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Blue Carpet

Location: Newcastle upon Tyne, UK

Artist: Thomas Heatherwick Studio


Blue Carpet is an innovative public art project which has created a new public square at New Bridge Street, outside the Laing Art Gallery in the city centre of Newcastle upon Tyne. It has been designed by Thomas Heatherwick Studio working in collaboration with a team of officers from Newcastle City Council representing urban design, landscape architecture, traffic and engineering, with other specialist consultants. Development of the project began in 1996, and installation on site began in summer. The project was finally completed in autumn 2001. The main visual focus for the square is a shimmering cobalt blue carpet which has apparently dropped from the sky over the existing surface of the city, creeping up side streets, overlapping tree grills and flipping up where it meets buildings. An existing temporary public staircase at the eastern end of the square has been replaced by a new one, a simple twisted structural ribbon which lands on the carpet. The square is surrounded by mature trees.

The carpet unifies an area of disparate architecture and visual clutter and appears to float on a sea of light which is visible where bollards and other street furniture pierce the carpet surface. Seats are formed from lifted and turned strips of the blue carpet with fibre optics embedded in the upper surface, leaving a lighted void in which temporary exhibitions of art works and the city’s history can be displayed. The integrated lighting illuminates the street furniture and makes it more visible to visually impaired people, and general lighting creates a genuinely 24 hour area. Blue Carpet has been commissioned by Newcastle City Council, and has involved collaborations with a university, manufacturers and craftspeople to develop new materials and engineering solutions.

Regeneration Initiative

In 1994, Newcastle City Council carried out a feasibility study into the potential for regenerating the physical fabric of the city centre and stimulating economic activity. It identified the need for improvements around John Dobson Street, which skirts the city centre area, and proposed the creation of a new public square in adjacent New Bridge Street, the first in the city for 100 years, transforming it into part of the 24 hour city centre, with appeal for people of all ages. The City Council agreed a budget for the whole package, and the environmental improvements were completed in 1996, leaving £300,000 available for the new square. The developments coincided with plans for a new extension to the Laing Art Gallery with a public entrance onto New Bridge Street, and plans to refurbish and extend historic buildings in the area for offices.

The project was conceived from the outset as a collaborative enterprise with local businesses, and the City Council drew together a consortium of public and private sector organisations with a presence or interest in the New Bridge Street to take forward the idea.

Artist Selection

Northern Arts had been in discussion with the City Council about involving an artist in the creation of the square and the council had agreed this approach and engaged Alastair Snow as art consultant. It was decided that an international ‘Ideas Competition’ was the best means of attracting innovative ideas from artists and would give the project a high profile start. The competition was launched in July 1996 by the City Council with the Newcastle Initiative, a private sector-led regeneration partnership with an aspiration to promote the development of Newcastle upon Tyne as a European Regional Capital, and in association with Northern Arts and Tyne and Wear Museums. It was advertised in Artists Newsletter, with direct mailings to a selected list of suitably experienced artists.

The brief set out the opportunity for the successful artist to develop proposals with the City Council’s Design Team and included the objectives and design guidelines, the two-stage selection process and project timetable. Interested artists were asked to apply by letter with slides and a CV. 100 responses were received. The art consultant assisted the selection panel by providing a report on each applicant and recommending 20 artists for more detailed consideration. A shortlist of four artists was drawn up, and each was paid a fee and expenses, and invited for a site visit with the Council’s Design Team and a briefing on the aspirations, technical and practical aspects of the commission and its context.

They were given a month to come up with first stage design proposals. The final selection panel looked at the record and experience of the artists, and considered their proposals against six criteria:- Artistic quality, originality and innovation; Response to the brief; Interest in collaborating on the design and planning of the project; Public consultation; Awareness of financial thresholds, and regional, national and international significance of the proposal.

The panel was excited by the imaginative and radical approach of Thomas Heatherwick Studio which was unanimously selected, receiving an award of £1,000.

