Art makes strides on our streets

From the Angel of the North to new drain covers, artist Anthony Gormley is now taking part in an important regeneration programme to design street furniture in south London

Art, heavy industry and feet have collided in a highly unusual project on the streets of south London. As part of an ongoing urban regeneration scheme in Peckham, Southwark Council's housing department has commissioned artists to re-design street furniture.

Under the auspices of the Bellenden Renewal Scheme, lampposts, railings and bollards have all been reworked by local artists, including the sculptor Anthony Gormley, who has a studio in Bellenden Road. Having worked on some bollards, Gormley - whose most famous work is the towering Angel of the North in Gateshead - decided to turn his attention to the area's access covers.

The sculptor was put in touch with Thames Water by Arts & Business, a not-for-profit organisation, which seeks to develop partnerships between commercial concerns and the arts. The organisation was working alongside Southwark Council as part of the bid to rejuvenate the Bellenden area. According to arts consultant Camilla Goddard, who was appointed by Southwark Council and Arts & Business to liaise with Gormley, Thames' level of enthusiasm for the project is not shared by all of the utilites she deals with: "Thames was interested and keen to get involved from the outset. The firm put in a lot of effort."

making Footprints

This is the first time the utility has been involved in such a project. Once Thames had given the project the go-ahead, the company put Gormley in touch with Saint-Gobain Pipelines, the utility's framework supplier for service covers.

Turning the artist's design into a solid object required a great deal of input from Saint-Gobain design engineer Martin Cox. Gormley proposed a number of possibilities for the design. Cox's role at this stage was to advise the sculptor on what would and would not work both in terms of construction and the requirements of a working access cover.

According to Cox their roles split easily between that of artist and engineer, with the latter tasked with finding a way around the problems and the former presenting ideas.

Through this process a final design was mutually agreed upon. Initially Gormley had suggested a design based around a thumbprint, but as he refined his ideas he settled upon a footprint creating ripples in water as a way of illustrating the interaction between people and their environment. With the design finalised, it was up to Cox to translate it onto a standard Inter-Ax cast iron access cover. On a sheet of A4 paper Gormley drew around his foot, added the ripples and sent the design to Saint-Gobain.

Cox had a mock-up of the cover onto which he added the outline of Gormley's feet, he then transposed the drawings on a CAD programme, refining them into a workable design. Becasuse of all of the curves in the ripples around the feet, transcribing the drawings was time-consuming. Cox described the process as "hardwork and very laborious".

The output from the CAD programme was used to create a 3D model of the cover, which was sent to Saint-Gobain's pattern maker. The pattern was then cast in the usual fashion. Cox's concerns there would be problems with the casting because of the curving lines of ripples proved to be unfounded. The finished article, he said, "worked well". The overall project, the first artistic venture he has been involved in, Cox described as "a good experience". The first cover was installed in Sandison Road, Bellenden, in October 2003 in a ceremony attended by Tessa Jowell, secretary of state for culture, media and sport; Valerie Shawcross, London assembly member for Lambeth and Southwark and John Sexton, managing director for Thames Water Utilities.

eye-catching idea

According to Sexton: "As a well-known local business we were keen to support this initiative and work with artists in the area. The end result is an imaginative, new manhole cover design that we hope will be an eye-catching addition to the area." Thames has future plans to replace other covers in the area with the Gormley design. The utility is not concerned that people will find the cover too eye-catching and try to help themselves to an Anthony Gormley original.

The cover has no special security features, it is believed the weight of the cover and the need for removal keys will be sufficient to deter would-be art thieves. The Bellenden access cover is not Gormley's first involvement with the water industry. Last summer, Northumbrian Water managing director John Cuthbert was among 250 people cast naked in plaster for a work entitled Domain Field.

The casts were used to construct individual sculptures, which collectively formed an installation in Newcastle's Baltic Arts Centre



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