Location: Weston-super-Mare, North Somerset, UK
Artists: Wolfgang and Heron (Wolfgang Buttress and Fiona Heron)
Silica is a contemporary sculpture sited at a prominent junction in the main shopping area of Weston-super-Mare. It was commissioned by North Somerset Council (NSC). Seen from a distance, Silica resembles a gigantic drop of shimmering liquid that is about to hit the pavement. The sculpture is 4m at its widest – while its spire, which reaches 30m, measures just 25mm at the tip.
Clad with panels of Bath stone-coloured, glass-reinforced concrete,
the main body of the sculpture is circled at intervals by stainless steel hoops. Attached to these hoops are 280 LED lamps that shine onto blown glass prisms. Appropriately, Silica’s main materials are sand (in the reconstituted stone) and glass – and light. During the day, the prisms reflect and refract light and add to an impression of weightlessness. At night, the LEDs are programmed to change colour and work in sequence, to mark special occasions or the rise and fall of the tide.
The sculpture is energy efficient: its lights run on the equivalent of the electricity consumed by two table lamps.
Silica works hard for its place in the town: this sculptural form serves also to house a retail kiosk, a bus shelter and an LED public information strip.
Weston-super-Mare (pop. 70,000) is a town in southwest England that had its heyday in the nineteenth century, when it was a thriving seaside resort. Since the 1960s, however, the town has suffered from the impact of cheap foreign holidays. It is now in the bottom 2% in terms of the standard indicators of poverty and social deprivation. Today, there are numerous drug rehabilitation centres in the town.
It is unsurprising, perhaps, that Weston has become cautious and conservative in character, and also rather down-at-heel. There has been very little arts activity and no public art. However, there are now moves to make more of the town’s Victorian streets and open spaces, and to introduce contemporary features, too.
Silica is sited at a previously rather drab road intersection where six main routes meet. It now provides a nodal point linking the railway station, the town hall, the sea front and the town’s shops. The sculpture is intended to give a lift to this area and it is hoped that it will attract tourists -- who might otherwise stay on the seafront -- into the town centre.
Silica was commissioned on behalf of NSC by Mark Luck, Urban Design Projects Co-ordinator at the council since 2001. During the preceding fifteen years, he worked on large-scale public art and urban development schemes in Bristol, including at Temple Quay and Broadmead. But as the new boy in Weston, colleagues told him: ‘This isn’t where you do your fancy Bristol projects.’ He heard this type of comment so often that it stiffened his resolve to do what he felt he needed to. An urban designer rather than an urban planner, he says: ‘I’m interested in the creative side of stuff’.
Early decision making processes
In 2001, the Regional Development Agency (RDA) launched the Civic Pride Initiative, which sought to ‘financially top up town centre public realm schemes being implemented by local authorities in an attempt to improve the quality of public space and improve the local economy by attracting private inward investment’ (Mark Luck). It is a scheme aimed particularly at towns like Weston that struggle to attract private investment. At about that time, NSC commissioned a team led by Will Alsop to draw up a ‘Weston Visioning Concept’, concerned mainly with the development of land to the east of the town (this work was later led by Gillespies). The RDA, having purchased a large brown-field site in that area, was also involved.
Later in 2001, NSC submitted a Civic Pride Initiative stage one bid, called Connecting Spaces, Places and People. As a result of this, the RDA provided approximately £120,000 for a second stage bid. Mark Luck – newly arrived at NSC and having previously written the ‘Bristol City Centre Strategy’ – persuaded the council to write this bid in-house. Where necessary, NSC employed specialist consultants, who looked at way finding, lighting and the use of materials in the public realm – and public art.
The public art section of the bid was drafted by Working pArts. This is a bold document that calls for public art that will project ‘a new and vital personality… In its heyday Weston offered escapism and fantasy. A contemporary interpretation of this needs to be restored to attract higher spending short stay visitors, to make residents feel proud to live in Weston and to make Weston a fun and exciting place to work and do business.’
