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Oxbridge Homezone

Location: Lowestoft, Suffolk, UK

Artist: Les Bicknell


Oxford Road and Cambridge Road (names which came to be combined as 'Oxbridge' in the course of this project) are adjacent streets of late Victorian properties in North Lowestoft, comprising 192 terraced dwellings plus two corner shops, two hairdressers, a St Johns Ambulance Station, and a poodle parlour. There are no play spaces in the streets or nearby. Half of the residents are either under 15 or over 60 years of age - two age groups considered to be particularly vulnerable to traffic accidents. The primary intention of the Oxbridge Home Zones project was to re-design the parking layout in the streets, and to slow down traffic moving along them, not allowing drivers to use the streets as a convenient "rat run".

As the result of a process of extensive consultation with residents, visual artist Les Bicknell (a member of the professional project team) designed a number of the new physical features proposed for the roadway of Oxford and Cambridge Streets, in such a way that they would amount to more than simply functional traffic calming measures. Potentially these physical modifications to the streets would additionally regenerate a positive community spirit, enabling residents to socialize, relax and play more easily together.

Now, several 'pinch point crossing spaces' serve to slow traffic by reducing flow to a single lane. These areas feature groups of sculptural granite bollards, and series of intersecting concentric circles of coloured tiles and cobbles. Roundels in the centres of these tiled circles feature poetic constellations of words and names, referring to aspects of the history of the street. Other single words feature on the tiled perimeters of these circular designs, and on adjacent tiled 'speed ramps'. At points between these areas, lines of white granite setts, inlaid into the dark tarmac road surface, meander playfully like environmental drawings, blurring the conventional distinction between road and pavement.


Suffolk County Council and Waveney District Council successfully bid for £484,000 funding from the Home Zone Challenge Fund for this project. The overall cost of the project is estimated to be c.£750,000. The Home Zones Challenge grant was complemented by a further £125,000 from Suffolk County Council's Local Transport Plan and Waveney District Council. In addition, costs of c.£40,000 for engineering work, and c.£100,000 for the provision of entirely new street lighting, came from the County Council's existing highways and street lighting budgets.

Supported in the development of their proposals and the production of detailed designs by Suffolk Highways Engineering Consultancy, the intention was that the artist appointed should work closely with both the other members of the Project Team (comprising in addition a community worker, landscape architects, engineer, and council planners), and with the local residents. The intention clearly was not to originate a series of discrete art works to be sited within the streetscape, but to produce what the brief refers to as "creative options" for changing the "streetscape", improving both the day-to-day safety of pedestrians, and community cohesiveness. The artists' proposals were intended to "add to and complement" other proposals made for improving the street environment.

The artist was selected by a committee comprising not only county and district council members and officers, but also representatives from the local community. Commissions East worked with the Council on the development of the artist's brief, and led and advised on the appointment process. The project itself was managed by a Project Officer at Suffolk County Council.

Les Bicknell, a professional visual artist based in East Anglia, who had often worked collaboratively with other artists and within community settings, was appointed to work with the Home Zone project between April 2002 and March 2004, with the support in the consultation process of a part-time community development worker, Jo McCallum, who was also appointed as part of the project.

Consultation Period

At the outset of the project, a Home Zone Steering Group was formed, comprising representatives from the residents, local businesses, St Johns Ambulance, district councillors, council officers, and police. Information flyers were delivered to every household and business in the streets, inviting residents to an initial meeting, which took place at a school nearby, and a residents' group was formed which met monthly after that. On 13 April 2002 a "community event" was held at the St.Johns Ambulance Station (one of the very few non-commercial, non-residential spaces suitable for meetings and exhibitions in the Oxbridge Zone), to which all residents were invited. Refreshments and children's entertainment were provided. Over the following weeks, questionnaires were delivered to all local residents, smaller meetings happened in people's houses, and many informal conversations took place in the street. One idea used to get people talking to each other and to the Project Team was to give every household a present - a potted flower - some of which subsequently appeared in residents' windows. During the summer, a group of residents and Project Team members visited a developing Home Zone project in Ealing, West London. Young people were invited to develop fantasy road designs and create coloured plasticine bollards at 'drop in' sessions, and their art work was subsequently exhibited.

On 12 September a second Open Day event enabled the residents to view the proposed drawings and plans, historical documentation, and art work by younger residents. The roads were partially closed to traffic, and samples of construction materials were displayed by actually laying them on the road surface. Detailed designs and engineering drawings were produced over the following months, and a third Open Day was held at the St Johns Ambulance Station to display the final designs. The actual construction and fabrication of the project began in August 2003, and was completed shortly before Christmas. During this period Bicknell was expected to oversee the fabrication and implementation of any "special elements" incorporated in the designs.

Design Process

Speeding traffic, shortage of parking, and problems at road junctions were identified as the residents' main environmental concerns. The subsequent design proposals attempted to solve these problems. According to Les Bicknell, "All proposed changes were led by the desire to solve actual and perceived problems through the use of art and good design." Rather than practising decoration for its own sake, the aim was to achieve changes that were both "functional and beautiful".

Following the preliminary consultative meetings, Bicknell took photographs of the two roads, then digitally 'airbrushed' away the vehicles shown on the photographs, and drew lively graphic amendments on top. "This type of mark making implied that anything was possible, and that nothing was certain", he says. These 'treated' photographic images - quite unlike the conventional "architect's impression" - became for Bicknell "a powerful tool" as the designs were developed. However, the initial response of many of the residents to these altered photographic images was to presume that they represented what the Project Team was actually going to do - eradicate all cars and parking spaces - rather than as a "blank canvas" on which to project their own wishes and ideas.

