The Art of Structure

The following article first featured in October 2004’s issue 14 of ‘Prospect NW’, the monthly magazine for RIBA NW, published by the Carnyx Group. The features were part of a monthly series of ‘introductions to public art’ written by Ian Banks, the (then) Public Art & Architecture Officer for Arts Council England NW. Ian produced a total of 24 articles for Prospect NW, spanning from May 2003 to December 2005. Content varied according to artform and whatever pertinent public art news was current at that time. All 24 Prospect NW articles are available as a free pdf download off the self-publishing platform Lulu.

This article discussed the art of taking iconic engineering right up to the limit, and featured Thomas Heatherwick’s iconic  ‘B of the Bang’ (2004).

Given the tone of this article (and related article on the Here and Now in Issue 19 in March 2005), it is rather ironic to note that the £2m ‘B of the Bang’ ultimately proved an expensive and short-lived induction to public art for East Manchester’s Sport City. By lasting only 8 years, its untimely end came not with a bang, but a whimper. The heroic failure  was eventually to be condemned structurally by the city council and taken down, with the structural core sold for £17,000 scrap in 2012. A reported £1.7m was eventually refunded by designer and specalist sub contractors.

Upon RIBA NW closure of the Prospect NW franchise, and with the subsequent permission of the Carnyx publishing group, the same article now features permanently in the Scottish urban design blog called Urban Realm.

Scroll down to read the article in full….

The Art of Structure: Iconic engineering at the limit

The beautiful Menai Suspension Bridge completed in 1826 was the world’s first iron suspension bridge, having a span of over 500 feet. Its creator Thomas Telford had earlier stated he believed that engineering was “the art of directing the great source of power in nature for the use and convenience of man”. His philosophy reinforced the common professional ambition of the time – pushing beyond technological boundaries – whilst also seemingly alluding to references of a more altruistic nature. The physical form and juxtaposition of the Menai Bridge appear to consider it’s engineering as an organic structure and composition, and remains to this day a sublime example of iconic public art – realised unconsciously on an ambitious scale.

Now, as then, the gap between success and failure in such innovative undertakings is slender. The consequences of the latter today though, are often more dire and long-lasting in terms of hype rather than through catastrophe – as evidenced in the furore surrounding the famous ‘wobble’ on the London Millennium (Blade of Light) Bridge by Foster & Partners and Arups. Despite these potential setbacks, a bold ambition to create ever innovative and more beautiful public engineering still continues regardless. Recent award winning projects like the Gateshead Millennium (Winking Eye) Bridge by Wilkinson Eyre and the British Airways London Eye by Marks Barfield have set the new benchmark for heightened engineering-as-architecture. On a lesser physical and capital scale at least, the field of pure public art has also begun to flex these same structural muscles, particularly following the huge artistic profile and popular success of Anthony Gormley’s Angel of the North.

The self-styled Sport City in East Manchester is hopefully also about to enter the same public art arena when it finally gets to unveil the long awaited B of the Bang1 created by in-vogue designer Thomas Heatherwick2 (and featured in Penny Lewis’s interview in the July edition). The huge work-in-progress was publicly raised on the 5th August from a temporary platform to its final position on the approach to the new City of Manchester Stadium, and was even featuring on BBC’s Newsnight, such is the level of interest

Standing at 56 metres, B of the Bang will eventually (though no doubt only temporarily) become Britain’s tallest and most expensive public sculpture when finally completed in the Autumn: weighing in at 165 tonnes and costing a reported £1.4 million. The starburst sculpture is tilted at an angle of 30 degrees – reportedly ten times greater than the angle of the Leaning Tower of Pisa. As everyone probably knows by now (such has been the media coverage), the work symbolises the burst of speed and energy of an athlete launching out of the blocks, with the title inspired by Linford Christie, who started his gold medal winning Olympic 100 metres race “on the B of the Bang”. The work was commissioned to mark the success of the 2002 Commonwealth Games and the continued renaissance of New East Manchester.

It is reported that Thomas Heatherwick sees the piece as more of a work of ‘design’ than ‘public art’. He does however appear to acknowledge an art at least in the innovation and realisation of its pure engineering pedigree. He alludes to as much in mentioning a humble inspiration taken from past engineering feats, such as when seeing the famous image of Isambard Kingdom Brunel in front of the massive anchor chains at the launch of the SS Great Eastern (a ship conceived twice the length and five times the weight of any previous one).

Whilst B of the Bang in comparison attempts more modest technical challenges it still has the aspiration to push its own conceptual design to the ultimate. With a lack of any cross bracing, the entire structure is designed to freely move in the wind, and this factor alone should keep creative and corporate pulses racing until the autumn at least.  When the £1.2 million Mersey Wave by artist-architect practice Art2Architecture3 was installed in Speke Garston late last year, it remained only a few weeks before having to be removed due to undulating movements in all the fins (reportedly causing irreversible structural deformation to the steel tips and a source of distraction to passing motorists). The work remains down many months later and is apparently not due for reinstallation, after modification, for some months yet. To be fair, the fault has yet to be legally or publicly determined, but it demonstrates at least the huge risks involved in endeavors to produce any major iconic work.

Time is of course the greatest leveler in the fate of any innovation. That Telford’s Menai Bridge some 178 years after completion can carry twenty-first century vehicles without major modification and still look the part says it all. In contrast, Brunel’s Great Eastern, was plagued by comparatively bad luck and lasted a mere 32 years before being broken up on Merseyside. How long Angel of the North will be around is anyone’s guess but one suspects, given its current artistic prowess and cult following, it ought to stand as guardian to Tyneside for many centuries to come. Whether B of the Bang can achieve the same hallowed status or have the potential to last as long remains to be seen. This will rely on both the quality of the art used in the works design and production, and whether it will simply ever become loved enough for people to want to keep it and look at it for ever.

Ian Banks is a chartered architect and part-time Public Art & Architecture Officer at Arts Council England, North West, a post co-funded by RIBA NW

General information on Arts Council England and the public art and the stakeholder partnership can be viewed on www.artscouncil.org.uk and information portal www.publicartnorthwest.org.uk

1 www.bofthebang.com/weblog/blog.html

2 www.thomasheatherwick.com

3 www.art2architecture.co.uk

 

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