Mark Luck then collated the stage-two bid, which became known as Key Strategies of the Urban Design Framework. It included proposals to link the main shopping areas, seafront and other attractions, and twenty individual projects, of which eleven (costing £11 million) were considered a priority. The bid was submitted in 2003, and in 2004 the RDA awarded NSC £5 million, a sum payable in stages that relate to NSC’s efforts to attract developers to Weston.
During this time, Mark Luck and other council officers argued that plans for the town centre should be included in the Weston Visioning Concept, and the Connecting Spaces, Places and People and Key Strategies documents are now an integral part of it.
The documents have also formed a very useful ‘working manual’ for the first eleven commissions. ‘Prior to detailed design we develop a project design brief and rationale directly from the bid documents. This clarifies the approach to arts, lighting, materials etc and kick-starts the process quickly and efficiently’ (Mark Luck).
The eleven Civic Pride Initiative projects
As of spring 2007, these projects are briefly as follows: an artwork by Jim Buckley comprising light-boxes on the outer sea-walls of Knightstone Island that change colour according to the moon and tides, plus painted tiles by Rosie Smith; sea-bird finials for signs, by Codsteaks, a design and model-making company associated with Aardman Animations in Bristol; improved flow of pedestrians and car parking in Grove Village and the Meadow Street area; a creative lighting scheme for a prominent roundabout; the redevelopment of an open-air swimming pool and public space; works to the sea-defence wall, including an artwork for the length of the promenade; Boulevard, an historical restoration scheme; Pier Square, a new public space on the seafront; a lighting scheme to connect Pier Square with Big Lamp Corner; and the development of Big Lamp Corner.
Big Lamp Corner
In 2000, traffic management works had been undertaken, resulting in a better flow of pedestrians around the town. These works also drew attention to a modest little junction known as Big Lamp Corner. This was where a local landmark, a nineteenth-century triple lamp column, had once stood. ‘By the time that we received RDA approval in 2004, the unfinished state of the space had become the number one issue in the town and a focus for the local press. The bid had established the space as a priority for public art, public transport, creative lighting and way finding. There was political pressure to do works on the ground and so, in September 2004, we decided to put down the paving or “canvas” for the space’ (Mark Luck).
It was also decided that Big Lamp Corner – as the area has been called long after the disappearance of the original lamp – should have a new, large-scale lighting feature.
Mark Luck then invited five art consultants to tender for the job of Lead Agent for the Big Lamp Corner commission. This led to the appointment of Lesley Greene and Diane Hatton: they were best value for money and had also proposed involving community artist Liz Milner in their work, and this was a winning idea.
The project brief
In early 2005, Mark Luck drew up the brief, based on a model supplied by Working pArts and using material from the two bids. This called for ‘an iconic structure or innovative and dynamic artwork’ that would dominate the site and act as a focal point, night and day. The brief was very demanding: the commission should ‘introduce a feature as memorable and significant as the historic lamp’, and artists were asked to incorporate electronic information points, a retail kiosk and possibly even a bus shelter, too. The total budget to design and build the sculpture was £280,000, which was extremely tight given these requirements.
Mark Luck explains that a Signage and Information Strategy had led to the idea that the sculpture should serve as an information point. And the proposal to include a retail kiosk came about as a result of concerns about vandalism: ‘we felt that the sculpture would have a better chance if there was a human presence’. A further advantage of the kiosk is that it will generate an income of £6,000, and this should easily cover the cost of maintaining the artwork.
Mark Luck decided to invite artist-led design teams to compete for the commission, meaning that artists would lead their own, established teams of fabricators, lighting specialists, landscape architect and structural engineers. This approach is unusual.
