The Optic Cloak, a structure by artist Conrad Shawcross, doesn’t conceal its status as a giant chimney, it celebrates it
Faced with tackling the flat, blank surface of an industrial chimney on the Greenwich Peninsula, many artists would have come up with projections or some sort of surface adornment. Not so Conrad Shawcross, whose new work The Optic Cloak redesigns and appropriates the entire 49m high chimney itself as the artwork.
Constructed from a sculptural array of folded and perforated aluminium panels, the result is a moiré-effect assemblage intended to intrigue and beguile.
The chimney is part of the new CF Møller-designed Energy Centre that will meet the growing energy needs of the Peninsula as its long regeneration continues. Located adjacent to the busy approach road to the Blackwall Tunnel under the Thames, it will be highly visible not just to the rapidly increasing residential and working population, but to the thousands of cars that pass by on their way to and from the river crossing. Those stuck in the all-too-familiar tailbacks will now at least have something engaging to look at.
Shawcross is clear that The Optic Cloak is an architectural intervention rather than public art.
‘It’s important to me that it isn’t seen as the biggest architectural sculpture in South East London,’ he says.
‘I was very keen not to bolt another object to the side of it… Instead of pretending it isn’t a chimney, I hope it’s a celebration of a chimney.’
Commissioned by developer Knight Dragon through place-making and arts consultancy Futurecity, it is both functional and visually arresting. When it goes live, the chimney will contain three or four working flues, with others added as energy demands increase in years to come, as well as other essential building elements such as staircases.
Shawcross admits to being nervous about the grand scale of the commission and at one point during the intense design period feared he couldn’t do justice to its challenges. The finished intervention, however, is something of a triumph, informed by his research into Cubist art, camouflage and other ways of disrupting a surface.
He decided to replace the architect’s initial plans for a flat-clad, 20m wide, 3m deep orthogonal box with a considerably lighter, steel-framed structure to hold the angled composition of aluminium triangular mesh tiles that form the chimney ‘cloak’ around the flues. Designed to break up the form and catch the light, the pleated arrangement is derived from many experiments with folded paper. The result is suggestive of origami and the pleated creations of Issey Miyake.
It took exhaustive experimentation with mesh dimensions and panel arrangements to realise the design. This was conducted in collaboration with Shawcross’ regular engineering partner Structure Workshop.
Careful engineering of the primary structure behind the aluminium also ensures a degree of transparency through the chimney to create the moiré effect that Shawcross was after.
‘I want it to be quite beguiling. We were constantly trying to break up the form and make it confusing,’ he says.
Although frustrated that terrorism concerns meant the artwork had to start 3m up rather than from ground level, Shawcross is delighted with the outcome.
‘I enjoy public commissions because they’re difficult,’ he says. ‘They take you outside your comfort zone. You have to surrender your ego. There’s a humility to working in the public realm that I enjoy.’
Shawcross is appreciative of the role played by Energy Centre architect CF Møller. The practice was generous in its support of his intervention, which contrasts strongly with the dark low form of the main Energy Centre building.
Investment in cultural interventions such as The Optic Cloak and the public realm in general will be key to creating a much-needed sense of identity for the Peninsular.
Meanwhile those unwilling to venture outside central London can get a sense of the chimney at next month’s Frieze London art fair in Regent’s Park, where a mini, 6m high version of The Optic Cloak is being created for the sculpture park.
Conrad Shawcross, The Optic Cloak – an architectural intervention for the Greenwich Peninsula, www.greenwichpeninsula.co.uk