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Electric Wharf

Location: Electric Wharf, Coventry, UK

Artists: David Patten (lead artist), Charlie Gallagher, muf, Esther Rolinson.


Electric Wharf is a mixed use canalside development in central Coventry providing live-work apartments, low energy homes and offices, created from the shell of Coventry's former Victorian power station and depot, Electric Light Works. The project was a major partnership initiative between developer Complex Development Projects (CDP) and Coventry City Council. It incorporated a commitment to local creative industries and a belief in involving the arts to deliver the regeneration agenda. Planning began in 2001 and completion of the final phase is due in 2006.

In summer 2001, arts consultant Sam Wilkinson of InSite Arts and artist David Patten were engaged to develop a strategic approach and vision to involve artists in shaping the site. David Patten was then engaged as lead artist to work with the appointed architect Larry Priest of Bryant Priest Newman Architects (BPN). The strong working relationship between the lead artist and architect influenced many aspects of the overall design and material specifications on site. This professional relationship started in late 2001 and continues at the time of writing (mid 2006) over the final phase of the scheme.

A team of artists was engaged between 2002 and 2006 to create temporary and permanent works of art for the development. Photographer Charlie Gallagher documented the site before works commenced. His observation and research was a crucial part of the design process, his images becoming a valuable resource for the developer, architect and artists. muf, a collaborative architecture and artist practice, led a number of projects which engaged different sectors in the community affected by the development, and produced proposals for a foot bridge and car park which were not subsequently realised. Esther Rolinson designed a major integrated lighting work which connects the development with the adjacent canal.


The client and developer of the project was Complex Development Projects (CDP), a London-based private development company which works in partnership with government, community groups and charities to deliver urban renewal projects.

In 2000 Larry Priest of BPN was approached by Coventry-born Ian Harrabin, Director of CDP and asked to look at the Electric Wharf site, then owned by Powergen, with a view to being involved in shaping its future. Coventry was already a centre of design and creativity and CDP wished to build on this by finding a site which could be converted into loft spaces and used as a building for creative industries. The challenge for BPN and CDP was how to make the buildings attractive and suitable as a residential environment for creative people without losing the quality of the existing industrial site. The client/design team quickly developed a strategy to retain as many of the existing buildings as possible and to suggest the footprint of those which were to be demolished.

In early 2001 planning consent was granted. Ian Harrabin and Larry Priest saw the inclusion of artists as a way to make the project far more individual in appearance and therefore more attractive to the potential occupier. Art was also seen as a means to engage the local community and opportunities were taken to increase the artistic involvement by sourcing arts based external funding.

Public Art Strategy

With European and Regional Development Agency funding on board four teams of public art specialists were asked to submit for the public realm element in summer 2001. Sam Wilkinson of InSite Arts and artist David Patten were selected by CDP to develop a strategic approach and vision to involve artists in shaping the site. They were appointed because of their experience in planning and delivering public realm projects and their sensitivity to the site.

Sam and David produced a written proposal for a public art programme called Electric Light Works in autumn 2001 indicating the potential for artists' involvement and commissions appropriate to the site. The document identified key opportunities for the intervention of artists and included supporting notes exploring practical commissioning issues. CDP had worked with artists before and saw the potential to involve artists at Electric Wharf as part of the design team from the very beginning.

As the project developed, some of the commissions mentioned in the strategy were dropped as unviable, and some new ones were added, in particular the temporary programme involving the community surrounding the site.

Lead artist

In November 2001 David Patten's role changed from artist consultant to lead artist working in partnership with Larry Priest. David's appointment arose as a direct result of the rapport established between Larry and David and a shared sensitivity to the site which became apparent when they first walked the site together. David worked as an extension of the design team, based in Bryant Priest Newman's offices; or rather, as Larry Priest described it, involved "on their side of the table".

During 2002 David and Larry "walked and talked" the site. This phase was about developing the overall design vision for the site. David's input focused on external rather than internal spaces and developed into a major consideration of how external spaces could be expressed. His research into the history of the site was informed by his interest in 'sense of place' which was central to his own practice as an artist. Together Larry and David wrote a 'set of rules', or 'a way of thinking', for the site referred to as The Electric Wharf Design Statement.

David was responsible for encouraging the architects to look at archive material, for instance, the history of the electric users of the site. This process revealed detail about the development of the city in the 1890's and the role of the power station in the city's industrial history.

One of the most positive and unique aspects of the Electric Wharf project was the success of the continuing dialogue and strong working partnership between David Patten and Larry Priest.

Appointment of artists

In late 2001 Sam Wilkinson, who managed the temporary commissioning programme and the commissioning of the permanent features, researched and presented a long list of artists to Larry and Ian for consideration. The artists were selected from an invited shortlist. The artists' briefs were intentionally left relatively fluid to allow ideas to develop freely. More detailed artists' briefs were developed later and contracts issued at the start of 2002. muf and Esther Rolinson were appointed to develop ideas and realise a range of temporary and permanent works of art for the development. Charlie Gallagher was appointed to document the project through photography.

Sam Wilkinson continued in the role of project manager throughout the arts programme, supporting the artists and liaising with the client, architects, funders and team of artists.

Documentation/Photographic commission

Charlie Gallagher was commissioned to document the site before it was demolished. Based in Coventry, Charlie had worked in the car industry before becoming an artist and part of his practice was to photograph empty and disused factory spaces in Coventry. He had an intimate knowledge of Electric Wharf before becoming officially engaged on the project. Charlie's observation and research became a crucial part of the design process, and the high quality and diverse range of images he created became a valuable resource for the project. Charlie helped CDP 'to see the interest' in the old buildings and the advisability of retaining the buildings' inherent and unique qualities.