The selection panel
A selection panel was drawn up, comprising: Joanna Andrews, Steve Berry and Claire Morris, who run a baker’s, a newsagent’s and a café at Big Lamp Corner; Lyn Biddle, Higher Education Coordinator at Weston College; Maggie Bolt, Director of Public Art South West; Cllr John Crockford-Hawley, Ward Member and Chair of Planning, Cllr Alan Hockeridge, Leader, and Cllr Elfan Ap Rees, Chair of Scrutiny Panel, of North Somerset Council; Rosemary Dowie, Weston Arts Festival Organiser; Cllr Michael Kellaway-Marriott, Ward Member of the Town Council; Dawn Walker, Regeneration Manager of South West Regional Development Agency. The following people acted as advisors: Lesley Greene and Diana Hatton (Art Consultants); and Mark Luck and Menaka Sahai (NSC).
It was, Mark Luck admits, ‘a massive commissioning panel. I had only worked with panels of about five people before.’ But he needed as many key people as possible to get behind the project.
The design competition
In March 2005, advertisements were placed in AN (Artists’ Newsletter) and the AJ (Architects’ Journal); these attracted 131 requests for information. Artists were asked to submit a letter expressing their interest in the project and outlining their basic approach. They were also asked to provide information about the team they would work with and produce evidence of working successfully together in the past.
By the end of April, sixty-five submissions had been received. Mark Luck, Lesley Greene and Diane Hatton whittled this down and then the selection panel short-listed five artist-led design teams. These were each paid £7,000 to take part in the design competition. After attending briefing days with walk-abouts in Weston-super-Mare in May, the teams were asked to produce: visual material that would ‘capture the quality and ambience which the team is striving to achieve’; maquettes, plans and elevations, and a demonstration model of any special effects; information about materials, fabrication processes, sub-contractors and suppliers; a timetable and a budget.
On June 6th – about half way through the time period allocated to this work – the artist-led design teams presented their ideas, individually at first to the selection panel, and then en masse to a group of local stakeholders (which included the police and representatives of Weston Arts Festival).
The five teams’ proposals were at very different stages of development. Two were much as the final submissions. By contrast, one team discussed their initial impressions of the site. Mark Luck says: ‘Wolfgang and Heron produced a couple of boards with textures and materials but did discuss a concept (not illustrated at this time) of a tall focal tower that represented the transformation from sand to glass to light. I can remember commenting on this as a strong concept at the meeting’.
The twenty stakeholders who came were ‘very vocal’, and there were discussions about the town, the function of the commission, the use of materials, vandalism and maintenance. Lesley Greene also took the opportunity to ask the stakeholders to talk about their experiences of Weston and how they thought the space at Big Lamp Corner should be used. As a result of that meeting, three stakeholders were recruited to join the commissioning panel.
Selection of the winning proposal
In late June final presentations were made to the commissioning panel. Given the number of people involved, it was fortunate that there was one outstanding proposal that responded to every aspect of the brief – and, after sleeping on it, the decision was unanimous.
Conscious that the list of demands within the brief could have been detrimental to any final design, Mark Luck kept an open mind about whether they would necessarily all be fulfilled: ‘I only wanted the other aspects of the brief to be incorporated if it worked within the context of the artwork. In the case of Silica all of the elements were included. In most of the other submissions they were not. Silica was however chosen on the merits of the artwork and not because it achieved all aspects of the brief.’
The winning proposal was by Wolfgang and Heron (Wolfgang Buttress and Fiona Heron), a partnership based in Nottingham. Their team comprised: architects Conran & Partners; structural engineers Price & Myers and lighting designers Gravity Design.
Wolfgang and Heron wrote: ‘The artist-led design team are inspired by the idea of Big Lamp Corner’s history and the more elemental presence of the sea and beach. The unifying element to both of these notions is silica. Silica makes reference to glass, sand and light’ – this being a material used to make glass, and which is found in sand, and which reflects light. The shape of the sculpture, meanwhile, ‘harmoniously celebrates its context and surroundings whilst embracing the present and future through simple contemporary technology’ (Silica Design Statement).
