elaborating his own design.

The collaboration had been a great success and consequently continued through a further three projects before the client sold the company and the team was disbanded.

This could be seen as nothing more than the involvement of an interior designer and nothing unusual, but it was a great deal more than that. Lyn was challenging preconceived ideas and identifying opportunities for adding delight to our commodity and firmness in quite unexpected ways. The resultant buildings are by no means great architecture or high art but they certainly illustrate how Artist and Architect can work together for the benefit of the project.

Case Study 2 - Sculptural Bridge

Pero's Bridge, Eilis O'Connell, 1999 Bristol Harbourside Photo: Mark Simmonds

Pero's Bridge, Eilis O'Connell,
1999 Bristol Harbourside
Photo: Mark Simmonds

For many years it had been recognised that a bridge at the entrance to St Augustine's Reach would be a benefit to the city. Bristol City Council had always promoted the idea but although the City had owned the land on either side of the water the funds were not available to carry out the project.

The opportunity arose in 1992 when local property developer and current tenants of the quayside properties came to renegotiate their lease. At the same time that a new lease was agreed on the existing goods sheds, planning permission was granted for their refurbishment and change of use to bars, restaurants and shops. Attached to this planning consent was the requirement to repair the quayside walkway and to construct a bridge across the reach.

It is by no means unusual for a planning permission to carry with it obligations to improve roads or make a new access. In this case the provision of the bridge would suit both parties very well. The developer, JT Group, would improve the value of the properties by increasing the number of people walking past. The City had found a willing partner to pay for the project.

It was agreed that the design of the bridge was hugely important and that this was an opportunity for Bristol to create a new landmark. The planning agreement therefore stipulated how the bridge was to be conceived, designed and constructed, and also defined the overall cost.

On the other side of the water from the developer's site is Arnolfini, a contemporary arts centre of international importance. Arnolfini and others suggested that an Artist should be involved from the beginning and offered to facilitate the process. This idea had been discussed previously and was welcomed by both parties. The conditions of the agreement were, therefore, that the bridge design would be a collaboration between the Artist and an engineer. Ove Arup and Partners were appointed as engineers for their unparalleled experience in bridge building. Lesley Greene, a freelance Public Art consultant, was commissioned to facilitate the selection of an Artist.

A list of potential Artists was drawn up and information gathered about their work and relevant experience. This was reduced to a shortlist of six who were invited to attend an interview and bring with them some initial thoughts. The panel included representatives of the City Council, Chairman of the Planning Committee, Director of Arnolfini and the Chairman of the Development Company, amongst others.

Eilis O'Connell was selected in recognition of her international reputation and her established track record as an Artist who worked to commission for large scale work on public sites. The terms and conditions of her appointment were arranged by Lesley Greene and Eilis was introduced to the engineers.

Arups had previously contributed to the briefing document that had been sent out to the shortlist of Artists. They had illustrated, by simple diagrams, a series of possible engineering solutions that would span the distance and satisfy all the requirements of the harbourmaster. I was, at that time, Design Director of the Consultancy Division of JT Group. My role would be to facilitate the dialogue between Artist and engineer and assist in reaching a design solution that we could take forward for approval and then on to construction.

The early discussions were fascinating. There was a great deal of respect between Eilis O'Connell and the Arups engineers who had designed bridges of every conceivable type all around the world. Eilis' concept appeared relatively quickly and preliminary drawings and models were produced.

There followed a process of consultation, refinement and approval amongst the parties involved. The design was then made public and amidst a great deal of publicity and discussion was generally well received. The decision was made to proceed.

It is at this point that such a project changes its nature. There is quite suddenly a fundamental shift in thinking. It changes from being essentially an intellectual exercise amongst a few people to a major construction project - and the numbers of people involved expands exponentially.

My next task was to deal with all the statutory and legislative aspects on behalf of the developer. In addition to planning permission and legal agreements between the parties, a Harbour Revision Order was submitted to Parliament for approval. We dealt with Building Regulations, Harbour Regulations, Safety Regulations and cost.