Charlie Gallagher's work generated a palette of colours and fonts which became a resource for design and marketing the scheme, so reflecting the history of Electric Wharf. The same typeface was featured in all the exhibitions and information about the development and informed the work of the other commissioned artists.

Community engagement

During 2001 and 2003, parallel to the design process, links were being made by the Neighbourhood Renewal office of Coventry City Council with the neighbouring communities who would be affected by the development.

muf, an interdisciplinary practice who specialise in urban regeneration projects, led on the community link programme. Five muf practitioners were actively involved in the Electric Wharf project led by Katherine Clarke, senior partner and artist. One of the reasons muf were interested in the Electric Wharf scheme was that opportunities to work on process led public realm projects with developers were rare.

Ashley McCormack of muf was artist in residence at Radford Primary School for three months. The project involved visits to the site, journalistic training and collage work using recycled magazine images. This resulted in a collage poster created by the children and a newspaper article incorporating the children's interviews. A project with an 'English as a second Language' group at East Radford Learn Direct looked at perceptions of shared ownership of public spaces and resulted in the creation of a sunflower garden on a neglected verge. Other projects included wallpaper designed by Anna Sandberg of muf for the show flat, and an evening cruise along the canal bordering the site, organised by muf, with performances and installations and fireworks.

Two early elements in muf's brief, for which they developed proposals, were not subsequently realised. In autumn 2003, Muf developed design proposals for a pedestrian bridge over the Coventry Canal to connect Electric Wharf with the city centre. The project proved exceptionally complex and to deal with this, the brief was redrafted with a stronger engineering emphasis. Muf's proposals for illuminated cladding and designs on the asphalt surface to reduce the impact of the three storey car park on the site could not be realised due to cost.

Permanent commissions

Esther Rolinson, who specialises in the use of light, was appointed to be part of the team in early 2002. It emerged later that coincidentally she had grown up in Coventry and so her experience and background took on an additional relevance.

The client and InSite Arts identified the need to create a dramatic focal and arrival point at the inception of the project. The main part of Esther's brief was to consider a work for the main entrance area of the site and she also was invited to think about the lighting of a highly prominent radio mast on site. Esther also became more involved in the general discussions with Sutton Vane, lighting consultants, who became part of the project team about how the whole site could be lit and the potential for incorporating a range of materials.

Esther's research culminated in a design for a permanent large scale work 'Trace Elements', sited at the entrance to Electric Wharf and based on a grid or mesh structure which refers to the electric cables which were laid underground the site. The final work comprised hundreds of metres of LED strips inset into railway sleepers that are programmed to create a wave like motion of light at the entrance of Electric Wharf . A second section will run along the canal edge and be implemented in line with the development programme for that phase of the development, scheduled for completion later in 2006.

Esther's design was also extended into bollards, installed to discourage local residents who continued to park illegally immediately outside the front entrance to Electric Wharf and to inhibit traffic flow in certain pedestrianised areas.


Funding for the artists' involvement came from a mix of private and public contributions. The funding pot was complex and it was sometimes difficult to establish the total amounts spent on artists' contributions within the context of the total expenditure of approximately £2 million on the public realm element of the scheme. Specific arts contributions came from Arts Council England through the Regional Arts Lottery Programme (£42,000) and Grants for the Arts (£70,000) for temporary and permanent works; Arts and Business (£40,000) and CDP contributed £150,000. General grant support also came from the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) and Single Regeneration Budget (SRB) programmes managed by Coventry City Council and the regional regeneration agency Advantage West Midlands. It was a challenge for CDP and InSite Arts to deal with five external parties, all with different funding agendas.

Realising the Art Programme

In January 2003 Larry, Sam and David attended a meeting in London with CDP and BPN - described by David as a "key moment" - to discuss which elements of the art programme should go ahead. Up to that point CDP had been unsure of what budgets were available for the art programme, but now the main funding elements were in place, (excluding the Grants for Arts Award agreed later that summer). The first stage of the project then went to design and build tender. Harrabin Construction won the tender appointing PCPT, a Birmingham based architectural practice, to complete the detailed design stage of the development. David was still involved in the overall concept during Stage D and Larry Priest continued as client architect to the project retaining client control of the artistic elements of the project.


Of the many challenging issues which arose in terms of realising the artists' designs was the additional time and cost of specifying materials to the main contractors which were 'different' to those normally specified. It was difficult to get the quality materials specified within the normal construction timescale and costings. Whist the main contractor was briefed at the earliest stages of the development, due to the close working relationship between the developer and contractor, keeping the level of dialogue and information needed to integrate the work into the main contract was a key challenge.

Another challenge was that of containing artistic and design ambitions within achievable limits at all stages of the development. Many excellent design ideas could not be progressed to the implementation stage.

Business response to artworks

Pixeltrix, a two person design and web based company, is typical of the creative businesses that occupy Electric Wharf. Andrew Moore of Pixeltrix attended a meeting in 2000 to gage opinion about the planned development and also went on the boat trip. Andrew commented that the development was unusual in Coventry and that one of the main reasons for the company deciding to purchase an office space was the look of the whole development and mix of creative businesses. In Andrew's view the artists' contributions assisted in creating an attractive, sustainable environment. Visitors enjoy coming for meetings at Electric Wharf.

Ian Harrabin however was aware that when some of the new occupiers began to move in, early feedback indicated that further information was required to explain the art involvement and commissions. A leaflet was produced which did this.

Regeneration benefits

A big message for Ian Harrabin was that working on a commercial project such as Electric Wharf, when the economy is slow, is that the involvement of artists can add value and increase benefits in a subtle way. He felt much of the success of the scheme was due to David's influence and the art contribution made to all areas of the development.

© Frances Lord, 2006