Exhibition of designs
For two and a half days at the end of September, materials relating to the competition entries – models, drawings, information panels – were exhibited in the foyer and bar of the Winter Gardens. Some of the artists and Mark Luck and Lesley Greene were on hand to talk to the public. About 250 people came. While some people spoke out against the project– Lesley Greene says they ‘savoured the flavour of the hostility to come’ – others ‘genuinely thought it was the best thing Weston had done for many years’ (Mark Luck).
The exhibition was a public relations exercise, and the public’s comments were reported to the planning committee.
Second design phase
Council officers responsible for public transport, tourism, structures, highways, access etc met to discuss the proposal, and as a result, the bus shelter and kiosk area within the sculpture almost doubled in diameter, considerably altering the whole structure.
Wolfgang Buttress, Lesley Greene and Mark Luck met regularly to discuss details such as the glass panel in the bus shelter and the practicalities of fitting the kiosk into the structure. (While Fiona Heron was fully involved in drawing up the initial concept, Wolfgang Buttress later took the lead.) These meeting were ‘very good, relaxed and creative’ (Mark Luck). On two or more occasions, the commissioning panel and stakeholders met and were asked to comment on the design changes.
In the following months, engineering drawings were made and structural assessments were undertaken. A document, the Silica Design Statement, was finished by the end of the year. This gives information about approach, materials and construction, maintenance and finances, and a schedule. Due mainly to changes in the specifications, the project was now 10% over-budget.
Gaining planning permission
When planning permission was applied for, a councillor ran a campaign to stop the project and the press became increasingly vitriolic. However, NSC received only five letters of objection. The discussion at the area committee meeting in October was ‘very animated and not along party lines, much to the amusement of the minority parties. One or two members of the public turned up to heckle but Silica was approved with a reasonably healthy majority’. In November, one councillor who was opposed to the project ‘took a motion to full council for the project to be stopped, but it got a big vote of confidence from the council to progress’ (Mark Luck).
Fabrication of Silica’s component parts began off-site in January 2006. Trent Concrete made the Bath stone-coloured, glass-reinforced concrete panels and Goodmans made the steel shell and bands. ‘I feel now that we were unrealistic about the smoothness and timescales of the offsite work which led to fairly severe delays’ (Mark Luck). Also, due to the tight budget, Wolfgang Buttress had negotiated with the fabricators on a favour basis and their profits were modest. So sometimes other projects would take priority (there were bills and salaries to be paid) and Silica would go on hold.
Installation of the sculpture finally began in March 2006. This process also took much longer than expected. Right at the outset, for example, there were disagreements between council engineers and Price and Myers about the design of the foundations for the structure. And later, fabrication of the spire sections was so delayed that ‘it appeared that the project had stopped. I was constantly asked about the rumour that we had run out of cash. Looking back, the most difficult thing was trying to programme the job in the middle of a public space with very high expectations and a local media waiting for it all to go wrong’ (Mark Luck).
The initial idea was that whoever took on the franchise of the kiosk would fit it out. But both Wolfgang Buttress and Mark Luck were concerned about whether this would give rise to work of sufficient quality. So at a late stage, Wolfgang and Heron commissioned Macaulay Sinclair to design the interior of the kiosk and Daleside Shopfitters to fit it out, and Wolfgang Buttress volunteered to project-manage this.
Because Silica houses a kiosk, a bus shelter and an information system, it had to be connected up to electricity, water, sewerage and phone, and this gave rise to more delays. Wolfgang Buttress explains: ‘the water, to sort and programme in, was a nightmare. I’ve spent 5% of my time on creativity. The rest of it has been meetings, etc.’
Silica’s spire was lifted into place on Sunday 11th November – Remembrance Day – and crowds spilling out of several commemorative services gathered to watch this happen. And most importantly, Silica was lit up in time for the annual evening carnival in mid-November. By mid-December the hoardings had been taken down and the bus shelter was in operation. Snagging was finally completed in early spring 2007, about six months late.