The design was constantly being amended to suit a myriad of practical requirements and users' needs. It would have been all too easy to compromise the Artist's concept during the development of the detailed design but the original concept survived well. Throughout the process Eilis O'Connell was wonderfully accommodating. We all understood that the bridge had to work physically as well as aesthetically and all the issues had to be addressed. But in doing so, the professional team felt a huge obligation to Eilis to deliver solutions that she was entirely happy with. By the spring of 1994 everything had been settled. The design was complete, all permissions were in place and we were ready to place the contract for fabrication.

Postponed

Unfortunately this point in our progress coincided with the depths of a depression in the property market and the developer called a halt. There was no obligation on JT Group to complete the project within any particular time frame. The team was disbanded and no further work was done for some time.

In November 1994 I left the JT Group to set up my own practice. In autumn 1997 an economic upturn was beginning and I was contacted by the new project manager for the bridge. Predicting interest from potential tenants and increasing rental values, now was the time to develop the harbourside properties. Eilis had been contacted and discussions resumed with Bristol City Council. However, there were a few problems.

Some details of the design needed revision and there remained some outstanding conditions on the planning consent to be resolved. The project manager did not know a great deal about the background and the early phases of the project and there was a different engineer involved at Ove Arups. I had left and continuity had been lost, costs had risen and Eilis had not been appointed to be further involved. I was asked to help and commissioned to assist in resolving the outstanding issues.

Planning consent had been given on condition that some of the outstanding details be resolved to the satisfaction of the Artist. My first task, therefore, was to get Eilis re-appointed and to renew the dialogue with the professional team. This we did, but conditions had altered. The developer's attitude to the project had changed. There was no longer time to enjoy the discussion with the Artist and consider the long-term contribution the bridge would make to the City of Bristol. Costs were rising and JT wanted to get construction underway as soon as possible. The project manager had not been involved in the inception and development of the project and consequently had no stake in its integrity. He had very little interest in the aesthetic qualities of the design and did not understand the Artist. The brief was to sort out the detail and get on with it. Eilis and I did just that.

A contractor had been identified and a price agreed. In discussion with the boatyard where the major elements of the bridge were to be fabricated, we agreed the outstanding details and satisfied the City Council.

From the point of view of a piece of public art the project began to go down hill from this point onwards.

As soon as a price and a programme had been agreed and all the conditions had been signed off, the contractor took responsibility for the construction. The contract had been let on a Design and Build basis. This meant that all the drawings and specifications that had been prepared constituted the 'Employer's Requirements' rather than the precise design and specification. This 'description' of the work allows the contractor leeway to alter the detail to some extent. The Design and Build contract puts all the responsibility for the finished construction onto the fabricator. He therefore has an incentive to make minor changes as work progresses to reduce any possibility of future failures or maintenance problems. He can also look out for simplifications or changes in materials that will be more economical to use, reducing his costs and increasing the profit on the contract. The first few amendments were not too critical. These were referred to Eilis and, with a little refinement, agreed. However, as the fabrication progressed, it became increasingly clear that the whole job was a little more complicated and time-consuming that originally anticipated. The contractor checked his obligations to the developer and discovered that he was not required to satisfy the Artist at every point - and stopped asking.

Having satisfied the planning conditions, Eilis and I had no further role as far as the project manager was concerned and there was no advantage in having us involved. In fact precisely the opposite: in his view we could only make life more difficult for the contractor and slow things down.

However, the City Council and Arnolfini had an interest in achieving the best possible result. With some influence from these quarters, Eilis and I continued to visit the yard and join discussions on detail and finishes. Unfortunately we had little or no authority and less and less influence.

The situation deteriorated further when deadlines were set for completion. The City wanted the bridge in place to help launch the redevelopment of the rest of Harbourside. The developer wanted the bridge because, according to the planning conditions, they could not occupy the new development without it. A great deal of pressure was therefore put on to the contractor to complete.

Towards the end of the contract, when two opening ceremonies had been arranged and cancelled, shortcuts were taken and compromises made. The bridge was finally floated up the harbour in three sections and lifted into place to be finished in-situ.

All we could do now was to lobby for improvements in the quality of finish. We had some limited success but the real opportunity was past. There was nothing we could do about the twisted 'horn', or the decision to paint the cast iron deckplates that should have been left to glitter with embedded carborundum.

