How public art can enrich the urban realm

Words:
Kia Knight

If architects think early about the role of public art in their designs it could prove an effective boost to new build popularity

  • Adele Renault, Pigeons Street Art India Festival in Lodhi Colony, Delhi 2019.
    Adele Renault, Pigeons Street Art India Festival in Lodhi Colony, Delhi 2019. Credit: Martha Cooper
  • Adele Renault, La Brea, Hollywood. Ari Sturm
    Adele Renault, La Brea, Hollywood. Ari Sturm Credit: Martha Cooper
  • HUARIU “Tranquilidade” Ferragudo, Portugal 2018.
    HUARIU “Tranquilidade” Ferragudo, Portugal 2018. Credit: HUARIU
  • HUARIU “Tao Te Ching: Chapter ll” Torreblanca, Spain 2019.
    HUARIU “Tao Te Ching: Chapter ll” Torreblanca, Spain 2019. Credit: HUARIU
  • HUARIU “African Beauty” Loures, Portugal 2017.
    HUARIU “African Beauty” Loures, Portugal 2017. Credit: HUARIU
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Half the public feel the UK’s new-builds are typically unattractive and even more (63%) consider them to be ‘devoid of character’. Many people think the injection of historical features into new builds is the only solution, but there is another way to make developments more appealing to passers-by, the community and investors without appealing to nostalgia or prohibitively expanding development budgets: public art.

Over recent decades, public art has become prevalent the world over. The rise in popularity of murals, paintings, installations and sculptures has bolstered the identities of places as far apart as Melbourne and Buenos Aires. Both anecdotal and statistical evidence suggest cities with an active and dynamic cultural scene are more attractive to individuals and businesses.

But for too long, the provision and space offered to public artists has come up short. Often lower on the list of developer priorities, public art that manages to get through the maze of development bureaucracy is often not entirely relevant to its surroundings. Gloucester’s Kyneburgh Tower is a good example of this tendency: locals refer to the tall metal lattice as ‘the CD rack’.

What can be done?

First, consider the historical context. The connection between public art and a lively culture needs to be understood through the concept of ‘cultural place-making’, which dates back to the 1960s and 70s. At the heart of this is the mission to improve a neighbourhood or region by inspiring people to collectively revitalise public spaces.

The notion of place-making has been described by Cara Courage, head of Tate Exchange, as ‘the creation of a distinct place-centred identity via design’. What drives this movement is the collaboration of all parties involved – from residents and artists through to businesses and property owners – to enliven the places where people live and work, and in turn, foster community pride. By bringing life to an area, a feedback loop is triggered: more creatives are attracted, individuals and businesses take note and set up shop, and value increases for all.

As an Americans for the Arts paper states, ‘Places with strong public art expressions break the trend of blandness and sameness, and give communities a stronger sense of place and identity’. Simply tacking on £10,000 to a budget for a lump of ceramic and steel in the middle of a roundabout will not suffice.

Good public art and design, that fits into its surroundings and meets the needs of those who experience it daily, needs to be the priority of all developments. Ravensbourne University in London, designed by Foreign Office Architects,is a shining example of how it can be done right. This eco-friendly, modern metallic monolith keenly embodies many crucial precepts of innovative design, setting the tone for the students that learn there.

 

  • With Jeroen Koolhaas’ paint treatment Praca Cantao, Rio de Janeiro favela painting. Design and photo Jeroen Koolhaas
    With Jeroen Koolhaas’ paint treatment Praca Cantao, Rio de Janeiro favela painting. Design and photo Jeroen Koolhaas
  • Before the paint Praca Cantao, Rio de Janeiro favela painting. Design and photo Jeroen Koolhaas
    Before the paint Praca Cantao, Rio de Janeiro favela painting. Design and photo Jeroen Koolhaas
  • Against Monsanto for the Shite Festival in Florida.
    Against Monsanto for the Shite Festival in Florida. Credit: Pixelpancho Studio LLC
  • Self efficient world at the Jidar Festival, Rabat (Morocco).
    Self efficient world at the Jidar Festival, Rabat (Morocco). Credit: Pixelpancho Studio LLC
  • HK Walles, Hong Kong.
    HK Walles, Hong Kong. Credit: Pixelpancho Studio LLC
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Wynwood Walls, Miami

That’s not to say public art initiatives need a huge amount of investment – and it would be a mistake to suggest projects like this must be conducted on a large scale in order to be successful.