Silica has been overseen by the Weston Civic Pride Initiative Joint Steering Group: Alison Hatcher and Dawn Walker from South West Regional Development Agency, and Marin Barber from NSC; Mark Luck (also NSC) served on the Steering Group as Client Lead. Commissioning Agents Lesley Greene and Diana Hatton gave support and advice, particularly at the beginning; they were also ‘third party advisors who were critical in the liaison with elected members of the council and other stakeholders, which is typically difficult as an internal officer’ (Mark Luck).
Wolfgang Buttress is extremely appreciative of the working relationship he’s had with Mark Luck: ‘Mark as client was also very much part of the team. He has gone out of his way and there is a very high level of trust. There’s been a shared vision and we haven’t kept things from each other. A project like this can only be done when the relationship is strong. It was the quality of relationship I had with Mark that persuaded me to put so much time in.’
Lesley Greene also observed that Mark Luck ‘has extraordinary commitment and a remarkable understanding of how artists work.’
The appointment of an artist-led design team
Mark Luck: ‘I wanted to put artists in charge of the whole process. They were put right at the top. I wanted to do this after being present in what seemed like a large number of examples where the artist felt compromised by the architect or developer or client’. (For a contrasting and equally effective approach, see Barking Town Centre Artscape).
So what are the advantages of commissioning an artist-led design team? Wolfgang Buttress: ‘Architects tend to lead and bring you into their vision of a scheme. We had real freedom and control. But it was not a case of getting the architect to do it our way: there was a dialogue. And all contracts were drawn up with us as the contractor, which meant we didn’t have to get three companies to tender. We managed the budget and it was very tight. There were so many unknowns. The subcontractors did a lot of work at cost, because the project is future advertising for them, and this was based on our previous relationships with them. Silica would otherwise have cost an extra 50%. We called in a lot of favours.’
But more than this: ‘The architects, structural engineers and contractors become part of your vocabulary, your visual language. You build up trust and know what they’re good at. There’s excitement and commitment and belief. And you can push what you know they can do: the moulds for the concrete and sandstone mix were very difficult. We were all getting our teeth into something challenging.’ (Wolfgang Buttress).
Silica is the third of eleven public realm improvements with a total budget of £11m.
The original budget of £350,000 for Silica was put together as follows: £165,000 from the Regional Development Agency; £98,500 from the Single Regeneration Budget; £34,500 from Weston Tourism; £20,000 from NSC capital funds; £17,000 from the town council, and £15,000 NSC officer time.
The direct costs of the artwork amounted to £328,600: the design fee was £78,200; the concrete structure cost £56,500; metal components cost £87,500; the foundation and ground works came to £30,900; the glass prisms cost £24,300; the stainless steel hoops cost £45,800; painting came to £5,400.
A further £70,000 was spent on: running the design competition (£35,000); arts consultants’ and community artists’ fees (£15,000); exhibitions and PR (£1,500); public meetings, advertisements etc (£3,500); officer time (£15,000).
Some expenditure was covered by other budgets: the cost of the kiosk (approx. £30,000) and the public information display (approx. £11,000) came from a pedestrian way finding project; lighting costs (approx. £30,000) came from the first phase of development of Big Lamp Corner.
The foundations and site works were much more expensive than anticipated and there was a sharp hike in steel prices, adding almost £50,000 to the costs. ‘On paper an extra £10,000 of this has come from the RDA and £40,000 from NSC capital. The realities of the project are that we are able to balance these figures within the other projects included within the £11 million Weston Civic Pride Initiative. As it happens we have made savings on most of the other projects undertaken to date. This is the benefit of the Civic Pride programme and the use of target budgets. Without the cushion of the wider project I feel it would be more difficult to undertake a project such as Silica given the risks associated with innovative projects.’ (Mark Luck)
© Angela Kingston, 2007