But the bridge was a great success. The public was enthusiastic and the press failed to whip up the expected controversy. The City Council managed to get the developer to pay for the bridge they had always wanted and JT Group had a successful harbourside development. Only the Artist was disillusioned and disappointed.

Although very different in scale and significance these two examples seem to illustrate some important points.

The Health Club project was always going to succeed because the relationship had been instigated by the client, the Artist had authority, the Architect was supportive, the responsibilities were clear, the quantity surveyor could identify the costs early on, the contractor was not being asked to do anything unusual.

The Bridge project was almost inevitably going to be difficult. Why? Because firstly there were two clients: the City who wanted the bridge and the property developer who was commissioning and paying for it. The City was interested in creating something spectacular and of real quality. The developer was only interested in meeting their obligations on cost and within the agreed time frame. The Artist's brief did not allow her control over the fabrication, the budget did not allow the contractor to accommodate the Artist's wishes, the Architect had no authority over anything and the City's position became compromised as the date for delivery loomed.

In this case all the circumstances were wrong for a successful outcome from the Artist's point of view. It was not that Eilis O'Connell was being unreasonably demanding. Many people recognise the shortcomings of the finished object. On a recent visit to Bristol, Hugh Pearman, architectural critic for The Times, observed that it was 'interesting but too crudely made'.

Critical Factors

So what can be done to help these relationships work? There seem to be a few absolutely critical factors.

Selection

How are the Architect and Artist selected? There must be room in the process to identify people who are able and willing to work together. Selections can sometimes be too sloppy with optimism winning over experience with disastrous consequences.

If the Architect is involved in choosing the Artist there will be that much more commitment to the relationship. In some circumstances the Artist and Architect may come as a team. But avoid foisting one onto the other.

Motivation

Why is the collaboration being instigated - who by and for what purpose? A committed and willing employer is fundamental to a successful project. The collaboration should be initiated by the client, with a clear idea of what it is setting out to achieve. On the one hand there may be a very clear vision, on the other the opportunities may not become clear until after the 'marriage' has been made.

Management

The project must be managed by someone with some sympathy for the process and an understanding of the intentions behind it. This could be the project manager but may be safer in the hands of the Architect.

Status

The Artist must be given sufficient status in the team to have authority. With authority comes the responsibility, which most Artists are perfectly ready to accept. The Artist must have some degree of control over their element of work, but overall responsibility must stay with the Architect. He is responsible for delivering the building safely, on cost and to programme.

Trust

Once selection has been made, time must be allowed for the Artist and Architect to get to know one another. They should go to see projects together, get to know each other's work, and begin to establish some mutual understanding and trust.

All members of the team must believe in each other's expertise. Each must respect the other's discipline. In the past Architects and Engineers would so often mistrust each other. This may have had something to do with the way the separate disciplines were educated. Now that Architects and Engineers are more often taught together relationships are better.

Similarly we now see Architects and Artists being educated together, beginning to share a language, and consequently building more mutual trust and respect.

Communication

Good communication leads to a good brief, clear understanding and a successful project. The client must communicate their intention, motivation and vision. The Artist must communicate their ideas with the team; and the team must be listening. Language can sometimes be a barrier to clear communication and the Architect may be the best placed to 'translate' the various concerns between the people involved.

Commitment

The whole team must want to support the collaboration. Whether, throughout the project or for some part of it, they must understand that it is an important part of the client's ambition for the project and not just a whim that he can be talked out of later.

Everyone should be informed at the outset. The involvement and support of the collaboration should form part of the brief and the terms of appointment of the professional team.

So What is the Answer?

Clearly all parties must 'buy-in' to the process. If any member of the team with any amount of control wants to scupper the process it is not too difficult to do.

But you also need some clear rules. Obligations can be incorporated into the terms of appointment of the professional team. The project manager can be tasked to deliver the Artist's vision as part of the project.

The key is not to force it: all parties must want it to happen. The city cannot force the developer, the client cannot force the Architect. The client must want to make something special, and be prepared to share the pain to achieve it. The Artist and Architect must want to work together. If any of the parties does not have complete faith in the venture it will fall apart sooner or later.