Spearheaded by developer Goldman Properties, Wynwood Walls in Miami began a decade ago and saw six privately-owned warehouses located in a run-down neighbourhood transformed into a thriving cultural and social hub.

The project introduced artists of international renown, placing public art at the centre. The renewal of the area through art improved returns, and the developer has since been invited to undertake similar projects in other languishing neighbourhoods across the US. 

What architects can do

First, architects must consider public art as an effective aesthetic vehicle during the early stage of design. Remind yourself and your team of the real value that public art offers communities and developers and consider all options of how to integrate art into your plans. More concrete support is necessary, too. Increasing provision of finance and the project space and time for public art can pay long term dividends. Listen more: public artists are autonomous, creative individuals who want to offer serious input. Merely considering where there might be space for their art isn’t enough. Finally, be bold by commissioning and purchasing challenging pieces. One need only look at Henry Moore’s acclaimed ‘Draped, Seated Woman’ to see how purposeful, meaningful art can enliven a community, in this case – Stifford Council Estate.

What architects can do

First, architects must consider public art as an effective aesthetic vehicle during the early stage of design. Remind yourself and your team of the real value public art offers communities and developers and consider all options of how to integrate art into your plans. More concrete support is necessary, too. Increasing provisions – finance and the project space and time - for public art can pay long term dividends. Listen more: public artists are autonomous, creative individuals who want to offer serious input. Merely considering where there might be space for their art isn’t sufficient. Finally, be bold by commissioning and purchasing challenging pieces. One need only look at Henry Moore’s acclaimed ‘Draped, Seated Woman’ to see how purposeful, meaningful art can enliven a community, in this case, Stifford Council Estate.

Shoreditch

Offering perhaps the best illustration of how to get it right, Shoreditch in east London is home to some of the capital’s most renowned public art hubs. And pieces in all forms, colours and styles can be found on walls and buildings, drawing in crowds eager to explore the murals, illustrations and sculptures.

This makes it the ideal location to exhibit new works and celebrate the impact of public art. We at The 1-of-1 Art Group are collaborating with Shoreditch landowner Dominic White and will be working in conjunction and the Arts Council as part of the Mas·ter·wərks public art exhibition in Shoreditch, east London.

In October this year, Mas·ter·wərks will see a collection of privately-owned building facades transformed into canvases, with the public spaces between them acting as a gallery floor. The result will be an outdoor museum of public art, celebrating the work of some the world’s finest artists.

Working alongside local property developers, Mas·ter·wərks will be one of the largest concentrated public displays of world class public art. Thirty major works will be produced over seven days and realised on the final day of the exhibition. Invited artists from more than 15 countries will be taking part, including Obey Giant, Vhils, Pixel Pancho, Kehinde Wiley and Swoon. The Mas·ter·wərks street art festival will focus on the theme of the environment and how we can tackle the serious ecological crises that are threatening the planet. 

Through careful planning and strategic collaboration, projects like these can bring new life to a neighbourhood, boost community spirit and drive up value for all. They can improve people’s perception of new build. But for the potential of public art to be fully realised, architects need to be bolder in their support.


Kia Knight, founder and director of 1-of-1 Art Group, is an art curator and serial creative, and director of the annual public art event and social impact brand Mas·ter·wərks

Portrait of Kia Knight director of Masterwerks Organisation and The 1-of-1 Art Group in front of Obey Giant mural produced by Shepard Fairey on Whitby Street,  London. Photographer: Pooya Kooshanezhad on behalf of Panchroma Ltd.