A Place for Sculpture

In March 2017, The Guardian reported[1] that ‘Old Flo is returning home’. One of many sculptures across the country purchased or commissioned in the 1950s and 60s for the new housing rising out of cleared slum areas, this Henry Moore’s Draped Seated Woman, had been the subject of legal action over ownership, attempted sale by a cash-strapped local authority, and removed for safety against bronze metal theft – but had originally graced the Stifford Estate, in Stepney Green, 1963 – three 17-storey brutalist towers housing some 1700 people, as a fitting answer (according to Christopher Marshall) to ‘a deep-seated postwar need for an epic, modern, civic art that might help rebuild a shattered Europe through the reinforcement of universal humanist values that reconnected the individual to the landscape, both urban and natural’[2].

That sculpture can give identity to place has been long understood. A history of the designed landscape – from the contrasting symbolic settings of statues and fountains in the (private, aristocratic) Boboli Gardens and (public, civic) Piazza del Signoria in Renaissance Florence[3], through to the way in which sculpture manipulates vistas and perspective in an 18th century English estate like that of Studley Royal[4], to of course, the installation of important Modernist works on public housing projects and in the new towns in the decades following the Second World War, the history of the sculpture garden is one where it both represents and acts as an agency to project the values of its commissioners. In recent years, this has in fact been the overt aim of much commissioned outdoor sculpture, where projects like Trafalgar Square’s Fourth Plinth programme, and citywide festivals trumpet the return on public investment – the 2016 Liverpool Biennial boasting of boosting the Liverpool economy by £5.3million – and cultural tourism and international profile-raising come to stand for public benefit.

Urban regeneration has meanwhile become a site of increasing conflict. Park Hill, though award-nominated (notably for the 2013 Stirling Prize) has also been criticised, architecture critic Owen Hatherley calling it as a “folly”[5]. Elsewhere projects like Bow Arts Trust and Poplar HARCA’s temporary creative live/work scheme at Balfron Tower have seen artists themselves accused of ‘artwashing’[6] – and art as acting as an uncritical tool of developer-led regeneration. At worst, this is an inversion of our traditionally benign view of artists (as the good guys taking over and improving spaces no one else wants). But at best, there is still much potential in using artists as what place-led commissioning agency Situations has called ‘charismatic agents of change’. A singularly lasting (and notorious!) example is Liz Leyh’s[7] Concrete Cows in Milton Keynes, begun as project to help build a community from scratch, eventually becoming a widely recognised symbol of the new town.

We don’t yet know how visitors and residents will experience Sculpture Park Hill. On one hand, this garden will exist as a visitor destination, a new point on a Yorkshire Sculpture polygon, a stop for ‘Brutalist Tourists’[8] or those bound for Chatsworth. On the other, this is still a place people cross to buy a loaf of bread, or walk the dog. It’s the not-entirely-public backyard for thousands of city dwellers – where, even the first commissioned artist, Keith Wilson, hopes residents will have barbecues on his plinths. One way of thinking about this might be to look at this idea of experiencing place through play and leisure, what Quentin Stevens has termed the ‘Ludic City’[9]. Indeed, although it never included an iconic sculpture, Park Hill’s original playgrounds did feature ‘furniture’ by abstract artist John Forrester (who also designed the coloured brick infill panels on the building) while recently wider attention has been drawn to the playgrounds of modernist housing estates – ASSEMBLE’s Brutalist Playground (exhibited here in 2016) while research by Historic England has resulted in listings for playscapes such as The Rom in Hornchurch[10].

In an open air setting, it’s not only the rules around touching and climbing that are different (whatever the signs might say), space and scale impact on our experience of encountering sculpture in a way impossible within the confines of an indoor gallery. Yorkshire Sculpture Park director Peter Murray has spoken about the ‘need to discover’[11] sculpture in the park, and elsewhere, it is noted, that ‘visitors are equipped with maps’[12]. If this feels somehow akin to setting out on an expedition, then this is how it should be, where nature, the weather, even picnic sites all impact on our experience of what we see. At Park Hill, perhaps (maps in hand) we can track our sculptures through this very special urban landscape. Whether we set them against views across the city to the Peak District, test their scale against the sheer monumentality of the building itself, or see them through the prism of the conflicted history of Sheffield, Modernism and its legacy and the complexities of regeneration is still up for grabs.

[1] Brown, M. (2017) ‘Old Flo’ makes her way back to London from Yorkshire, The Guardian, London

[2] Correia, A (2013) ‘Draped Seated Woman 1957–8, cast c.1958–63 by Henry Moore OM, CH’, in Henry Moore: Sculptural Process and Public Identity, London, Tate https://www.tate.org.uk/art/research-publications/henry-moore/henry-moore-om-ch-draped-seated-woman-r1172099

[3] Conelli, MA. (1998) Boboli Gardens: fountains and propaganda in

sixteenth-century Florence, Studies in the History of Gardens & Designed Landscapes, 18:4

[4] Ridley, G. Studley Royal: Landscape as Sculpture in Eyres, P and Russell, F (Eds.). (2006) Sculpture and the Garden, Abingdon, Routledge

[5] Hatherley, O. (2011) Regeneration? What’s happening in Sheffield’s Park Hill is class cleansing, The Guardian, London

[6] Haimes, H. (2026) In Limbo: Artists and Gentrification, Doggerland Journal, 2

[7] Mason, D.  The Birth of the Concrete Cows http://www.livingarchive.org.uk/content/local-history/topics/concrete-cows/the-birth-of-the-concrete-cows

[8] See for example Brutalist London Map, Blue Cow Media

[9] Stevens, Q. (2007) The Ludic City: Exploring the Potential of Public Spaces, Abingdon, Routledge

[10] See Historic England (2014) Why Has English Heritage Listed a Skatepark?, https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/what-is-designation/heritage-highlights/why-has-english-heritage-listed-a-skatepark

[11] Tuchman, P. (2014), Yorkshire Sculpture Park: Not a Typical Experience, Sculpture, 33, 10, pp. 18-20  

[12] Cochran, RD. (2015) Inhotim: Art Off the Beaten Track, Sculpture, 34, 6, pp. 20-23

This post was originally written for S1 Artspace, to celebrate the launch of Sculpture Park Hill.