Old photographs were researched (with the invaluable assistance of staff at Lowestoft Record Office), collected and used to document the history of the two streets, and to show residents how they had already changed over the years. One of these, showing the digging of a serpentine trench along Cambridge Road in 1913 during the first laying of electric cables, was juxtaposed with one of Bicknell's own photographs of the same view today, lined with parked cars, to produce a postcard, with the words superimposed 'today or tomorrow'.

A similar approach, juxtaposing different materials and textures, was applied to certain aspects of the road itself. Realistically bearing in mind that the road surface was likely, sooner rather than later, to be dug up by one or other agency or surface provider, Bicknell opted for what he calls a "patchwork quilt" design approach, rather than seeking to produce a "neat organised design". (However, funding levels have not yet allowed for the road surfaces between Bicknell's special features to be "dressed" consistently, resulting in what some have described as an "unfinished" appearance.)

Bicknell employed organic shapes rather than "harsh angular ones" that can easily have their corners knocked off, and where possible he used hard wearing, easy to replace materials, in natural colours, reflecting those which predominate locally, like pebbles and flint. Wherever possible, recycled materials were used. The bollards, for example, are recycled blocks of Cornish granite, left over from the post-GLC refurbishment of the former County Hall in London .

When he had produced "detailed rough sketches", Bicknell started to work closely with the engineer Sam Harvey, who he was pleased to find engaged fully with the Home Zone 'ethos'. Bicknell's proposals for protective bollards and 'gateways' to reduce traffic flow to a single lane were visually unorthodox in highway design terms, and yet they served the same purpose as conventional street features. He found that the detailed regulations applying to the construction and design of public highways can be applied in either an "open" or an "obstructive" way - they do not in themselves dictate what can or cannot be done. Some long discussions ensued, such as one concerning "what constitutes a curb". In one feature, Bicknell chose to use the same visual elements which were normally used prohibitively - the lines used to inhibit parking and traffic movement - to create a pointless but playfully wiggly visual feature inset into the street surface, recalling his own desire as a child to walk along any line he encountered in the street.

Bicknell's proposals derived essentially from the idea of "a street being a book". Though this metaphor is not to be taken too literally, text is used throughout the design, as a way to lend a sense of 'specialness' to the spaces and to the people who walk through them. Resulting from archival research, the texts (predominantly groups of single words) refer to such things as the history of the roads' construction, the occupations of their former residents, and the names they gave to their houses. One panel features a group of phrases describing commonly prevailing local weather conditions. In contrast to the directive texts painted by the highway authorities on the surfaces of our urban streets, Bicknell refers to these elements as "signage for the imagination". Pedestrian residents and visitors can now locate "the story of the road" inserted into its very fabric. As Bicknell observes, "You read it through time as well as through space." Less literally, the words can also function as 'starting points' for people to 'read' the other physical and social parameters of the streetscape as they proceed along it.

Artist's Role

Bicknell didn't enter into the project with any sort of plan in mind. He found that his role much of the time was like that of "a conduit" of ideas and opinions between the residents and the engineers and planners, and he was always, he says, "on the end of the 'phone to anyone". He saw his role very much as that of enabling the residents to "make sense of the sort of thing they wanted". Bicknell prefers to work with "stuff that's going to be there anyway", rather than create extraneous and superfluous art works, and in the same way he also "plugged into established networks" - for example, coffee mornings and local schools - to work with as a means to affect "a continuous movement of information between all parties". "The whole project was completely organic", he says, "It evolved".

Bicknell's perception of this project is that of "an organic resident-led exercise". "At this point in our time the role of an artist is evolving from an outsider, a maker of iconic monoliths, to one of inclusion, a democratic service, a conduit for society", he thinks. "This changing role has at its core a re-examination and a deconstruction of the skills of an artist - one of communication, lateral thinking and problem solving. An understanding and utilisation of these roles is at the core of my position as an artist."

For Bicknell it was very important as lead artist to remain "so transparent that you don't exist". Nevertheless, he has elsewhere listed one of the 'high points' of his career path as "being treated professionally by non-art professionals" and during this project both his fellow professionals on the project team and the local residents evidently respected his extensive track record as an artist in the public arena. "As an artist you try to be everybody and do everything", says Bicknell. "But in the end you have to remember you're an artist, and keep hold of your professional identity."

The role of a visual artist in a community-based project such as this is very different from that of an artist who has been commissioned to create a discrete, autonomous work of public art, however site-specific. But this was not the first time that an artist had been employed by Waveney District Council in a way that differed somewhat from that of the conventional public art paradigm. The environmental artist Chris Tipping, who worked with Landscape Design Associates to develop designs for Ness Point (see Public Art in Lowestoft ) was appointed likewise, according to the brief, in order to "act as a catalyst in achieving the best collaborative design solution".

But uninhabited Ness Point is a very different environmental, social and funding context to that of the Oxbridge Roads. Most residential streets in Britain are collections of intimately private dwellings, each cherished and protected by its owners. Some ideas which would be appropriate and applauded within a different sort of public context might seem misplaced in a residential street. Bicknell's idea of turning the street "into a large book to be read as you walked" is a universally resonant one, but it is also very particular to his autonomous practice as an artist. What if the Oxbridge residents had decided not to take on board Bicknell's basic ideas for the visual elaboration of their streets? What would the ramifications be of an artist whose practice was politically or socially critical?

© Copyright David Briers 2004