Preston: Third City of the North West

A&AJ63 (January 2006) Preston: Third City of the North West

In a voluntary capacity, Ian Banks was on the Editorial Board of Art & Architecture Journal (A&AJ) and more laterly listed as Deputy Editor. He wrote regularly on public art in the North of England.

A&AJ was a printed quarterly art magazine published between 1980 – 2009, and edited by Jeremy Hunt. AAJPress is the successor to the A&AJ and currently presented as an online blog, providing information and communication on public art commissions, projects, collaboration and architecture based in the United Kingdom.

The below article by Ian Banks described the ambitious Tythebarn project for Preston, which though not realised in the end, did act as a catalyst for a number of very positive regeneration and cultural based changes to the city.

Scroll down to read the article in full….

In the middle of the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is the little known principle of ‘Everyone has the right to freely participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits’. This is also the long-held concern of the European Community, as a direct consequence of the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, which requires us to take all cultural aspects into account. Given this, odd that it has taken until this year for a DCMS Consultation Paper Culture at the Heart of Regeneration to finally declare that culture is indeed a crucial part of the regenerative process – and one that can even help build and maintain sustainable communities. Of course, the magical Guggenheim and Angel of the North ‘effect’ has been well documented, in terms of mapping the positive impact culture-led injections have had on the image, economy and tourism of Bilbao and Gateshead respectively. But how exactly does one go about curating an alchemy of culture without compromise – and shouldn’t we simply wish to covet its true social, political and cultural value as a patron, rather than try to justify its commissioning through it achieving backdoor economic outputs, as a client?

The big-bang of signature cultural capital can be justified only so many times, and as such, an integrated cultural approach can often provide the more enlightened option. In the North West of England, the city of Preston, has an aspiration to attempt a sophisticated model of this – and indeed has high hopes for the positive effect such a holistic approach will have on the physical design and environments being created, as well as the social and economic benefits to the economy and image as a whole. The origin of this renaissance is grounded in the retail and housing market, largely through the major redevelopment of the city’s 5-Hectare Tythebarn quarter by Grosvenor Estates, in partnership with Preston City Council, and working with architect and masterplanner Terry Farrell & Partners. However, the vision is also to implement a new urban heart for the city, with an integrated cultural quarter, which embeds a collaborative art and architecture philosophy very early on. It wishes to create for its people, a city of colour, light and texture, through a process that both engages its community early, as well as quickly bringing artist and architect together head-on, to jointly consider the people, use and fabric of the spaces between buildings, as well as the hard architecture and applied art & design itself. In a November 2004 lecture entitled Art and Architecture: The Ultimate Collaboration, Sir Terry Farrell welcomed the growing face of such artist-architect collaborations, arguing that artists had a “valid contribution to make as creative, lateral thinkers”. His experience of this to date, has perhaps been limited to a more applied arts approach – such as seen in his recent Home Office building in Westminster where he worked closely with glass artist Liam Gillick on the façade to create a 90m coloured glass canopy. However, he is a man with a track record of taking creative risks and making bold visions, and as such, appears to welcome the boundaries between artist and architect roles being increasingly merged.

Another indicator of this evolving process, was the strategic vision of James Green at the Harris Museum & Art Gallery, who, later in consultation with the University of Central Lancashire initiated the exploration of a temporary public art programme – and which was finally established in 2002 after the key involvement of Artist-Lecturer Charles Quick of UCLAN. From their initial partnership came the development of the Here + Now programme, which is set to explore what it terms Temporary Art for a Transitional City, and includes the new appointment of Elaine Speight as an Assistant Curator – this time funded by Arts Council and UCLAN. Another achievement of this partnership was the early establishment of an related lecture series, beginning with artist Alfredo Jaar being invited over in 2003 to both deliver a public presentation, and to engage in a structured workshop with key invitees drawn from those interested and involved in the city regeneration. Jaar’s initial vision was widely applauded, giving a flavour of what was possible, and was quickly followed in 2004 by a lecture and exhibition by Farrell – to illustrated his practice’s past work, as well as air his Tythebarn masterplan and cultural philosophy. This programme continued with 9 curated lectures titled Speaking of Art, and delivered by a range of eminent art and architecture speakers (including Lewis Biggs of Liverpool Biennial, Peter Sharpe of Kielder Art & Architecture and artist-architectural writer Charles Jencks), which further helped establish a quality platform for cultural aspirations in the City.

As a direct result of this, and part-funded through Arts Council England as well as the joint CABE and Arts & Business PROJECT initiative, Alfredo Jaar and Charles Quick were appointed by Preston City, with the blessing of Grosvenor and Farrell, to work together as the joint artistic lead on the Tithebarn Development. This should also be assisted by the recent appointment (funded this time by Lancashire County Council and selected strategic partners) of Neil Harris, as Preston City Council’s new Development Officer for Art in Public Places. The immediate priority for all involved must be to develop more detailed consultations with the Tythebarn design team, establishing a process to find the right artists to work alongside the right architects  – as sites and briefs start to get developed and appointments are made. Jaar believes that the resultant work and relationships developing out of this process may spur him eventually to get involved in more detail through his own work and installation, although at this stage, he freely admits that he may be happy to remain more in the mould of an overarching lead artist and cultural masterplanner. Whilst Jaar sometimes likes to see his a role as a deliberate outsider, one which allows him access to an uncoloured perspective and an independent standpoint, he also likes to create strong links into the local artist networks of wherever he is working. With regards to Preston, it is his general belief, that the sense of ‘Place’ and his developing relationship with Quick, will dictate the cultural need. As such, he feels that too detailed an artistic vision made too early, must be resisted. He does however talk of a possible interest in developing integrated artist workshops, involving both art and architecture students, and which might take 3 – 5 years to fully implement. Quick’s dual role in this collaboration, as both an artist and senior lecturer in public art at UCLAN means that he is well placed to engage artistically, on equal terms with Jaar, and to help facilitate the process of any developing arts and artist programmes. Quick’s own area of interest stems from an initial mapping investigation into the historic patterns of use in the public spaces of the old town, with a current interest centred around the old covered market.

If the initial programme is successful, and augmenting specific arts-funding mechanisms, one hopes a proportion of the overall project budget might eventually trickle-down into Art in Public Places projects – either formally or informally. As it stands, the full scope and terms of any artistic engagement are still to be defined; particularly when one considers that many of the Tythebarn site briefs and design teams have yet to be declared. However, involving culture in such comprehensive regeneration is always a slow process, and is open to hard bargaining on one side, with influential arts advocacy on the other. The hope here, is that with an innovative framework to influence this is already in place, that the true value of culture will finally be recognised.

Long before London dreamt of hosting the Olympics, Preston had already set its sights on 2012 – as a target for it to finally become the designated ‘Third City’ of the North West. It is also the year of the next historic Guild Festival, which is held every 20 years. From 1179, the Borough was granted the right to hold something called a Guild Merchant – which was an economic guild, controlling a monopoly on Preston trade. The term Tythebarn refers to a building that held tithes (taxes) paid – as a tenth part of annual income contributing to the support of the church. Now that our faith sometimes appears replaced more often with a worship of Mammon, perhaps it is time for a new Tythe to be levied – a philanthropic gesture from capitalism to uplift the cultural life of the Preston community.

Categories: Writing

Leave a Reply