But, if the Artist and Architect can find a way of working together and the Artist is welcomed into the team .... something truly wonderful can result.

Beware Unrealistic Demands

Relationships can be made unnecessarily difficult or excuses found for not proceeding with a collaborative venture by asking the Artist to provide 'services' which are outside their experience or expertise.

Specifications

The project manager, the contractor and the quantity surveyor will always be pressing to know exactly what is to be produced and how much it will cost. If the Artist is proposing to influence the fabric of the building or attaching materials to it, this may require clear, concise specification. This is where the Architect can help and should be made responsible for assisting the Artist to achieve a solution that is appropriate, safe, and complies with any statutory requirements etc. On the other hand, Artists are perfectly used to commissioning work themselves and having work fabricated by third parties under their direction. The Artist can take on this role happily, given the authority and budget control to do so.

Language

As with most subjects the world of construction and building professionals has its own jargon. The Artist is walking into a team of people who are very well used to communicating with each other in their own terms. Language can easily be used by the team to exclude the Artist. The Architect and the project manager should be specifically obliged within the terms of their appointment to facilitate the dialogue between the Artist and other members of the team. In some cases this can be made easier by having the Artist working within the Architect's office and the Architect acting as an intermediary, but this arrangement could also serve to undermine the status of the Artist in the team.

Working Drawings

Architects and contractors have a particular understanding of the term 'working drawings', sometimes referred to as 'production information'. These are drawn in a particular way using a particular set of conventions. It may not be appropriate to ask for 'working drawings' from the Artist. Although a detailed design will often be required there are other ways of describing the work. This should also be recognised in the terms of appointment and form of the contract. If 'working drawings' are specifically required in a particular form to incorporate the work into the building, this can be made the responsibility of the Architect, just as establishing and agreeing the cost should be the responsibility of the quantity surveyor.

Insurance

Another way to exclude the Artist is to demand Professional Indemnity Insurance (P.I.) Architects and Engineers are required to insure themselves against the consequences of the failure of anything they have designed. This is not necessary for the Artist when working collaboratively with these professionals. The responsibility to the client to produce a building or installation that is safe, appropriate, maintainable etc. must lie with the professional team. This must be written into the terms of their appointment. This may require a certain degree of negotiation between the Artist and the team but that is very much part of the process of collaboration. It should not be necessary for the Artist to provide insurance, or enter into Warranty or Duty of Care agreements. This is not what the 'client' wants from the Artist.

CDM Regulations

This is recent Health and Safety Legislation for the building industry, the purpose of which is to make the construction and later maintenance of buildings safer for all concerned. For qualifying projects (defined by scale, number of personnel involved and period of the contract), which includes most significant building work, a Planning Supervisor must be appointed. His responsibility is to ensure that all parties are competent and have the appropriate experience and expertise to carry out the work. It is entirely the responsibility of the Planning Supervisor to ensure compliance with all the regulations. It is therefore his responsibility to make the Artist aware at a very early stage how these regulations may affect their contribution, to ask the right questions, and to collect the necessary information at the various appropriate stages of the contract. This is not, in most projects, a very onerous process and the Artist should not be at all concerned at being involved in it.

Value for Money

It is often suggested that it is impossible to put a value on an Artist's contribution to a collaborative project. In my view it is no more or less difficult than quantifying the added value of appointing a 'good' Architect. Clients are increasingly seeing the benefit of good design in building projects. This may be physically apparent in the clever use of space planning to optimise the development of a site, or it may, for example, be to do with the quality of the working environment created and the effect on the morale or the productivity of the users.

Many clients will be involved in the design and construction of a new building only once and not carry the experience forward to another project. Experienced clients, however, know the value of a creative and talented design team and are beginning to recognise the potential value in the involvement of an Artist.

SUCCESSFUL PROJECTS MUST BE WIDELY PUBLICISED TO PROMOTE THE IDEA TO OTHERS.

Nick Childs is a practising Architect in Bristol.

© Nick Childs 2000 All rights reserved

December 2000