Public art. The words strike a chill into the soul, and I am licensed to say this, since I find myself involved with initiatives to get artists collaborating more in what gets built all over the country. The problem is simple. Most of what surfaces is unadulterated crap.
I have judged competitions, written reports, given lectures on the subject, and reviewed more buildings than I care to remember that incorporate a “per cent for art” programme. Impressed? Don’t be, this is just what you pick up along the way in my line of work, along with baggy eyes and a touch of cynicism.
Artists are now moving into architecture, young architects habitually involve artists in a way they never used to, Lottery funding is available and everything would appear to be rosy. Yet I am hard pressed to remember more than a handful of successful collaborations.
You learn useful ground rules as you go along. They might seem obvious, but, people seem to have trouble grasping them. They are as follows:
Good art cannot redeem a bad building – remember all those 1960s office blocks which plonked an Elizabeth Frink down in the plaza, or pinned a Barbara Hepworth on a wall like a brooch;
Bad art hardly troubles a good building, but is obviously superfluous;
The best architects seldom need the help of artists;
The best artists are always compromised by all the constraints heaped upon architects;
Therefore, the best artists and the best architects are better kept apart, since they don’t need each other and will never get on.
So why bother at all? If you believe in the power of a good architect/ artist collaboration, you must be forced to the unpalatable conclusion that average architects and average artists deserve each other and can create something greater than their individual contributions.
Nobody wants to hear this, of course, since it hurts people’s feelings, particularly the artists. A surprising number of architects accept that they are average, that they cannot all be Rem Koolhaas. Yet while it is deemed OK to condemn obviously bad art – think community murals, or fey sculptures of young girls swimming with dolphins – it is curiously difficult to grade the average-to-good artists who are the best collaborators on building projects.
Artists, it is implied, work in pure form and thus have their own unimpeachable integrity. This is clearly nonsense: most artists are trained. They emerge from schools and work commercially, as much as the building professions. The Royal College of Art turns out fine artists alongside car, frock and furniture designers, and thinks nothing of it. These people are not all geniuses, but they all need work and some of them can help to improve our surroundings.
Clearly, most successfully practising artists are going to occupy the middle ground, just like most successfully practising architects. And yet, most of us still think of the visual artist as a superior being.
Against all logic, for instance, I am appalled when I find that an artist employs a PR agency, but I find nothing strange in an architect doing this.
At the top of their respective trees, architects and artists should, I repeat, simply leave each other well alone.
Once I asked the sculptor Sir Anthony Caro – who loves architecture and admires architects, but hates designing to order – whether he would work with a top-flight architect like, for instance, Nicholas Grimshaw. “Hmm,” replied Caro. “There’d be a bit too much metal there, don’t you think?”
Later he weakened and accepted an invitation to work with Sir Norman Foster on the Millennium Bridge from Bankside to St Paul’s. The early designs showed a typically Caro intervention at the southern landfall. Manfully, he struggled for a while with steps, disabled lifts and Health and Safety regulations. But in the final design, Caro has no hand in the bridge at all. Instead, he may provide some kind of gateway piece up near St Paul’s, well away from the architecture. That’s how it should be. As with Frank Gehry and Claes Oldenberg, such architects and artists should stake out their own territory, keep some kind of distance.
There is less of a problem with performance art and temporary installations. The trouble starts with the idea of permanence. So I suppose I should tell you now about the handful of successful collaborations I mentioned at the start. But in view of the foregoing, if I named them, they’d probably be offended. So here’s a clue: the best examples are seamless. You cannot tell where the work of the artist ends and the work of the architect begins. They help each other relatively anonymously. Is that so dreadful?