Artist’s Proposal

Thomas Heatherwick is a three dimensional designer who starts from ‘function’ rather than ‘art’ and who is inspired by materials. During the briefing visit, he had noted the lack of visual coherence and the mixture of buildings in the area. Instead of designing another object to fill the long, narrow space, he offered a solution which would optimise what was already there and enhance its function as an enjoyable public space. The proposal unified the area by treating the surface of the square as if it were fluid which would react to obstacles and flow into side streets. He showed the interview panel a sample of paving embedded with fibre optics which would create a light-filled durable surface. The proposal from Thomas Heatherwick Studio was entirely innovative and demanded new approaches and solutions which would need to be explored during the design development phase.

This original proposal for a surface embedded with fibre optics was costed early on, and at an estimated £2 million was well above the budget then available. Thomas Heatherwick Studio was engaged to rethink the original concept and come up with a solution within the available budget which would create the same feeling of drama. Neither the City Council’s officers nor the artist had equivalent experience with similar projects and there were no precedents to provide guidance for the overall capital cost or an estimate of the artist’s time commitment and fee level. Negotiations on the artist’s contract were therefore somewhat protracted and advice was sought from professional sources. A fee was agreed and the artist was contracted in early 1997.


A mutually respectful and professional working relationship between the artist and the council’s Design Team was crucial to enable the artist’s vision to be delivered collaboratively and with integrity. Project development during the first few months progressed at a measured pace and a number of management structures were put in place to support the artist and the development of the collaborative process.

The City Council appointed one of their senior engineers, Nader Mokhtari, who was experienced at managing urban design schemes, as Project Manager. Alastair Snow was retained by the City Council to assist on the Artist Support group and to advise on preparing an application to the National Lottery Arts Fund. Two support groups were also established:- The Artist Support Group, with representation from the City Council, Northern Arts, the Newcastle Initiative, the art consultant and project manager, met bi-monthly and ensured that positive and creative rapport was maintained between the commissioners and artist during design development.

The Design Team was responsible for realising the artist’s design and included representatives of the relevant departments of the City Council (Engineers, Traffic, Urban Design, Highways, Economic Development), Thomas Heatherwick and representatives of his studio, the project manager, structural consultant and art consultant.

Design Development

While the relationship between artist and the City Council’s urban design professionals was still in the formative stages the team did not immediately operate as a coherent unit. The professionals from each discipline kept to their own areas of expertise. When the artist presented his ideas, he found that he had to show how they would work in practical and engineering terms before they achieved any validity and responding engagement from the Design Team. As the team worked together over the first few months of the project, the respective roles of team members and their expectations of each other became clearer, and these early uncertainties were gradually resolved.

During this process it also became clear that while the Design Team had comprehensive expertise to deal with the urban planning design, landscaping and traffic management issues of the project concept, specialist structural expertise would be needed for the integrated seating and the spiral staircase. Thomas Heatherwick made a strong case for including Ron Packman on the team, a structural engineer with whom his Studio has worked on many projects, who was used to working creatively and who was able work in the territory between urban design professionals and artist. As a result, Ron Packman was contracted by Newcastle City Council to assist the Design Team with the seating and staircase. By summer 1997, a cohesive design concept had taken shape, with the blue carpet as the visual focus for the scheme, and street furniture, planting and the public staircase at the eastern end as integrated elements.

Public Consultation

Throughout the design development period there were a number of opportunities for consultation. In late 1996 the City Council carried out a pedestrian and traffic survey and a public opinion survey in the area designated for the square. The artist and his assistants also carried out a one-day public opinion survey of pedestrians and met with owners of properties around the square. There were a number of consultative meetings with representatives of the main project partners and property owners, as the design developed. The revised design proposal for the Blue Carpet was formally presented to the City Council and its partners and other interested parties in summer 1997 and was approved, before receiving approval from the relevant committees of the City Council. In March 1999 designs for the square were shown at the Laing Art Gallery.


The partnerships formed with manufacturers, universities and craftspeople to find the best way of realising the innovative design were a hallmark of the project. Concrete paving embedded with chips of glass was found to be an unstable material and a number of manufacturers were asked if they could come up with an alternative solution which would be stable and durable, and which would retain a sparkling appearance and richness of colour with wear. Eventually a thin tile to lay over concrete paving was suggested, and the combination of resin and glass as a material was subsequently explored further in conjunction with a European funded research project at Sheffield Hallam University.

As a result Pitchmastic produced a translucent blue resin tile embedded with glass chips, using raw materials supplied by Resin Building Products. The elegant and seemingly simple seating was discussed with glass and resin modellers. However, it presented huge engineering problems and the solution was to cast each seat individually from concrete reinforced with stainless steel, with fibre optics embedded in the upper surface, blue resin tiles on the underside and a bronze edging strip. The staircase, originally envisaged as stainless steel treads around a core of concrete was redesigned with the advice of boatbuilders and pipe benders, and was constructed from wood. The City Council opted for negotiated rather than open tender for these special elements, but the installation of the square itself was the subject of open tender.


As an entirely original project demanding new solutions, Blue Carpet was a budgeting challenge. In early 1998, an application, with an education programme and marketing plan developed in conjunction with Tyne and Wear Museum Service, was submitted to the National Lottery Arts Fund managed by the Arts Council of England. In September 1998 the project was awarded £499,000. In order to meet the end of year deadline for spending funds allocated from the European Regional Development Fund, plans were immediately put in hand to survey the site and locate suitable planting positions avoiding the mains services and to import and plant seven 40 year old trees from Germany.

During design development, solutions were measured against the available budget, and there was a continual drive to keep the budget in check, most significantly by reducing the area of the ‘carpet’. However, it was only possible to arrive at precise costings in September 1999, after all the design and technical problems had been fully resolved. The final budget, at £1.2m, amounted to £400,000 more than the Lottery funding and City Council allocation. The project was taken back to committee with two options:- to go ahead with installation and find the balance from internal resources, or to pause whilst further funding was found. The Council agreed the second option, and over the following months an additional grant was secured from the National Lottery Arts Fund.


In early 2000, the City Council gave its official approval for the additional funding required, and hence the go-ahead for the whole project. The project manager reconfirmed commitments with the various contractors, prepared a new programme and schedule of works, and set in motion the production of the various special elements (seats, staircase, resin tiles). The contracts for site preparation and for the subsequent installation of the work were won through two open tender processes by Cityworks, the City’s in-house team. Negotiated tenders were agreed with Janes Ltd for the production of the metal frames and fabrication frames for the seats, with Pallam Precast for the installation of fibre optics, terrazzo and polishing the seating, and with McNulty Boats Ltd for the fabrication and installation of the staircase.

Cityworks was scheduled to begin work on site in July 2000. The project manager was aware from the survey in 1998 that mains services ran under the area of the square and had contacted the water, gas and electricity companies well in advance about the project and its implications for repair work to the mains. He had no replies from the companies. However, as soon as the contractors moved on site and started initial drainage work, a gas main was exposed. The gas company, suddenly realised the extent of the project and decided that all gas pipes in the area needed to be replaced. The water company decided the water mains would also need renewal, and in doing this work, they severed a mains electricity cable, which in turn required the electricity company to replace it.

This catalogue of work on underground servicesset back the schedule for the project by a further two months,and installation finally began in mid September 2000. In themeantime,work was progressing to schedule on the manufacture of the staircase.The old staircase at the eastern end of the site was removedoverthe late August Bank Holiday 2000 and the new one installed inthe following weeks.

Work on site was slower than anticipated and hampered by the weather. The City Council decided to make a positive virtue out of the further extended timescale of the project by suspending operations over the winter period, and allowing the square to be flooded and converted into an ice rink for the Millennium celebrations. Work continued on site into summer 2001 and the square was formally opened in October 2001.

© Copyright Joanna Morland 2000 and 2004