Cambridge City Council’s public art consultation

You can have a look at some of the public art commissions here – although the page needs a refresh as the Romsey R is ‘work in progress’.

The consultation details are here, with the existing public art strategy here. I’ve been thinking for years why I can’t think of any contemporary public art in Cambridge that really inspires me or has that elusive ‘wow!’ factor.

And yet the criteria include:

  • high quality public art in Cambridge which inspires people
  • the role of artists in the design process
  • engaging local people in the development of public art
  • reinforcing local distinctiveness and cultural identity

For those of you interested in the full details – the Supplementary Planning Document for Cambridge City Council’s public art is here (all 60 pages of it). The public art panel that advises the council also has some familiar institutions such as the Fitzwilliam Museum and Kettle’s Yard.

Onsite public art that is separate from the buildings that paid for it.

Statues and sculpture cannot hide or mask the bland minimalist buildings around them. That’s my take of the recently-installed works next to Hills Road Bridge.

There’s also the added issue of getting the history right – as others have noted with statues and artwork elsewhere.

Above – don’t learn the wrong lessons from history.

Cambridge is full of examples of where public art commissions have been installed on site, but very separate to the buildings that effectively paid for them. That or they don’t feel like works that are integral to the design of the buildings themselves. Rather it feels too much like “and here is the spot where there will be some public art” rather than the building itself being a work of art in itself. Let’s take two examples – one unbuilt, one built.

The first is a familiar one – John Belcher’s guildhall design of 1898, which two rebellions of ratepayers sank.

Above – Mayor Sir Horace Darwin had the vision to commission this design. Would it be suitable today? Could it be improved upon and/or made to fit the existing guildhall structure? I think it could.

Above – two attempts and they still messed it up. Ironically called Mount Pleasant, this is the view that drivers and cyclists heading south down Histon Road are greeted with – one of the main historical routes into and out of Cambridge, such roads easily identified by the village or town they are named after and head towards. Madingley, Huntingdon, Histon, Milton, Newmarket, Cherry Hinton, Fulbourn, Trumpington, Hauxton, Barton, Grantchester roads – hard to avoid.

It’s worth noting that planning rules state that trees should not be used to screen poor design and unimaginative architecture. In the years to come, that looks like what the trees will do – hide the ugliness. So much for Building Better, Building Beautiful from The Government. But then as I mentioned here, until huge reforms are made to how construction is financed, the practice of things like flipping as I mentioned here will mean that speculators will be able to extract all the financial value of a site meaning that only the blandest and minimal-cost developments will be the ones that profit-making firms say they will be able to build.

Are there opportunities to make use of blank walls?

That depends on your view/taste. Some people like large murals such as the one at the Lord Morpeth in London, others do not.

Above – the Sylvia Pankhurst mural.

Part of the conversation for murals embedded in local history has to involve conversations involving councils, communities, local historians, artists, urban designers, and developers. We’ve got to do better than simply having an architect setting aside a patch of wall or a plot of land for a mural or a sculpture. What are the local histories and local stories that would make for a good base for artists to work up into pieces of inspiring art and sculpture? In particular pieces that don’t require you to have a degree in modern art to be able to make sense of?

Note my concerns / views are not a call for us to bring back some sort of pastiche neo-Victorian age of architecture. (Which is what the Prince of Wales has been accused of with his Poundbury development). Rather, be inspired by those previous ages (The David Parr House of Mill Road is worth looking at for this) and combine them with what will be the advantages that our modern technology brings to design, and also the constraints we face in this age of the climate emergency.

If you are interested in the longer term future of Cambridge, and on what happens at the local democracy meetings where decisions are made, feel free to:

%d bloggers like this: